After two weeks of turmoil, the situation surrounding Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have calmed. On 12 December, the police released the former Georgian President and leader of the Ukrainian opposition Movement of New Forces party, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was detained late on 8 December, after Ukrainian security forces failed several times to arrest him on charges of being a member of a Russia-based organised crime group. Ukrainian prosecutors´ request to place Saakashvili under house arrest pending trial was turned down by a judge at the hearing on 11 December. According to the opposition leader, the judge´s ruling shows that ‘’not everything is lost in Ukraine.’’ Furthermore, he said that he aims to continue his activities to advance ‘’constitutional, calm, but very necessary transfer of power in the country.’’ In addition, the opposition leader said he has no ambitions to become Ukraine´s new president himself, as that person has to be an ethnic Ukrainian. Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko said he plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.
The whole series of incidents began on 5 December, when security forces tried to arrest Saakashvili on the rooftop of his apartment in Kyiv´s busy centre in broad daylight. Standing on the roof, the opposition leader insulted President Petro Poroshenko and urged the crowd gathered at the front of his apartment building to prevent his arrest, as the police tried to seize him. The security forces temporarily seized Saakashvili, but could not detain him, because his supporters blocked the street. In this way, Saakashvili was able to escape from the squad car. The U.S. Embassy and the European Mission in Kyiv called on all sides to de-escalate the situation.
On 6 December, the police raided a protest camp of Saakashvili’s supporters, which was set up outside the parliament some days earlier, in a new attempt to arrest the opposition leader, who went to the camp following the rooftop raid the day before. Again the security forces failed to arrest him, after the police clashed with Saakashvili’s supporters.
Charges against Saakashvili
The authorities accuse Saakashvili of being a member of a Russia-based ‘’organised crime’’ group allegedly led by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February 2014 after massive protests, following his decision to withdraw from a landmark deal with the EU. According to the Ukrainian prosecutors, Saakashvili accepted money from allies close to the pro-Russian Yanukovych. Evidence of this is an alleged wiretapped conversation between the opposition leader and Serhiy Kurchenko, a billionaire ally of Yanukovych. Furthermore, the government suggests the protests led by Saakashvili are part of a Russian plot against Ukraine. According to Poroshenko, Saakashvili’s actions of the last few weeks were aimed at destabilising the war-torn country. Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said that the ‘’sensational charges levelled against Mikheil Saakashvili by the Ukrainian procuracy [prosecutors] have the potential to reshuffle the entire political deck in Ukraine.’’ He argues that if the charges are true, Saakashvili’s political career will soon come to an end. However, ‘’if the case breaks down, it will usher in new elections as there will be no confidence domestically and internationally in the current authorities.’’
Attempt to eliminate the opposition?
Meanwhile, Saakashvili denies all charges against him, calling his arrest ‘the best gift Vladimir Putin could ever get.’’ The opposition leader, who became governor of the notoriously corrupt southern region of Odesa in 2015, but resigned in 2016 because (in his view) Poroshenko blocked his reform efforts, said that corruption is a bigger enemy than Russia. The U.S. State Department also expressed its concerns regarding Ukraine’s commitment to fight corruption, as the independent National Anticorruption Agency (NABU) finds itself in a bitter confrontation with the Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU), both headed by presidential appointees.
Saakashvili claims that Poroshenko in fact wants to eliminate him as a political opponent. He calls the evidence regarding the alleged wiretapped conversation with Kurchenko ‘’fake.’’ He also claims his Ukrainian rivals would like to extradite him to Georgia, where the former President (incumbent during the short war against Russia over the two breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008) also faces criminal charges – ‘’politically motived ones’’ as well, according to him.
Saakashvili is not alone in his fight against Poroshenko. Former Prime Minister and opposition leader of Fatherland party, Yulia Tymoshenko, who also attended the hearing on 11 December, supports Saakashvili. ‘’You are jailing your opponents - the way Yanukovych did. Keep in mind how it all ended,’’ she warned Poroshenko.
Or personal feud?
Since Saakashvili’s return to Ukraine in September, the leader of Movement of New Forces party has been calling for early parliamentary and presidential elections (which are currently scheduled for 2019). His message is mainly anti-Poroshenko. Two days before the rooftop raid, Saakashvili’s party organised a mass rally in Kyiv, demanding the impeachment of Poroshenko, who was Saakashvili’s one-time patron. While this might be alarming for the President, Poroshenko is still quite popular among the Ukrainians, unlike Saakashvili. For months opinion polls have shown the opposition leader’s popularity between 1-2 per cent. However, this changed when the authorities stripped Saakashvili’s citizenship without a clear justification in July and Saakashvili re-entered the country by breaking through a guard post with some aid of his supporters at the Ukrainian-Polish border. The dramatic events of the last few weeks contributed to Saakashvili’s increased support as well, which was also showed by mass protests attended by thousands of people, demanding the release of Saakashvili. ‘’Everybody would have forgotten Saakashvili. Nobody was really paying attention to his words. Then after this, he was quoted in all international media,’’ said political analyst Taras Berezovets. Hence, some people believe the clash between the government and Saakashvili is mainly a personal feud. ‘’This seems like a personal rivalry... a battle of egos (…) It's kind of similar to Yanukovych and [former Prime Minister and eventually failed presidential candidate Yulia] Tymoshenko,’’ said deputy director at the Kyiv-based think tank New Europe Centre, Kateryna Zarembo.
Michael Bociurkiw, a former Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) spokesman, said that the events brought Ukraine to a dangerous point. ‘’With the extreme actions this past week taken by the Poroshenko administration, it appears that Ukraine has reached a dangerous pivot point. The wins and joy of the last Maidan have been thwarted by powerful, corrupt forces, and Poroshenko is showing himself to be the weaker side.’’