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.”

Op­po­si­tion strat­egy

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.

Right tim­ing

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.

Tem­po­rary al­liance

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.

Author­i­ties’ re­ac­tion

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)

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