Saakashvili under fire as Ukrainians pursue change
Kiev Letter: Erstwhile allies and western envoys criticise clashes during protest
Former Georgian president and ex-Odessa governor Mikheil Saakashvili welcomes supporters during a rally in downtown Kiev on December 17th, 2017. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA
Nina Mikhailenko was on Kiev’s Maidan square when Ukrainians launched their pro-western Orange Revolution 13 years ago, and again in winter 2013-2014 when mass protests prompted pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovich and allies to flee to Russia.
On Sunday, Mikhailenko (61) was there again, wearing a thick coat to fend off the cold and with Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag wrapped around her shoulders. “This is a continuation of what we’ve done before on Maidan, because our politicians haven’t kept their promises,” she said, as she listened with thousands of others to speeches denouncing Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and his government.
The protesters accuse Ukraine’s ruling elite of failing to curb corruption and blocking sweeping reforms that they have demanded for years, and for which demonstrators died in February 2014 when Yanukovich’s security services opened fire on Maidan.
Public pain is compounded by the grinding war that Ukraine’s forces are fighting with Russian-led separatists in the eastern Donbas region, and deep poverty that a struggling economy, propped up by western aid, has failed to alleviate.
“My pension is 1,600 hryvnia (€49). I couldn’t live without what my husband gets – he’s a ‘Chernobylets’,” Mikhailenko said, using the local nickname for people who took part in the clean-up operation after the 1984 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
“Our leaders have let us down and so we’re here again on Maidan to tell them to change. It’s the only way we can make them listen.”
Mikhailenko said she was a supporter of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who briefly served as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region before breaking with Poroshenko and becoming one of his most strident critics.
Prosecutors loyal to Poroshenko accuse Saakashvili of conspiring with a wealthy Yanukovich ally to seize power in Ukraine through the current protests, and earlier this month he was captured on a rooftop near Maidan and bundled into a police van. A large group of supporters blocked the vehicle and freed him, however.
“I was in that crowd, too,” said Mikhailenko.
“I back Saakashvili and everyone else involved in this protest. I still believe that we can do things better.”
Ukrainians’ desire for change is undeniable, but their feelings for Saakashvili are far more ambiguous.
He seemed to be a spent force until this summer, when Poroshenko made the first of several moves that have allowed Saakashvili to don the mantle of political martyr, and portray himself as the Kiev establishment’s most dangerous enemy.
In July, Poroshenko cancelled Saakashvili’s Ukrainian passport in a move of dubious legality, leaving him stateless after the earlier annulment of his citizenship of Georgia, where he is wanted for crimes allegedly committed during nearly a decade in power.
In September, supporters helped Saakashvili push past guards on the Polish border and return to Ukraine, in a gambit that humiliated Ukraine’s authorities. His escape from the police van this month had the same effect, as did a court’s subsequent rejection of the prosecutor’s request to place him under house arrest.
Never happier than when cast as the people’s champion fighting oppression, Saakashvili is using his resurgent profile to make it impossible for Ukraine to prosecute or extradite him to Georgia without being suspected of trying to silence a meddlesome voice.
In trying to maintain the momentum of his opposition movement, however, he may have overreached on Sunday.
From the stage on Maidan, Saakashvili urged the crowd to go with him to the October Palace, a nearby concert hall, to establish a protest headquarters.
National guard officers stopped people from entering the building, however, and subsequent scuffles – while a children’s concert took place inside – made part of the crowd look like an angry mob and drew widespread criticism.
Saakashvili insisted that he opposed violence and accused officials and security services of provoking clashes to discredit him, but the damage was done, and erstwhile allies and western diplomats were quick to denounce the scenes.
“Attempts to seize and damage public buildings are an abuse of the right to peaceful protest,” Canadian ambassador to Kiev Roman Waschuk wrote on Twitter, in comments supported by the US and UK envoys to Ukraine.
Saakashvili cannot afford to lose the goodwill of western powers that wield great influence in Ukraine and could stay Poroshenko’s hand in seeking to jail or extradite him.
He could also slip back to the political margins if he alienates moderate Ukrainians – most of whom want swift but peaceful change – and reformist deputies such as Serhiy Leshchenko, who said Saakashvili had questions to answer over his behaviour.
“Society really wants changes, like less corruption, independent anti-corruption institutions, proper judicial institutions and so on,” he told The Irish Times on Maidan. “Protests like this are a visible sign that people are not happy with what is going on, and that society’s goals are yet to be achieved.”