SAAKASHVILI’S ESCAPADES IN UKRAINE
Mikeil Saakashvili’s dramatic return to Ukraine has elicited numerous comments on social media, most of which regard his actions as a positive boost to his reputation and a negative impact on the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, who deprived him of his Ukrainian citizenship in July. But what will be its long-term results? And how should Ukraine’s president respond?
From Ukraine’s perspective, the border violation is both serious and humiliating. The authorities managed to persuade Polish counterparts to halt his train in Przemysl and they also prevented his initial attempt to cross by bus. Evidently over 100 arrests were made, including of people carrying pepper spray and other materials. Plans were changed several times and it was not clear for some time whether the crossing would be successful.
Ultimately, the authorities lacked the force to stop more than 500 people charging over the Medyka-Shehyni crossing with Saakashvili in their midst. Numerous border guards were injured. The transgressors included a number of people in uniform, some of whom were ‘volunteers’ from the Donbas Battalion, now subordinated to the Ministry of Interior. The implications are particularly serious given the fragility of Ukraine’s other violated border in the east.
Border guards and Ukrainian police have now given an order to the former Georgian president to appear at the Mostyts’kyi District Court in L’viv region on September 18 to explain his actions. But he was far from a lone figure. The presence of Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of Batkivshchyna, in his entourage, as well as the cordial reception afforded Saakashvili by the mayor of Lviv Andrii Sadovyi broaden the episode into a more serious challenge to the president’s authority.
On paper, the threat to Poroshenko is analogous to that posed to the Belarusian authorities when a chartered plane from Sweden dropped teddy bears over Belarusian towns and villages in July 2012. The bears were carrying pro-democracy messages and posed no direct threat to the government of Belarus. Yet the Belarusian president, Aliakssandr Lukashenka responded by dismissing two of his leading generals, expelling the Swedish Ambassador, and withdrawing its own embassy staff from Stockholm.
Poroshenko could respond in similar fashion, either by expelling Saakashvili from Ukraine to a country of choice, or extraditing him to Georgia, which has made three requests for his return to answer charges relating to his lengthy presidency there. But how should he respond to the actions of the leader of Batkivshchyna? Saakashvili has already compared Poroshenko to his hapless predecessor Viktor Yanukovych. Poroshenko would hardly wish to emulate Yanukovych by imprisoning Tymoshenko.
The decision to remove Saakashvili’s citizenship was undoubtedly a misguided political move since it allowed him instantly to adopt the role of a martyr who stands for democratic values and an end to corruption.The public might overlook Saakashvili’s lack of success as governor of Odesa, or his unsavory exchanges with Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs. The latter ended one meeting of December 2015 by hurling a glass of water at Saakashvili in frustration.
Saakashvili is hardly likely to succumb quietly. That is simply not his style. He likes to attract attention, and appears devoted to his public image and self-esteem in a manner not dissimilar to American president Donald Trump. He collects enemies in every locale, and his name is anathema not only among ruling elites in Ukraine and Georgia, but also in Russia, where president Vladimir Putin has promised, in his usual elegant prose, to “hang him by his balls” if he ever sets foot there.
Because Saakashvili needs public spectacles, he is unlikely to remain silent. Public trials and imprisonment, as long as the internment regime is not too severe, would further promote his popularity. Repressive measures would also broaden his alternatives and lower the prestige of the president both home and abroad. Already ‘Misha’ is planning to tour Ukraine making speeches. In short, he needs the threat or reality of punishment by the authorities to catalyze his future presidential election campaign and build his political movement.
One suspects, further, that the rivalry between the two figures runs so deep that Ukraine’s president may resort to a show of force. A major border violation, after all, might give encouragement to the eastern separatist regimes to seek further gains of territory. They might perceive a lack of response by Ukraine to Saakashvili and his supporters’ actions as a sign of weakness.
Yet Poroshenko could easily disarm his opponent with an act of clemency: a presidential pardon and a return of Saakashvili’s Ukrainian passport could be granted in the knowledge that without the overt and very public antagonism, his rival would have little chance of political success. Prior to the recent events, his electoral popularity was in the 2% range—ironically Tymoshenko’s was much higher and one wonders why she opted to participate in such a secondary role—thus he had fallen to the fringes of the viable political alternatives to Poroshenko.
There is no easy way out for the Ukrainian leader and the problem is partly of his own making. But he would regain some of the prestige he lost with the original cancellation of the passport by responding humanely to the events of the past three days. Saakashvili only benefits from victimhood and Poroshenko could undermine his former protégé by simply eliminating his most obvious error of the past three months. He could then take appropriate measures to strengthen the borders of the country so that this farcical spectre cannot be repeated.