Ukrainian protesters clash with police as rallies continue
Ex-Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili denies trying to seize Kiev theatre
Former Georgian president and ex-Odessa governor Mikheil Saakashvili with supporters during Sunday’s rally in Kiev, Ukraine. Photograph: EPA/Sergey Dolzhenko
Protesters tussled with police in central Kiev on Sunday, as thousands of people joined a rally led by former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili against Ukraine’s rulers and their failure to crush corruption and push through reforms.
After hearing speakers denounce Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and his allies on Kiev’s central Maidan square, demonstrators tried to force their way into a nearby theatre, and clashed with police and national guard members who blocked their way.
Officials said protesters threw rocks and fireworks in their bid to enter the theatre, where hundreds of people were watching a performance, and the national guard sprayed them with fire extinguishers to drive them back.
Mr Saakashvili reportedly urged people from a stage on Maidan to enter the theatre and turn it into the headquarters of their protest movement. However, he later denied wanting to seize the building and accused the security services of sparking violence.
“We were told we could use two rooms in the theatre...but when we arrived we were met by the national guard, armed to the teeth and in huge numbers with tear gas and batons, and they provoked clashes,” he claimed on Sunday evening.
“As soon as I saw what was happening I told people to pull back. I am against any violence, and I will not allow any bloodshed,” said the leader of Georgia’s peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
“This [violence] is what Poroshenko wants to see...When there are millions of us these doors and windows will open, we won’t have to break them.
“They are trying to marginalise us. Poroshenko needs to hold talks on how to peacefully leave power. He doesn’t have a chance of being re-elected.”
In recent days Mr Saakashvili has eased earlier demands for Mr Poroshenko’s resignation, and focussed on calls for the creation of a special anti-corruption court in Ukraine and a law allowing impeachment of the president.
Mr Saakashvili is seeking to channel widespread frustration in Ukraine over deep poverty and graft, and the continued power of wealthy “oligarchs” who were the target of people’s anger during the Maidan revolution of winter 2013-14.
Mr Poroshenko, a confectionery billionaire, is increasingly seen as unwilling or unable to fulfil the promises he made after the revolution to end an opaque system of rule based on backroom deals between politicians and businessmen.
He invited Mr Saakashvili to govern Ukraine’s Odessa region in 2015, but a year later the ex-Georgian leader resigned and accused Mr Poroshenko and allies of failing to back his fight against corruption and organised crime.
Mr Poroshenko annulled Mr Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship over alleged irregularities in July, but in September supporters helped him force his way back into the country from Poland.
Earlier this month Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuri Lutsenko accused Mr Saakashvili of plotting with a pro-Russian tycoon to seize power in Kiev through street protests.
When security service agents entered his apartment building near Maidan, he fled to the rooftop but was detained there and placed in a police van. His supporters blocked the vehicle and dragged him out, however, and he was only detained several days later.
In another unexpected twist, a Kiev court last Monday rejected Mr Lutsenko’s request for Mr Saakashvili to be placed under house arrest, and he remains at liberty while the allegations are being investigated.
Mr Saakashvili calls the charges false and politically motivated, as he does accusations of abuse of power in his native Georgia, which is seeking his extradition from Kiev.
Critics say Mr Saakashvili is trying to portray himself as a victim of political repression to evade extradition, and even some Ukrainian politicians who want sweeping reforms and anti-corruption measures are increasingly critical of his behaviour.
“Saakashvili is obviously a pain in the ass for Poroshenko,” said deputy Serhiy Leshchenko. “But Poroshenko is the author of this problem because he was motivated by public relations when he invited him to work for the government and then lost control of him,” he told The Irish Times as he walked among the crowd on Maidan.
Mr Leshchenko, who has been an ally of Mr Saakashvili, said he “has to explain some things” about his alleged links to Serhiy Kurchenko, the pro-Kremlin businessman whom prosecutors claim sought to finance the current protests in Kiev.
“That’s why I am here and not on the stage,” he said of his reluctance to address the crowd alongside Mr Saakashvili.
Mustafa Nayyem, another prominent pro-reform deputy in Ukraine, said he sympathised with protests that included “people with different agendas and demands, and include the middle class and businessmen and young people”.
“But why storm [the theatre],” he asked on Facebook. “Now, that kind of activity undermines trust in street protests...and regardless of what motivates the organisers, it is a very comfortable move for those want to preserve the status quo.”