Saakashvili vows to help build ‘a new Ukraine’ after dramatic return

Ukraine's new president reinstates citizenship of mercurial ex-Georgian leader

Mikheil Saakashvili  arriving in Ukraine: the former president of Georgia has had his Ukrainian citizenship reinstated by the new president Volodymyr Zelensky. Photograph: EPA/Sergey Dolzhenko

Mikheil Saakashvili arriving in Ukraine: the former president of Georgia has had his Ukrainian citizenship reinstated by the new president Volodymyr Zelensky. Photograph: EPA/Sergey Dolzhenko

 

The colourful life of Mikheil Saakashvili took another twist on Wednesday when the former Georgian president returned to Ukraine, where he was previously stripped of his citizenship, accused of plotting a coup and deported.

Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy reinstated his passport after taking power this month from Petro Poroshenko, a former Kiev university friend and ally of Mr Saakashvili who became a bitter political enemy.

“I came back here to do what I’ve always done best,” Mr Saakashvili said after being mobbed by cheering supporters at Kiev’s main airport.

“Alongside millions of Ukrainians, who now have a historic chance with a new president and a new team, I want to take part in building a new Ukraine,” he said, as the country gears up for parliamentary elections in July.

Mr Saakashvili (51) led Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and ran the country for most of the next decade, driving through rapid reforms that turned the Caucasus state into a strong ally of the West and a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.

He crushed much of the petty corruption and bureaucracy that plagued Georgian daily life, but suffered defeat in a short 2008 war with Russia and lost popularity as his rule became increasingly autocratic.

Mr Saakashvili left Georgia in 2013 and, after supporting the Maidan revolution that brought Mr Poroshenko to power the following year, he was named governor of the graft-plagued Odessa region on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast in 2015.

He quit just a year later, accused Kiev’s leaders of blocking real reform and launched an opposition party, but while he was abroad in July 2017 Mr Poroshenko revoked his citizenship, rendering him stateless after Georgia had done the same.

Rooftop protest

Mr Saakashvili returned to Ukraine weeks later when supporters shoved aside guards on the border with Poland, but by December 2017 he was being accused of plotting a coup with cash from a shadowy pro-Kremlin oligarch.

He took to a Kiev rooftop to protest his innocence, and after police officers finally seized him their van was blocked by demonstrators who set him free.

Mr Saakashvili was arrested a few days later but then a Kiev court released him from detention, making a mockery of the lurid coup allegations presented by prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko, a close ally of Mr Poroshenko.

Life in Ukraine seemed to have come to a bruising end for Mr Saakashvili in February last year, when masked security officers grabbed him in a Kiev restaurant and bundled him into a van and then on to a deportation flight to Poland.

He insisted this week that he had no political ambitions in Ukraine but craved a bowl of its national soup, traditionally served with garlicky bread rolls: “I really missed Kiev, Odessa, borshch with pampushki, and my friends and loved ones.”