Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian ex-President and former Governor of Odessa, made a dramatic return to Ukraine on Sunday after being stripped of his citizenship by President Petro Poroshenko. Following a daylong drama that first saw the Ukrainian authorities halting Saakashvili’s train from Poland, the stateless politician finally crossed the border with the help of a supportive mob. Financial Times captures the scene:
As night began to fall on Ukraine’s Shegini-Medyka border crossing with Poland, a crowd of some 100 supporters, based on the Ukrainian side, broke through guards. They charged hundreds of metres past border posts to neutral territory where the Georgian was being prevented from trying to enter Ukraine using his revoked domestic passport. The crowds then pushed him past Ukrainian border posts into the country, without going through formalities.
Once on Ukrainian soil, the former leader of Georgia’s 2007 Rose Revolution who has reinvented himself as a challenger to Ukraine’s pro-western President Petro Poroshenko, spoke to a local television station to sum up the drama: “The people decided it this way … you saw the video, how it happened,” he said, before reportedly being ushered into a car heading for Lviv, a nearby provincial capital. […]
His attempt to re-enter Ukraine was accompanied by a media circus and opposition politicians including the former premier Yulia Tymoshenko. It came just over a month after Mr Poroshenko raised eyebrows by revoking the citizenship of his former university friend following a bitter falling out.
Saakashvili’s crossing was captured on video by several sources. It’s a sorry spectacle that is sure to embarrass Kyiv, showing how a riled-up crowd of supporters was able to shove past a line of border guards, dragging Saakashvili across with them:
Вот так Саакашвили просто занесли на руках в Украину практически. Пограничники стояли pic.twitter.com/RmdD1vMNzR
— Картопляний гівнюк (@belamova) September 10, 2017
But the laxity of Ukraine’s border enforcement may be the least of President Poroshenko’s worries now. In seeking to sideline Saakashvili by revoking his citizenship, Poroshenko may have accidentally given him a bigger platform than ever. Saakashvili’s dramatic journey back to Ukraine was an extended publicity stunt, allowing him to paint himself as a persecuted victim of the corrupt Ukrainian President. It was also a transparent attempt to launch a political comeback ahead of 2019’s elections—and in that effort, Saakashvili seems to have had a little help from his friends. His return was publicly aided by Ukraine’s former PM Yulia Tymoshenko and the young anti-corruption activist Mustafa Nayyem, suggesting a tacit opposition alliance to challenge Poroshenko in 2019.
Saakashvili’s return thus creates a political conundrum for President Poroshenko, who would like to get rid of a prominent rival but is faced with unpalatable choices. He could lock Saakashvili up on criminal charges currently being filed by the Prosecutor General, risking backlash and accusations of authoritarian overreach. He could extradite Saakashvili to his native Georgia, where he is wanted by his rivals on politically motivated charges. Or he could tolerate the grandstanding Georgian’s presence in Ukraine, calculating that a foreign politician with only 2 percent support does not pose a serious threat anyway.
Whatever happens in the showdown to come, Ukraine itself is likely to be the loser. Saakashvili’s partisans may cheer his comeback, but the incident reflects poorly on all involved—and paints a damning picture of Ukraine’s inability to overcome its endemic corruption and dysfunction.
President Poroshenko certainly deserves his share of the blame: despite his paeans to Western values and some meaningful reforms, he has largely ruled like an oligarch, stashing his money abroad and actively seeking to undermine anti-corruption activists who might expose his inner circle. Saakashvili was not wrong to criticize Poroshenko on these grounds. If Poroshenko had heeded those criticisms rather than stifling them, he may not have brought the current crisis upon himself.
At the same time, Saakashvili himself is hardly blameless, nor does he offer a compelling way forward for Ukraine. The brash Georgian has lately seemed more showman than statesman, a self-promoting opportunist eager to boost his public profile and perennially seeking a return to power. By many accounts, Saakashvili only turned on Poroshenko because the latter passed him over for the role of Prime Minister; his opposition is thus more about power than principle. Saakashvili excels at playing the crusading reformer for Western audiences, but he failed to clean up Odessa, and his democratic record in Georgia is far from spotless. In any case, his willingness to illegally charge a border with a mob at his back hardly suggests much respect for the rule of law.
And Saakashvili’s allies do not come off much better. Yulia Tymoshenko, an ever-ambitious political animal, is clearly in a marriage of convenience with Saakashvili as she pursues the presidency. And the support of Mustafa Nayyem—the young journalist-turned-MP who helped lead the 2013 Euromaidan protests—only suggests that the new generation of pro-Westerners is not above the scuzzy tactics and unpalatable alliances that have characterized Ukrainian politics for so long.
Saakashvili may gain a few approval points for channeling the public’s legitimate outrage at the Poroshenko government. But ultimately, the circumstances of his return are likely to exacerbate divisions within Ukraine while serving as catnip for its enemies. The footage of the border clashes is sure to play on a loop on Russian television, reinforcing familiar talking points: that Ukraine is a broken state incapable of policing its borders or enforcing its laws, riven by factional rivalries and subject to the whims of mobs. Saakashvili’s brazen defiance of Ukrainian law is sure to tempt Poroshenko to further authoritarian excess. And the competition is likely to set off an intensified round of elite jockeying before the 2019 elections, while leaving Ukraine’s underlying pathologies unaddressed.