Showman Saakashvili seeks to unite Poroshenko opposition
By breaking through the Polish-Ukrainian border on Sept. 10, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili put himself and his supporters at the risk of a crackdown by the authorities.
But he has also helped unite opposition to President Petro Poroshenko as the incumbent seeks re-election to another five-year term in 2019.
Saakashvili’s dramatic re-entry into Ukraine will boost his popularity and contribute to an already volatile political situation, which the experienced showman will use to his benefit.
By stripping Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship in July, taking back what he had given two years ago, Poroshenko may have made one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency.
From the perspective of competence, it surely didn't look good when Ukraine's border guards could not stop Saakashvili and his sup- porters from marching into Ukraine triumphantly.
Poroshenko, already unpopular because people believe he is obstructing reforms and keeping the oligarchy in place, doesn't have that much further to fall in his rating.
“Whatever Poroshenko does, it will backfire,” said Balazs Jarabik, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He has opened a Pandora’s box.”
If Poroshenko orders the arrest of Saakashvili, this will resemble his predecessor Viktor Yanukovych’s lawless imprisonment of political opponents Yulia Tymoshenko, now a member of parliament, and Yuriy Lutsenko, now the prosecutor general.
But if Poroshenko allows Saakashvili to campaign against him, he will look like a weak president — something that he does not want ahead of the 2019 presidential election.
“It turned out that the emperor is naked, and they are very weak and have no power,” Saakashvili said at a rally in the southwestern city of Chernivtsi on Sept. 13. “He has imitated reforming the country, being a military leader and having power. If he had power, I wouldn’t be standing here.”
Poroshenko lashed out at Saakashvili on Sept. 11, calling him a “criminal” and saying that he does not care “who breaks the state border: fighters in the east, or politicians in the west” and that “there should be direct legal accountability.”
When Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship in July, he argued that the former Georgian president had submitted incorrect information when applying for citizenship in 2015. Saakashvili believes the move to be illegal and unconstitutional. As a stateless permanent
resident of Ukraine, he has the right to enter the country without a visa under the law, his lawyers argue.
Ukrainian authorities have so far refused to give Saakashvili documents on the loss of his citizenship, or specify the legal grounds for its withdrawal.
Saakashvili’s breakthrough through the border with Poland and arrival in Lviv on Sept. 10 followed repeated attempts by the authorities to deny him entry, first citing allegedly invalid documents, and then a bomb threat at a border checkpoint.
On Sept. 13, Saakashvili started a tour around Ukraine by holding a rally in Chernivtsi. He is planning to visit all major Ukrainian cities before coming to Kyiv — possibly on Sept. 19 — to mobilize the protest electorate.
“Poroshenko wanted to deprive me of the opportunity to talk to you,” Saakashvili told his supporters in Chernivtsi. “He failed to do that because the Ukrainian people once again showed that the plans of oligarchs or any president to usurp power and establish arbitrary rule again will fail. This is not Russia.”
The main strategy for the opposition will be to unite the protest electorate and try to organize mass demonstrations in Kyiv, political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said in a column for the Novoye Vremya magazine.
One worrying trend for the authorities is the participation of volunteer battalion fighters in the Saakashvili-led movement. With disenchanted veterans returning from the war front in Ukraine’s east with battle experience and weapons, the political situation could get out of control.
About 100 uniformed, though unarmed, Donbas battalion fighters protected Saakashvili in Lviv when he arrived from the border.
Semen Semenchenko, the battalion’s founder, told the Kyiv Post that his battalion was protecting public order in Lviv instead of the police and the Security Service of Ukraine and was ready to “kick the *ss of those who want to turn the Ukrainian people into silent cattle.”
Saakashvili has been pushing for early parliamentary elections, hinted on Sept. 12 that early presidential elections could also be discussed during his tour around the country and called for passing a law regulating presidential impeachment. But snap parliamentary or presidential elections are not the best option even for the pro-Saakashvili alliance, analysts say. Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy and his Samopomich party have lost much of their popularity due to a scandal about garbage disposal in Lviv that the mayor believes was orchestrated by Poroshenko.
A poll conducted by the Rating agency in June showed that Poroshenko’s Solidarnist party had an 11.3 per- cent approval rating. Saakashvili’s Movement of New Forces polled at 2.2 percent.
Both Poroshenko and Saakashvili had 18 percent approval ratings, according to an International Republican Institute poll released in June. Poroshenko’s disapproval rating stood at 76 percent, while that of Saakashvili equaled 69 percent.
Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, said that the rating of Saakashvili’s party could increase to 5 percent — the threshold for entering parliament.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko’s rating is likely to drop, given that Saakashvili’s breakthrough into Ukraine “showed that the authorities don’t control the situation in the country,” Bekeshkina said.
Saakashvili has been backed by Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy and Batkivshchyna party leader Yulia Tymoshenko and held negotiations with them in Lviv after returning to Ukraine.
Tymoshenko is the most popular but also the most questionable participant of the new alliance around Saakashvili.
When trying to portray himself as the leader of a new generation of politicians, Saakashvili risks being criticized for siding with Tymoshenko, who has a controversial reputation and has been prime minister twice. However, Tymoshenko and Saakashvili have hinted that they were not planning to unite into a single political bloc.
“This is a temporary alliance because their parties will compete in parliamentary elections,” Bekeshkina said.
As an experienced politician, Tymoshenko will try to benefit from this alliance to undermine Poroshenko’s popularity, she added.
The authorities have responded to Saakashvili’s actions by opening administrative and criminal cases against him and his supporters for crossing the border. The ex-Georgian president views them as political repression.
Saakashvili says that the crossing of the border without passing border controls is an administrative offense, not a crime, under Ukrainian law and that he had already passed the Polish checkpoint by the time he was carried by protesters through the Ukrainian one. He also argues that the crossing of the border “in cases of extreme necessity” — such as a bomb threat — without passing border controls is legal under Ukrainian law.
Saakashvili’s ally David Sakvarelidze was charged on Sept. 14 with illegally transporting people through the border and resisting law enforcement officers.
Two Saakashvili supporters were arrested by a Lviv court on Sept. 13 to Sept. 14. Valeria Kolomiyets, a lawyer for Saakashvili supporters, said that eight more pro-Saakashvili activists had been illegally detained by the police all over Ukraine and are currently witnesses in criminal cases. The police could not comment on the accusations.
Saakashvili supporters are accused of illegally transporting people through the border, resisting law enforcement officers, using violence against law enforcement officers, and disturbing the peace.
“They just approach them and push them into their cars,” Kolomiyets said. “They don’t present themselves, don’t give them any summons and don’t explain the charges against them.”
Ukraine’s Justice Ministry is also considering Georgia’s recent extradition request for Saakashvili, although Deputy Justice Minister Denys Chernyshov said on Sept. 13 that the ministry could make a decision on the issue only after a Tbilisi court convicts him.
Fesenko said that the best option for Poroshenko would be “local, targeted and flexible actions” to destroy the coalition led by Saakashvili.
With Saakashvili himself, the authorities will take some time “until the emotions fade,” the expert said.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili marches into Ukrainian territory after his supporters help him cross the border from Poland in Shyheni on Sept. 10. (Volodymyr Petrov)