Ukrainian protesters demand reforms and freedom for Saakashvili

Thousands march in Kiev against corruption after ex-Georgian president arrested

Supporters of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili gather near a temporary detention facility where he is being held in custody in Kiev. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Supporters of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili gather near a temporary detention facility where he is being held in custody in Kiev. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

 

Thousands of Ukrainians marched through a snowy Kiev on Sunday to protest against the country’s ruling elite, its failure to fight corruption, and the arrest of opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili.

The former Georgian president says he is on hunger strike in a detention centre after being arrested on Friday night, three days after supporters freed him from a police van following his dramatic capture on a Kiev rooftop.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, accuses Mr Saakashvili of plotting with a pro-Kremlin tycoon to seize control of the country through street protests, and he rejects suggestions that the allegation is politically motivated.

Mr Saakashvili says Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and allies are persecuting him for criticising their failure to crush rampant graft and implement the sweeping reforms that people demanded during Ukraine’s 2013-2014 revolution, and which Kiev’s western backers advocate.

“They have crossed a red line,” Sandra Roelofs, Mr Saakashvili’s Dutch wife, told the crowd on Kiev’s Maidan Square, which was the crucible of the revolution.

“We want people to live better than they have these last four years. Poroshenko promised a lot. Maybe he wanted to do it, but couldn’t. Politics is not business, people are not products.”

Ukrainians are frustrated with Mr Poroshenko, the billionaire head of the Roshen confectionary firm, and his apparent acceptance of a political culture which sees the country run according to backroom deals between powerful figures.

Deputy Serhiy Leshchenko, an ally of Mr Saakashvili, said there were at least 10,000 people at a protest that he described as “a rally of the middle class who want honest authorities”.

Snowballs thrown

The demonstrators marched from Maidan to Mr Lutsenko’s office and the detention centre where Mr Saakashvili is being held, stopping to throw snowballs at a shop belonging to Mr Poroshenko’s Roshen empire.

“Freedom for Misha!” they chanted – using the name by which Mr Saakashvili is commonly known – “Down with the gang!” and “Poroshenko to the [prison] bunks”, while waving yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags and red-and-black nationalist banners.

“I announce an open-ended hunger strike,” Mr Saakashvili wrote to supporters on Facebook from his detention centre on Saturday.

“Like you, I am not afraid of a frightened president, who stole the victory of Maidan and betrayed his people, turning himself from the guarantor of the constitution into the guarantor of corruption.”

After leading Georgia for almost a decade, Mr Saakashvili served as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region from 2015-2016 on the invitation of Mr Poroshenko, but resigned in frustration at Kiev’s failure to back his reform and anti-corruption drive.

Annulled citizenship

Mr Poroshenko annulled his Ukrainian citizenship in July, but supporters helped him barge back into the country from Poland in September, and reinvigorated what appeared to be a fading political career.

Mr Saakashvili also faces the threat of extradition to Georgia to face charges that he calls politically motivated.

“If someone who has been accused of something flees from custody or breaks the law, illegally crosses the border, then there should be responsibility for that. But it should not in any way be connected to political activity,” Mr Poroshenko said on Friday.