By Christian Esch
Two years ago, Petro Poroshenko hired former Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to promote reforms and tackle corruption. Now, though, the Ukrainian president has thrown Saakashvili out of the country. What went wrong?
For someone who has had the door slammed in his face, Mikheil Saakashvili is filled with confidence. But has he ever behaved differently in public? On a recent Sunday evening, Europe’s best-known stateless statesman walked smilingly into a narrow assembly room in southern Warsaw. He shook hands as he walked through the crowd before stepping onto the podium, reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out a small blue booklet.
“This passport,” he said in Ukrainian, “is not the plaything of individual oligarchs, who issue it and then retract it, declare it invalid or use it to blackmail you.” And because he is not the only one who thinks so, he went on, he was able to use this passport to travel from the United States to Poland, despite the bullying from the Ukrainian leadership.
Mikheil Saakashvili, a former citizen of both Georgia and Ukraine, can thank Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for his current statelessness. Two years ago, Poroshenko awarded Ukrainian citizenship to the former Georgian president and appointed him governor of the Odessa region. It was an act full of symbolism: In the wake of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, the man who had successfully modernized his native Georgia, the most radical reformer in the entire post-Soviet region, was being brought in to clean up the corrupt port city.
It sounded like a good plan, but now Poroshenko has apparently reconsidered. In late July, he revoked Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship. And because Saakashvili also lost his Georgian citizenship, he now has none at all.
The acrimony between the two men comes at a time when questions once again surround Ukraine. In what kind of a country does a president simply terminate someone’s citizenship, as though it were a club membership? And what are the prospects of reform under a government that is locking out reformers?
Three years after the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine is in a deplorable state. The fight against corruption has not only not been won, but has in fact not even truly begun. Not a single senior government official or politician has been convicted on corruption charges to date. The reform process has also stalled. If anything happens at all, it invariably comes in response to pressure from the West. The war in the Donbass region against pro-Russian separatists and their Russian allies continues, despite a ceasefire, and no one in Kiev appears to have a strategy for changing the situation. Young Ukrainians are leaving the country to look for work abroad, while President Poroshenko is accumulating more and more power. Saakashvili’s expatriation is only a single episode in this miserable situation – just another instructive tale of shattered illusions.
Based on Money
“Mikheil is my friend from my university days. I remember him as a strong-willed and decisive person, and I have good reason to trust him,” Poroshenko said in 2015, when he granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship and appointed him governor. The two were both students in Kiev during the Perestroika period.
Today, Saakashvili says: “Poroshenko chose his friends based on who had money. I had none. As such, I cannot say that we were friends.” His comments came at around noon on that Sunday in Warsaw, in the courtyard of a luxury hotel over white wine and salted nuts. There were still a few hours before his evening appearance in front of the Ukrainian diaspora. Saakashvili comes across differently in person than he does on stage. One wants to believe everything he says. He speaks very quickly, concisely and to the point – and he says everything with a slight smile, as if he had no problems, or at least none that could rattle him. But it is important to realize that the world that Saakashvili sees is not the world others see.
Saakashvili is extremely critical when speaking of Poroshenko. Yet he was more than happy to accept Ukrainian citizenship and the position in Odessa two years ago. It was a step down, from being president of his own country, even if it is small, to being a regional official in a foreign country. But Saakashvili’s political career was over in Georgia. Following two terms full of radical reforms and major projects implemented with authoritarian means, most Georgians had had enough of him.
A broad alliance formed by billionaire Bidsina Ivanishvili captured a parliamentary majority in Georgia in 2012 and then the presidency one year later. Some of Saakashvili’s allies went to prison while Saakashvili himself went to New York in 2013 and delivered lectures at Tufts University in Massachusetts as a “Senior Statesman.” But he was terribly bored. Besides, he says, he found life to be expensive in New York and thought Americans were superficial. As such, the Maidan revolution came at just the right time. Dozens of senior Georgian officials whose careers had come to an abrupt end at home suddenly had new jobs in Kiev.
A Product of the Oligarchy
It seemed an ideal combination. The Georgians had experience with reforms, after having successfully conducted their Rose Revolution a decade earlier. The Ukrainians, meanwhile, wanted to live like Europeans, under the rule of law and free of corruption. That is why they had taken to the streets. And both sides were united by the notion of standing up to Moscow. That, at least, was the plan. Saakashvili had hopes of becoming attorney general or head of the new anti-corruption office.
It soon became apparent, however, that political will in Ukraine wasn’t quite so black and white. The new president was no rose revolutionary or staunch reformist, and he wasn’t elected with 96 percent of the vote as Saakashvili had been in 2004. Poroshenko was a politician and businessman, a classic product of Ukraine’s oligarchic system, in which every major business leader is also involved in politics.
“If I had known then what I know today, I would not have accepted the position,” says Saakashvili. “I failed to recognize that money is the only thing that counts for Poroshenko. He sees reforms as PR, to make him look good to the West. Money is real. If he can combine the two, he is happy to do so. If he can’t, money is the decisive factor for him.” Poroshenko, Saakashvili says, even told him which officials in Odessa he was not to remove from office under any circumstances. The list included the police chief of an important district of the city.
Saakashvili built a new, transparent customs terminal (which never went into operation), established a citizens’ office (which had to close again temporarily) and tore down fences that had been illegally set up on beaches (they were put up again). He reduced the size of the civil service and sent armed investigators to the state-owned chemical plant OPZ.
The success of his policies was moderate at best. But he did earn himself a modicum of popularity due to his battles with powerful adversaries. In December 2015, for example, during a meeting of the National Reform Council, he engaged in a heated verbal battle with the business-minded interior minister, Arsen Avakov. “Thief!” Saakashvili shouted at him, “you’ll go to prison!” Avakov threw a water glass at him in response, followed by curses and the words: “Get out of my country!” “I’m Ukrainian! This is my country!” Saakashvili shouted back with his Georgian accent.
