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9 October, 2017  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

Border incident

The odyssey of Mikheil Saakashvili had a happy ending for him but caused his opponents headaches and image problems

The attempts to revoke Saakashvili’s Ukrainian passport looked like a failure from the very beginning. Petro Poroshenko invited Saakashvili to Ukraine two years ago and granted him Ukrainian citizenship by decree. Therefore, the recent statements from the Presidential Administration that Saakashvili allegedly filed incorrect documents in 2015 seem rather feeble. That would mean that officials there were unable to properly check and process the information provided by Saakashvili for two years, and only learned the "truth" in 2017. It is clear that nobody will believe this nonsense.

For Saakashvili himself, whose approval ratings have only been falling lately, Poroshenko's questionable decree was a sort of lifeline. In the blink of an eye, the former Georgian leader once again found himself in his element and derived maximum personal benefit from the situation. He turned his return to Ukraine into a vibrant political show that was broadcast live by virtually all Ukrainian mass media outlets.

Saakashvili's calculations turned out to be correct. For a decade, various Ukrainian authorities have demonstrated an identical arsenal of methods to counter the opposition that have almost not evolved over this period and proved ineffective many times. This time, officials did not offer us anything new. Blocking transport, hired thugs, bomb scares – this is all nothing new in recent Ukrainian history. Moreover, these measures always had the opposite effect. Attempts to hinder the opposition usually only increased its popularity, while the ratings of the government, on the contrary, fell.

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The attempts to prevent Saakashvili's return on September 10 seemed even more awkward than the struggle of Viktor Yanukovych’s clan against EuroMaidan supporters. The situation was also aggravated by the fact that the events mainly took place in Poland.

At times, there was a feeling that everything happening at the Ukrainian-Polish border was part of someone's evil plan. Saakashvili's odyssey seemed like something orchestrated to make those in power look as helpless and foolish as possible, while the Georgian president took on the role of a knight in shining armour. Such suspicions are not without grounds.

According to one assumption, the real scriptwriter of events at the border does not work at Bankova Street, i.e. the Presidential Administration, but in the Cabinet of Ministers. His name is Arsen Avakov. The Interior Minister has long stopped concealing his hostility towards Saakashvili and even entered into public conflict with him. According to the MPs accompanying Saakashvili in Poland, the idea to revoke his citizenship was pushed through by Avakov, who managed to get the president to sign the relevant decree, thus setting up Poroshenko.

This scenario is supported by the fact that Avakov's subordinates prevented Saakashvili from entering Ukraine and did everything to make the story as scandalous as possible. For example, the Intercity train to which Saakashvili switched from the bus packed with journalists was blocked in Przemyśl after its staff received a message from the National Police that a person on the train was banned from entering Ukraine. This message was broadcast over loudspeakers when the train was stood near the platform. The police later denied their involvement in the delay. But few believed this refutation. Subsequently, Saakashvili was opposed by the State Border Guard Service. It is striking that in both cases, obstacles were imposed on him in such a way as to cause inconvenience to the maximum number of ordinary people, such as passengers on the train or those crossing the border, instead of detaining only the former Georgian president.

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If Avakov really wanted to do everything to cause a scandal around Saakashvili’s trip, his expectations were accurate. The main object of criticism in this situation was President Poroshenko. Avakov himself was mentioned much less often. The most surprising thing is that such an unprecedented scandal has flared up, in essence, around Saakashvili who is not a rival to the president and cannot even be considered a full-fledged participant in Ukrainian political life given that a candidate can run for presidency or seats in Parliament after a given number of years as citizen of Ukraine. Saakashvili’s short time as a Ukrainian citizen resident in Ukraine will still not allow him to take part in elections. This means that Saakashvili today can only act as a battering ram, paving the way for other politicians.

This group of politicians could be observed alongside the ex-president of Georgia on September 10: Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi, Yulia Tymoshenko, former SBU (Security Bureau of Ukraine) chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko and several MPs, as well as young politicians Mustafa Nayem and Yehor Firsov. This could be the outline of the future united opposition that intends to challenge Poroshenko in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. However, it is too early to talk about such a merger. It is most likely that the aforementioned persons simply decided to take advantage of a good opportunity to remind voters of their existence.

Saakashvili could potentially be used as a battering ram by not only the opposition, but also Poroshenko's parliamentary coalition partners from People’s Front, Arsen Avakov and former Prime-Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk. It is no secret that a ruthless struggle has been taking place within the coalition itself for a long time, and its members will stop at nothing.

The campaign against Arseniy Yatseniuk organised earlier by the Presidential Administration to bring down the prime minister and replace him with a figure more loyal to Poroshenko is still fresh in the memory. It looks like the People's Front has finally found a convenient moment to pay back Poroshenko, make him more compliant and force him to share power.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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