Saakashvili doesn’t want state job, but ready to help Zelenskiy
Mikheil Saakashvili, one of the most polarizing figures in global politics, is back in Ukraine.
The former Georgian president and Odesa Oblast governor arrived at Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport from Poland on May 29, a day after Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, restored his Ukrainian citizenship.
Saakashvili has no interest in receiving a government job or running for parliament, the politician said shortly after his arrival. But he is ready to advise and help Zelenskiy’s team and candidates running for parliament.
After returning to Ukraine, Saakashvili praised Zelenskiy’s election as a new chance for reforms in Ukraine. He said he stood ready take part in “building a new Ukraine.”
“The people of Ukraine voted for the dismantlement of the oligarchic system and of the kleptocratic government,” Saakashvili said.
But analysts argue that Zelenskiy may be reluctant to give the former Georgian leader a specific role. After all, in the past, Saakashvili has proven ready to become a critic of the administration he worked for.
Georgian to Ukrainian
During his presidency from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili spearheaded law enforcement and economic reforms in Georgia that won him accolades in the West. To supporters, he was a dedicated and effective fighter against corruption.
In 2014, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko invited the former Georgian president to work his magic in Ukraine. He granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship and appointed him governor of corruption-ridden Odesa Oblast in 2015.
Then, in 2016, he resigned from the governorship, accusing Poroshenko of stalling reforms and supporting corruption in Odesa Oblast.
That was the end of Saakashvili’s alliance with Poroshenko. The two men would become political enemies, and Saakashvili would be one of the Ukrainian president’s most vocal critics.
In 2017, Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship while he was out of the country. The former Georgian president has called that move illegal (at the time, Saakashvili had no other citizenship) and political reprisal.
On Sept. 10, 2017, Saakashvili returned to Ukraine by breaking through the Polish border, accompanied by a crowd of supporters. He went on to organize protests against Poroshenko in late 2017 and early 2018.
In response, Ukrainian authorities opened a criminal case against Saakashvili and deported him from Ukraine without a court order in February 2018. Under Ukrainian law, deportation without a court order is illegal.
After returning to Ukraine, Saakashvili said he had not negotiated for the restoration of his citizenship or a job with Zelenskiy’s team.
He said that he did not intend to become prime minister or to get a top law enforcement job. Ukraine needs a “young Ukrainian prime minister,” he said. “I’m not here for any positions, I'm not looking for any positions.”
However, Saakashvili said that he was ready to select and help a new generation of government leaders in Ukraine and create a “platform for ideas.”
“I will help in every way to replace the political class in Ukraine and the kleptocrats who have robbed Ukraine,” he added.
But that hasn’t stopped people from speculating. “The best line so far I have heard is for Zelenskiy to appoint Saakashvili as the new prosecutor general,” British analyst Timothy Ash wrote on May 28.
“This would surely put the fear of God into Ukraine's oligarchic and political class — and particularly former President Poroshenko and his supporters, given there is much ‘unfinished business’ between Poroshenko and Saakashvili given the former gave and then took away Saakashvili's citizenship and then deported him,” Ash continued. “Appointing (Saakashvili) would be hugely popular from a domestic political perspective given the demand for meaningful reform to address the anti-corruption agenda — and Saakashvili already delivered therein as president of Georgia.”
However, “the obvious negative with Saakashvili is his whirlwind/ loose cannon reputation, which could ultimately come back to haunt Zelenskiy and his friends,” Ash added.
But Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told the Kyiv Post that Saakashvili was unlikely to get any government job.
“Zelenskiy’s team understands the risks of appointing Saakashvili to important jobs,” Fesenko said, noting that Saakashvili could easily turn from an ally of Zelenskiy into a critic and competitor. “They righted a wrong (by restoring Saakashvili’s citizenship) but they won’t go further.”
Saakashvili also said he would not run in the July 21 early parliamentary election, but would help other candidates, including representatives of his Movement of New Forces party.
David Sakvarelidze, one of the party’s leaders, said on May 29 that it would take part in the Verkhovna Rada election. But its likelihood of success is far from certain.
Fesenko argued that the party’s chances in the election were limited. For his part, Sakvarelidze told the Kyiv Post that it could pass the minimum 5 percent threshold to make it into parliament.
The Movement of New Forces had a 2.4 percent rating after Saakashvili’s deportation in February 2018 and
was not included in Rating Group’s recent poll.
Sakvarelidze said that the Movement of New Forces was not in talks on placing its candidates on Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party’s list in the election.
Political analyst Oleksiy Minakov wrote on Facebook on May 28 that Saakashvili’s return was beneficial for Zelenskiy because he would attack Poroshenko and his party in the run-up to the parliamentary election.
After arriving in Ukraine, Saakashvili thanked Zelenskiy for restoring his citizenship and lavished praise on him. He called Zelenskiy’s presidential campaign and his governing style political “rock-and-roll” and said that “this president will surprise many people in the good sense.”
“President Zelenskiy showed that he’s capable of brave and fast decisions and that he’s an independent politician who doesn’t listen to anyone,” Saakashvili said.
He added that “a lot of people wouldn’t want to see me in Ukraine” — a possible reference to Poroshenko, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko and oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. All four have clashed with Saakashvili.
“I did not come here to take revenge on anyone, punish anyone or destroy anything,” he said. “I came back here to do what I’ve always been best at doing: to build. To do what they blocked me from doing in Odesa.”
He also argued that the whole political class, including Avakov and Lutsenko, would soon be replaced.
Saakashvili still faces a criminal case opened during his conflict with Poroshenko.
In December 2017, the Prosecutor General’s Office arrested Saakashvili and charged him with complicity in fugitive tycoon Serhiy Kurchenko’s criminal group for allegedly receiving money from the businessman to finance protests against Poroshenko.
The prosecutors’ alleged evidence against Saakashvili was dismissed by independent lawyers as weak, and he was released from custody by Pechersk Court Judge Larysa Tsokol. She ruled that Saakashvili’s detention by the Security Service of Ukraine without a court warrant and any other legal grounds was unlawful.
Prosecutor Kostyantyn Kulik, who was in charge of the case, told the Kyiv Post that Poroshenko had interfered in the Saakashvili case and tried to order prosecutors to investigate and arrest allies of the former Georgian president. Poroshenko’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
When asked about the case, Lutsenko wrote on Facebook on May 28 that he still considered Saakashvili a “traitor.” Saakashvili said that he couldn’t take Lutsenko’s statements seriously.
Fesenko said the Saakashvili case would likely be dropped under Zelenskiy. “I think nobody will push this case, although they might keep it in case they need it in the future,” he added. ■
Former Georgian leader and ex-Odesa Oblast governor Mikheil Saakashvili is greeted by his supporters after arriving at Kyiv's Boryspil airport on May 29, 2019. He came back to Ukraine for the first time since Ukrainian authorities deported him without a court order in 2018. (Volodymyr Petrov)
Ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili poses for a photo after arriving in Ukraine on May 29, 2019. He returned to Kyiv after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy restored his Ukrainian citizenship. (Volodymyr Petrov)