Ukraine’s would-be opposition leader and ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was deported from Ukraine to Poland on February 12.
Like a scene from some gangland movie, Saakashvili was arrested in a downtown Kyiv restaurant and dragged out of the building with officers holding him by the hair, video footage circulated on social media shows.
Saakashvili denounced the arrest and lashed out at President Petro Poroshenko in a statement: “This is not a president and not a man. This is a lowlife crook, who wants to wreck Ukraine. All this shows how weak they are. We will of necessity defeat them.”
Unidentified supporters of Saakashvili attacked the arresting officials, who were forced "to defend themselves and use force", according to a State Border Service spokesman. However, later the authorities said in a statement that Saakashvili had left the country “in compliance with all legal procedures” and is now in Poland.
State Border Service spokesman Oleh Slobodyan confirmed on his Facebook page that Saakashvili was arrested by the agency’s officers, the State Migration Service, and regular police officers.
Saakashvili's lawyer Ruslan Chornolutsky said the deportation was "a kidnapping and not a detention", Reuters reports. He said this was because any detention should be "based on either [a] court decision or some other proceeding documents". This "was not the case", he said.
Under Ukrainian law forced deportation or extradition is only possible if there is a specific court warrant. Even then the ruling can be appealed within 30 days, and extradition or deportation can only happen after the appeals court has made its ruling. It seems that this procedural step has been skipped and Saakashvili was put on a plane on the same day as his arrest. Moreover, his lawyers have also filed an appeal with the Supreme Court against the decision to deny the politician refugee status. Finally, his lawyers are challenging Poroshenko’s decision to cancel Saakashvili’s citizenship – a presidential prerogative.
From allies to bitter rivals
Saakashvili served as president of his native Georgia in 2004-2013 and was invited to Ukraine by Poroshenko after the latter took office in 2014. Saakashvili was appointed the regional governorship of Odesa from 2015-2016 before falling out with Poroshenko and joining the opposition. Once close allies, the two men have become bitter rivals.
Now head of the Movement of New Forces party, the stateless Saakashvili arrived in Poland from where he entered Ukraine without documents in September.
After his return to Ukraine, Saakashvili organised a series of rallies calling for Poroshenko’s impeachment and generally tried to whip up sentiment against the government, accusing it of corruption and of failing to live up to the promises made during the Maidan popular uprising in 2014 that ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych.
Saakashvili has been a thorn in the side of Poroshenko, who tried to arrest him several times with farcical results. He was bundled into a police van outside his apartment in December only to be rescued by a mob of supporters who ripped the doors open and pulled him to safety. After the third effort to detain him, he was swiftly released again when thousands demonstrated for his release.
However, other than a small hard-core group, Saakashvili enjoys little public support and polls in the low single digits. Presidential elections are slated for 2019, but since Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship last July the Georgian politician has said he won’t stand, though he hinted that he was open to becoming prime minister.
Instead, Saakashvili has thrown what political weight he has behind Yulia Tymoshenko, opposition leader, former prime minister and head of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, who very publicly joined him during his illegal border crossing in September. A populist hoping to make hay from the fracas Saakashvili has created, Tymoshenko is currently leading the presidential polls, ahead of Poroshenko by a small margin.
Saakashvili is not the only one suffering at the polls. According to recent polls all Ukraine’s politicians are doing badly as the electorate are tired of the current elite. What is remarkable is Poroshenko’s patent unpopularity with voters has not translated into greater popularity for his rivals.
Wanted in Tbilisi
Despite Saakashvili’s illegal entry to the country and statelessness, he was not arrested and applied for refugee status with the local authorities. The decision to deport Saakashvili comes as his application for refugee status was finally rejected this week, according to the authorities.
The choice of Poland is a compromise by Kyiv. The Border Service say that Saakashvili is being sent back to the country from which he came, but usually deportees are sent back to their country of origin – doubly so in Saakashvili’s case as he has no passport. The Georgian authorities applied to Kyiv for Saakashvili’s deportation to Tbilisi on at least one occasion in 2017. The former Georgian president is wanted in his homeland on charges of corruption and abuse of power, and the Georgian authorities said on February 11 that if he arrives in Tbilisi he will be immediately arrested.
Despite having a reputation as a tough reformer, who famously sacked the entire traffic police force in Georgia to curb rampant corruption, Saakashvili is charged with abusing his position while in office. Amongst the accusations are trips to a US fat farm with his friend the mayor of Tbilisi that cost $40,000 per head and was paid for with public money. He is also accused of buying an expensive cashmere coat using public funds which he later returned to Georgia’s general prosecutor with a note to his successor Bidzina Ivanisvhili saying “I return [the coat] and you can use it as you like.”
Saakashvili denies any wrongdoing and says the Georgian charges are politically motivated.
The deportation is an attempt by Poroshenko to silence Saakashvili as the Ukrainian president comes under increasing pressure ahead of the elections. Poroshenko has been playing increasing rough on the domestic field, using administrative resources to sully his potential political opponents and reneging on promises made to Ukraine’s main donor, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that would hurt him politically, such as hiking domestic gas tariffs or pushing through a reform to create a land market. Following the issue of a $3bn sovereign Eurobond last year, the government is much less dependent on donors’ aid and has subsequently taken its foot off the reformist gas pedal.
A failed experiment
The deportation probably ends Saakashvili’s political career in Ukraine. He set up a party in November 2016 that was registered in February 2017 and called for early elections, but while he is very vocal he has been unable to garner much political traction with the population.
His message of disappointment at the failure by the authorities to deliver on any meaningful reforms that actually improve the life of the man in the street should have resonated with the electorate. "We will create a new broad political power, a platform of new forces, and our goal is to change the present, existing, so-called political elite, who are actually profiteers and social misfits," Saakashvili said at press conference to mark the establishment of his party in November 2016. However, voters clearly don't see Saakashvili as the man to make the changes.
It also brings to an end Ukraine’s experiment with importing the “team Georgia” approach to reforms. In an attempt to copy Saakashvili’s dramatic clean up after being elected president of Georgia, on which he built his international reputation, Ukraine imported several Georgians to head up various initiatives, including as the head of Ukraine’s police force. However, this attempt failed as these reformers were stymied by institutional resistance to change and were quickly ousted from their posts.
The Saakashvili saga will not help Ukraine’s case with the international community, which has already started to suffer from “Ukraine fatigue”. The Minsk II accord designed to bring an end to the fighting in the country’s eastern regions has stalled and all the deadlines set in the document for the end of 2015 have been missed.
However, no alternative plan has been suggested other than by former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who suggested a phased approach where the targets in Minsk II were made more specific and smaller, and more concrete rewards were set for meeting these less ambitious goals. However, this idea never gained traction and with Steinmeier’s departure from the foreign office after he was made Germany’s president last year, the idea is dead. Indeed, in January German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated that there was no alternative to Minsk II as the EU renewed its sanction regime on Russia for another six months.