“Saakashvili wanted to capture Odessa at a gallop, but it doesn’t work that way,” says Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Fessenko. He describes politics in Ukraine as a swamp, where abrupt movements are not possible. But Saakashvili is not adept at patiently building alliances. Instead, he began to withdraw from his position. He preferred to be in familiar Kiev than Odessa, while his heart remained in his native Georgia.
In May 2016, he announced that he was returning to Georgian politics, but without withdrawing from Ukrainian politics. He submitted his resignation as governor in November 2016 and formed his own party in Ukraine. In his farewell remarks, he said that the president himself supported the worst clans in Odessa, including bandits, murderers and corrupt officials. The friendship had turned into an openly hostile relationship.
Poroshenko’s official reason for revoking Saakashvili’s citizenship was absurd. He claimed that when Saakashvili applied for Ukrainian citizenship, he had failed to mention that he was the subject of criminal proceedings in Georgia. “I couldn’t have done so, because I had not yet been officially notified,” says Saakashvili. “I only knew about it from the media, just like Poroshenko.”
The real reason for the rift remains unclear. Saakashvili says that he had a long argument with Poroshenko during a March meeting in Malta. According to Saakashvili, Poroshenko demanded that he behave himself and stick to the rules, insisting that he criticize others and not just Poroshenko himself – and that if he did so, he could continue his career in Ukrainian politics and would get a seat in parliament. If he did not, though, according to Saakashvili’s account, Poroshenko said “individual measures” would be taken, though he failed to elaborate.
Saakashvili did not abide by Poroshenko’s instructions. A few months later, a guest on a talk show he was hosting sang an insulting ditty about Poroshenko, in which the president was referred to as “Chocolate Ass,” a reference to Poroshenko’s confectionery empire.
Now Saakashvili has a problem, and his only comfort is that Poroshenko has one too. Revoking Saakashvili’s citizenship doesn’t look good, particularly in the West, on which Ukraine currently depends. And if anyone can attract attention in the West, it is Saakashvili. Hillary Clinton even nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
Slamming the Door
The decision to revoke Saakashvili’s passport was announced when he was in the United States visiting his uncle, who lives in the Bronx. That was part of Poroshenko’s plan: to slam the door in the troublemaker’s face when he was out of the country. Saakashvili was unable to speak with President Donald Trump or Republican Senator John McCain, both personal acquaintances, but he did meet with the new U.S. special envoy for Ukraine.
In Poland, Saakashvili has a good relationship with the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, with the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski having been his strongest supporter in the 2008 Caucasus war. In an interview on Polish television, Saakashvili reinforced the PiS conspiracy theory that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind Kaczynski’s death in a plane crash near Smolensk. “The Russians wanted to punish Lech Kaczynski for flying to Georgia at the time and speaking in Tbilisi.” These are unfounded conjectures, but Saakashvili is not the type to draw a clear line between wishful thinking and reality – certainly not when it comes to Russia.
He now hopes that the West will exert pressure on Poroshenko, so that he can challenge the revocation of his citizenship. “Even if I don’t get a fair trial, at least I want to be heard.”
Ukrainian border guards are currently doing everything they can to ensure that Saakashvili does not enter the country. During his appearance in Warsaw, Saakashvili said that border guards had even searched the trunk of a car belonging to a Ukrainian member of parliament recently, fearing that he could be smuggling Saakashvili to Kiev.
It was one of the few lighthearted moments of the evening. Otherwise, Saakashvili spoke extensively about the prospects of Ukraine, its talented citizens and the especially talented Ukrainian diaspora. He issued warnings, flattery, promises and, most than anything, embellishments. Russia? It will attack Ukraine soon, which was the purpose of the military exercises in Belarus in the fall. Crimea? We’ll get it back. Growth? Needs to be at least 11 percent. The Ukrainian émigrés in the room? The best. He is, though, largely silent about concrete political measures.
Saakashvili’s Ukrainian teacher is sitting in the front row. He has spent the entire evening speaking Ukrainian, which is still significantly more difficult for him than speaking Russian. But now that he is fighting for his Ukrainian citizenship, the language has become more important. He ends his speech with a “glory to Ukraine” before going outside where people are waiting to take selfies with him. Saakashvili smiles patiently.
Back in Kiev, the headquarters of his party, Movement of New Forces, is deserted. The offices are on Hrushevsky Street, precisely where the barricades were burning in the winter of 2013/2014. Although Saakashvili is the party leader, it is currently being run by David Sakwarelidse, another of the young Georgian reformers who came to Ukraine after Euromaidan. He was deputy attorney general in Ukraine, but he was held back by his superior, a man with a legendarily bad reputation.
“At least we managed to shake up the system,” says Sakwarelidse. “If you want reforms, you have to come from a different world. Poroshenko comes from the inside. To this day, he doesn’t actually know what reforms are.” Sakwarelidse also has a Ukrainian passport now, and has likewise lost his Georgian citizenship. It is an irony of fate that a man who came to Ukraine to apply his legal expertise is now a party bureaucrat in charge of shaping a political platform. That was not the plan when Saakashvili and the other Georgians came to Ukraine.
Without Saakashvili, the party’s only star, the Movement of New Forces doesn’t have a chance. But even with him, prospects would be dim. A rally called to protest the revocation of Saakashvili’s citizenship was attended by just 100 people. Saakashvili’s relationship with the Western elite, it would seem, is stronger than his ties to Ukrainian society.
For Petro Poroshenko, that is good news. The troublemaker from Georgia, it would seem, will soon fade into the past.
Translated from the English by Christopher Sultan