Mid-summer is always characterised by low political activity and low interest in politics. Both the electors and those elected take a summer break. That is why the news of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili being stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship felt so sudden and out of nowhere. One thing is sure: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s team didn't take a summer break, it is already working hard on getting ready for the 2019 presidential elections.
The decision to revoke Saakashvili's citizenship came shortly after the first state visit Poroshenko made to Georgia earlier this month. It is quite possible that Saakashvili’s fate was discussed during meetings between Ukrainian and Georgian officials.
Saakashvili, a Georgian hurricane, managed to gather around him a team of professionals and prominent thinkers who pushed for bold reforms in post-revolutionary Georgia. Even though in the post-Soviet space Georgia is perceived as a success story, back home Saakashvili left his office under a cloud and with a very low approval rate. Moreover, the former president is now wanted in Georgia, where he has been accused of corruption, on criminal charges related to his activities during his presidency. In the official Ukrainian State Migration Service statement on Saakashvili’s case, the Georgian investigation is also mentioned.
According to the statement, the migration service has studied documents prepared by the Georgian Prosecutor General Office (PGO), which were forwarded from the Ukrainian PGO. Since there are no other reasons in the statement for grounds to strip Saakashvili of his Ukraine citizenship, it looks like Ukraine is simply following a request made by Georgian officials. But there is much more to it than that. While I can’t say if Saakashvili’s investigation in Georgia is political revenge or not, as he himself claims, it is undeniable that the decision to revoke his Ukrainian citizenship is politically motivated.
Saakashvili was invited to Ukraine after the Maidan revolution by the newly elected Poroshenko. Soon after, Saakashvili was granted Ukrainian citizenship and appointed governor of the Odesa region. Saakashvili, a true political animal, quickly started building his popularity among Ukrainians. Known for his unconventional decisions and a flare for PR, the Odesa governor with time became one of Ukraine’s most influential politicians. There was another important role for Saakashvili in Ukraine: he became a sort of magnet for young Ukrainian politicians and liberal parties who were naturally charmed by his charisma, political drive and energy. Undoubtedly, Saakashvili has inspired (and, I believe, still does) the younger generation of Ukrainian politicians.
Just as his position in Ukrainian politics was growing stronger, relations with the president became colder. Saakashvili didn’t stop himself from publicly criticising both Poroshenko’s decisions, and most importantly, the lack of fast and bold reforms in Ukraine. Finally, after a year in office, Saakashvili resigned from the governor post, publicly accusing Poroshenko of sabotaging reforms.
After his resignation, Saakashvili actively engaged in political life, starting his own anti-corruption movement in Ukraine. Back then, there were many talks about the possible creation of a new political party, led by Saakashvili and uniting young post-Maidan politicians. This plan never worked out, reportedly because of the differences in views on whether this party should be a party of a leader or a party of a programme. Three political forces have emerged from that circle, which for now have decided to operate separately, but which would clearly join in a coalition in future elections.
Ever since his arrival in Ukraine, Saakashvili has been perceived as a possible game-changer in Ukrainian politics. There is a great deal of populism in his speeches, yet he nevertheless knows how to engage the public and create supporters. According to all political polls in recent years, Saakashvili was sure to make it to the parliament, regardless of what political party he was in (he had around 10% support as a governor and but was not willing to take part in elections). More recently the level of support has declined somewhat but he remains one of those politicians who would be key people in the upcoming elections.
Saakashvili’s case shouldn’t be analysed in isolation. It fits perfectly into the chain of events that suggest Poroshenko has started preparing for elections two years before they happen.
Many commentators agree that the symbolic launch of his re-election campaign started with a recent and controversial decision to ban Russian social media in Ukraine. It was followed by a prolonged campaign to discredit the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, who is also a leader of the Samopomich political party.
Sadovyi, unsurprisingly, has very good relations with Saakashvili; there has been speculation on the possibility of Sadovyi and Saakashvili joining forces in parliamentary elections. The hit was very precise, the topic was embarrassing: garbage. Lviv’s problems became a topic on the national news, picturing Lviv as a city of chaos drowning in garbage. The story was so hyped it became impossible to decide whether the news about trucks with Lviv garbage being chased in all the regions of Ukraine were true, or staged. The idea behind this black PR campaign was very clear: to destroy Sadovyi’s image as the most successful mayor in Ukraine and turn him into a butt for jokes.
Then a few days ago it was announced that the State National Corruption Prevention Agency (NABU) will look into the affairs of opposition firebrand Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Batjlivshchyna (Fatherland) party. This news was followed by an announcement from the PGO that it had launched a criminal investigation into Batjkivshchyna leaders over suspected illicit financing of the party.
These early birds suggest that the next target in the discrediting game will be former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is the biggest and most dangerous opponent of Poroshenko. It is worth noting that Ukraine's prosecutor general Lutsenko is a close ally of Poroshenko, so his office’s interest in Batjkivshchyna is just the beginning of the story.
It all looks like stripping Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship wasn’t just a political or personal revenge, but an episode in the ongoing game of eliminating political rivals. It is a highly risky move, rather than a weakness, as some commentators in Ukraine have suggested.
One by one, Poroshenko is taking out opposition politicians, which leads to the weakening of the opposition in general. Two conclusions arise from that. Firstly, it’s certain that more challenges will be created for his political opponents; Saakashvili was just an episode in a larger story. Secondly, it looks like Poroshenko’s main ambition is to win a second term, rather than to gradually build an authoritarian regime in Ukraine. The bad news is that Poroshenko may only be able to win by consolidating power even further. As a result, what will be a short-run win for him, could be a long-run loss for Ukraine.
Activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kateryna Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Euromaidan revolution to the world. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now comments on the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.