Mistakes, unlearned lessons and consequences in the political confrontation between Ukraine’s leadership and Mikheil Saakashvili
On February 12, Mikheil Saakashvili was detained in Kyiv and deported to Poland on a charter flight. In September 2017, he had broken through the Ukrainian border from Poland. As a stateless person, he is now sent back to Poland under the readmission procedure that applies to illegal migrants.
Saakashvili described the situation as “kidnapping” and accused Petro Poroshenko of it. If he settles down in Poland, Georgia can request his extradition from there – Saakashvili is facing a number of criminal cases in his home country. The Bankova, Ukraine’s Presidential Administration, would prefer this scenario as it has not found an effective way to counter the scandalous and unpredictable oppositioner. If the extradition does not work, Saakashvili may remain a Ukrainian oppositioner, even if exiled, continuing to generate scandals and provoke the government to make new mistakes and lose more of its reputation.
In fact, the record of relations between those in power in Ukraine and Saakasvhili is a chain of strategic and tactical mistakes on both sides.
The first element of this chain was Saakashvili’s appointment as Head of Odesa Oblast State Administration. The President’s motivation was clear enough – the involvement of the Georgian reformer was to improve the positive image of Ukraine’s leadership. However, it failed to establish constructive relations with him and ended up with a determined oppositioner rather than an ally.
The next mistake was to launch the procedure to terminate Ukraine’s citizenship for Saakashvili. Regardless of how serious the grounds for this were, it looked like punishment for his political disloyalty, or like surprising sloppiness of the entities involved which had not verified Saakashvili’s citizenship application and did not pay attention to disparities in the application for two years (the State Immigration Service officially claimed that Saakashvili had provided inaccurate information in the application – Ed.).
This put Ukraine’s leadership in a weak position – it had to take action on Saakashvili in the context of insufficient public support. Saakashvili got an excuse for illegal action in response by appealing to the natural right of citizens to resist “usurpers”. However controversial his rhetoric may be, Saakasvhili demonstrated the weakness of Ukraine’s leadership and public entities. He has shown that the state border could be broken through with relatively small physical and media resources. The media fever stirred by Saakashvili in Ukraine pushed those in power to seek more serious grounds for decisive action.
It has found such grounds. In early December 2017, Prosecutor General’s Office published data on Saakashvili’s alleged links to Serhiy Kurchenko, the former Ukrainian oligarch who is now in hiding in Russia, and is allegedly funding the oppositioner’s campaign in Ukraine. According to Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, Kurchenko funded Saakashvili’s preparation of a takeover of power in Ukraine.
As the audio records of the conversations with Kurchenko were published and criminal proceedings launched followed by detentions, interrogations and house arrest, Saakashvili seemed to be facing his dark hour and Bankova would be speaking to him from the position of force. It has accomplished some success: part of his allies distanced themselves from Saakashvili, while he softened his rhetoric. The final part, however, turned out to be quite obscure.
In December 2017, Saakashvili was on the wanted list under three articles of the Penal Code. According to Prosecutor General’s Office, the SBU and the National Police were in charge of looking for him. On February 9, Prosecutor General announced that expert examination confirmed that the records of the telephone conversation between Kurchenko and Saakashvili were authentic. Three days later, Saakashvili was detained – but as an illegal immigrant, not as the person involved in these criminal cases. This makes further investigative action so much more difficult.
This scenario allowed Saakashvili to say the PGO’s accusations were fake. “If a person is accused of a coup, this person is not kicked out of the country,” he said at a briefing on February 12.
Also, this scenario raises questions about how effectively Ukraine’s public entities cooperation: the PGO claims that the State Border Service has conducted the readmission of Saakashvili unexpectedly, without prior coordination with the PGO. Moreover, Saakashvili had to appear in court on February 13 to testify on the case of former Berkut officers and their actions on the Maidan. His deportation has made that impossible, too.
Three years of interaction with Saakashvili have brought Ukraine’s leadership to a complete defeat – its protégé did not show any success in Odesa Oblast, and those in power have no force to rein in the scandalous politician.
Saakashvili has made a lot of mistakes, too. His breaking through the Ukrainian border, the unnecessary storming of the October Palace during a concert in downtown Kyiv in December 2017, and his unrestrained populism have made him toxic even by the standards of Ukraine’s politics. He’s not doing great in terms of public support either. According to a poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, the rate of his Movement of New Forces was below 2% in 2017, while distrust for Saakashvili was at -57%, which was not much better than distrust for Petro Poroshenko at -62% or Volodymyr Hroisman at -56%. Given this dynamics, Ukrainians are not huge fans of Saakashvili’s activities. In December 2016, distrust for him was -48% and almost 5% of those polled by the Democratic Initiatives were prepared to vote for the Movement of New Forces.
For Saakashvili, the loss of his rate is not a problem – he can’t run in any elections. For those in power, given their meager support from society, even the smallest losses are undesirable. The question of how much impact the conflict between Saakashvili and Bankova has had on the latter is open since their confrontation was on the periphery of public attention span. What’s worse about it is that this confrontation has showed how weak fundamental state institutions are in Ukraine, from the institution of citizenship to the efficiency of the prosecutor’s offices and law enforcement authorities.
How independent are they from political influences triggered by a specific political situation? Can those dealing with the Ukrainian state rely on them? The answer is no. Based on estimates by the World Economic Forum experts, Ukraine ended up among the ten countries with the worst quality of institutions this year. This allows adventurist politicians to play beyond the rules, abuse the weaknesses and flaws of Ukraine’s state machine.
To those in power, it gives an attractive opportunity to run the country manually, as well as creates a permanent threat of the situation spinning out of control. For the citizens, it means life in a volatile and unreliable institutional environment that is unable to protect the population in extreme situations.
On February 13, Saakashvili announced his intent to return to Ukraine. He can do so without a doubt. That means that we will be facing the second season of this political thriller. Its characters, however, will be crushing the Ukrainian state, not the props.