Downtown Kiev (Tony/Flickr)

Downtown Kiev (Tony/Flickr)

The political parable in Ukraine of former Georgian president Saakashvili is not over. Meanwhile, President Poroshenko has already launched a long election campaign ahead of the 2019 presidential elections

05/10/2017 -  Oleksiy Bondarenko

Mikhail "Misha" Saakashvili is back in the spotlight. The former Georgian president has always been an over-the-top character – from the reputation of being great reformer to the allegations of abuse of power that forced him to leave Georgia (and Georgian citizenship) for good at the end of his second term in 2013.

Last summer, it seemed that his political career in Ukraine – the country that had granted him refuge and citizenship – was doomed as well. In July, while Misha was in the United States, President Poroshenko signed a decree depriving him of Ukrainian citizenship, leaving him virtually stateless. According to official explanations, Saakashvili committed an irregularity in filling in the application for citizenship, failing to specify the judicial proceedings he was undergoing in Georgia. Behind the decision, however, there seems to be deeper political motivations.

The Odessa failure

Let's start from the beginning. Saakashvili began to plan a political future in Ukraine during the first protests in Kiev between November and December 2013. The protest had not turned into a revolution yet, and Saakashvili – who had just fled from Tbilisi – took the stage in Maidan Nezalezhnosti to express his total support. But it was only with the election of Petro Poroshenko that the Georgian politician joined the government – first as Poroshenko's special adviser; then, in May 2015, after being quickly granted citizenship, as governor of Odessa. A key region in economic and political terms, Odessa is a maritime and terrestrial trade hub, historically characterised by a high level of corruption and a strong Russian influence – an explosive mix, further complicated by the strong interests of the oligarchs and their political sponsors.

Against this backdrop – and, unlike in his Georgian past, with very limited personal powers – it took Saakashvili a little more than a year to clash with the political establishment in Kiev and with his own protector, President Poroshenko. The political dynamics of post-2014 Ukraine are hard to decipher – however, we can say that a combination of personal calculation and the pressures of an influential part of the government close to the oligarchic environments led Poroshenko to slow down with the promised reforms. Saakashvili's public accusations, also motivated by his national ambitions, became increasingly frequent, until the final resignation in November 2016.

Reformer or populist?

Despite his failure to reform a complex and corrupt system such as Odessa's, which is perhaps the best representation of the chronic problems of the entire country, Saakashvili remained on the Ukrainian political scene. He founded his own party, the New Forces Movement, and took a strongly critical stance against the old ally.

This climate of growing tension has led to the recent events – the withdrawal of citizenship when Saaakashvili was overseas, the pressures on his brother (also resident in Ukraine), the threats of extradition to Georgia, and a wild return to Ukraine across the border with Poland. On September 10th, the former Georgian president, driven by a large crowd of supporters (including important political figures such as Yulia Tymoshenko and other members of Parliament), managed to force the Polish-Ukrainian border and get back into the country . The following day, he launched his new national campaign against the government, starting – this time, explicitly – his bid for the presidential elections of 2019.

A political affair?

Despite his reputation as a reformist and his strong media presence, however, Saakashvili does not seem to be a credible challenger for the upcoming presidential elections. His popularity with the public is rather limited , and his party does not seem to have enough support to bother the political forces sitting in Parliament. However, Poroshenko's popularity has also been undergoing massive oscillations and, as emphasised by Maxim Eristavi, founder of Hromadske International, "Poroshenko's insistence on the country's need for European integration or the Russian aggression against Ukraine no longer exerts the same effect as before" on the population, increasingly tired of corruption and the "suffocating reality of the state dominated by the oligarchs".

For this very reason, in the past few months, Poroshenko seems to have been playing ahead of the game and started a long election campaign for the presidential elections of 2019, intensifying not only his public appearances, but also the personal struggle against those who may be able to obscure his figure – for example Andriy Sadovyi, mayor of Lviv and until recently one of Ukraine's most popular politicians. His popularity went down in conjunction with the outbreak of a waste scandal in his city. Although the crisis – that saw Lviv literally flooded with waste – was followed by the usual buck passing between the local and national government, it was probably not by chance that the problem emerged right after Sadovyi's party abandoned the government coalition in an open rift with the president and prime minister .

The centralisation of power

More generally, it is more and more apparent that, in his attempt to hold on to power, Poroshenko has firmly placed his bet on his friends. Current Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman has always been considered Poroshenko's man, while the post of General Prosecutor is held by another great ally of his, Yuri Lutsenko.

Furthermore, the president is being increasingly accused of slowing down the fight against corruption to protect himself and some of his party's members. According to some, for example, Poroshenko intentionally let the creation of the Special Anti-Corruption Tribunal sink, which was prescribed not only by a constitutional law of 2016, but also by the memorandum signed by Ukraine with the IMF. But there is more. The ongoing pressures of the General Prosecutor's Office on the National Anti-Corruption Bureau look like a clear attempt to reduce the autonomy and slow down the work of one of the country's few independent bodies, that also enjoys strong support by the international community.

It is obvious that Saakashvili's affair fits into a much wider picture. On the one hand, the whole citizenship deal highlights the poor progress in the formation of an independent judiciary system. On the other hand, his illegal return to Ukraine and his fierce campaign against the president affects domestic politics, but also puts an international spotlight on many other events that undermine the country's credibility abroad. In this regard, Saakashvili can count on important personal ties with the American political world. Perhaps this is why the reaction of the Ukrainian authorities to the flagrant violation of the border by the former Georgian president was very mild – for now – and limited to a fine . Although speculations on a new revolution appear to be completely out of place, Ukraine can expect another quite a hot autumn in its domestic politics.

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