Saakashvili forced out, but for how long?

Kuwait Times - - Analysis -

By de­port­ing him to Poland, Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko may have man­aged to get rid of his arch-en­emy Mikheil Saakashvili for now. But the speed and bru­tal­ity of the for­mer Geor­gian pres­i­dent and cur­rent op­po­si­tion leader’s ar­rest and ex­ile may dam­age the Ukra­nian gov­ern­ment’s re­formist im­age in the West. Putting an end to the lat­est chap­ter of a high-profile, months-long saga, Saakashvili was ar­rested Mon­day by masked men at a restau­rant in Kiev and put on a plane to Poland so quickly that his sup­port­ers did not have time to do any­thing about it.

On Tues­day, Saakashvili gave a press con­fer­ence in War­saw and said he had been blind­folded and rushed first by van, then by he­li­copter to Kiev in­ter­na­tional air­port. Saakashvili, a for­mer gover­nor of Ukraine’s Odessa re­gion, was once an ally of Poroshenko, but be­came one of his great­est foes. Kiev ac­cuses Saakashvili, 50, of try­ing to stage a coup spon­sored by al­lies of for­mer Krem­lin­backed Ukrainian pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych - a charge he strongly de­nies.

Ukraine stripped Saakashvili of his pass­port, but he none­the­less con­tin­ued to chal­lenge the gov­ern­ment, or­ga­niz­ing fre­quent protests de­mand­ing Poroshenko’s ouster. With the help of his sup­port­ers, he broke through the Pol­ish-Ukrainian bor­der in Septem­ber last year, and was briefly de­tained in De­cem­ber in Kiev.

Warn­ing to dis­si­dents

The Ukrainian au­thor­i­ties “have shown the state’s strength after Saakashvili con­stantly showed its weak­ness”, so­ci­ol­o­gist Iryna Bekeshk­ina, head of the Kievbased Demo­cratic Ini­tia­tives foun­da­tion, told AFP. For Maxim Eris­tavi, a re­search fel­low at the US-based At­lantic Coun­cil think-tank, the ar­rest and ban­ish­ment of Saakashvili serve as a “mes­sage of warn­ing” to Poroshenko’s ri­vals ahead of the May 2019 pres­i­den­tial poll. “Any dis­sent­ing voices will be ruth­lessly squashed,” he said.

Saakashvili’s party, the Move­ment of New Forces, has held ral­lies call­ing for Poroshenko’s oust­ing and ac­cused him of fail­ing to fight cor­rup­tion. But it is sup­ported by less than two per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll. Poroshenko, who came to power fol­low­ing a proEuro­pean re­volt in 2014, is widely crit­i­cized for back­slid­ing on re­forms. Bekeshk­ina said “many Ukraini­ans share the de­mands” of protests led by Saakashvili’s party.

“But Saakashvili’s per­son­al­ity a flighty, un­pre­dictable, psy­cho­log­i­cally un­sta­ble man - scares peo­ple away,” she said. Still, the bru­tal­ity of the ar­rest which saw bor­der guards push Saakashvili to the ground, in­sult­ing and pulling him by the hair, ac­cord­ing to footage posted on­line, has trig­gered strong crit­i­cism. ‘Se­lec­tive jus­tice’? Kiev’s Western al­lies may also “raise ques­tions about se­lec­tive jus­tice” in Ukraine, and the ar­rest could have a “neg­a­tive im­pact” on Poroshenko’s im­age abroad, said Sergiy Solod­kyi, deputy di­rec­tor of the Kiev-based New Europe think-tank. On Tues­day, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion said it con­tin­ues “to fol­low de­vel­op­ments re­gard­ing Saakashvili.” “We ex­pect the rule of law as well as the rights of Saakashvili to be up­held,” Com­mis­sion spokes­woman Maja Ko­ci­jan­cic said. The de­por­ta­tion of the for­mer Geor­gian pres­i­dent, who of­fi­cials said was re­sid­ing in Ukraine il­le­gally, “is likely be­ing per­ceived as re­venge” by Poroshenko, but it does not solve all his prob­lems with Saakashvili, Bekeshk­ina stressed. On Tues­day, Saakashvili said in War­saw that he was count­ing on help from his sup­port­ers to re­turn to Ukraine “to fight cor­rup­tion”. He said he planned to visit his sons in the Nether­lands, and then “go on a tour of Europe” to gain po­lit­i­cal sup­port for his cause. “Saakashvili’s ca­reer is on a steep down­ward spi­ral,” said se­nior fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil, Adrian Karat­ny­cky. “Still, given his en­ergy and charisma, he can­not be counted out in the long haul.”

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