Disowned first by Georgia and then Ukraine, the most famous revolutionary of the post-Soviet world, Mikheil Saakashvili, now finds himself in a stateless limbo.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko revoked Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship on Wednesday, making him surely one of very few figures in the world to have been both a senior political leader and then deprived of citizenship by two separate countries. Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili terminated Saakashvili’s Georgian citizenship in 2015, when the latter took Ukrainian citizenship upon his appointment, by Poroshenko, to the post of governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region.
In a bit of a poetic touch, the news of Saakashvili’s denaturalization appears to have hit while he was in the air, on his way to the United States and, it turns out, to an uncertain next stage in his peripatetic career. “He learned about it when he was in upstate New York, where he was visiting his uncle and his cousin,” said Saakashvili’s spokesperson, Zoé Reyners.
Now in New York City, Saakashvili has a U.S. work visa that expires at the end of the year. What happens after that is unclear. “This caught all of us by surprise. He is now studying his legal options,” Reyners said.
Saakashvili himself refused to accept the loss of his Ukrainian citizenship. “I have only one citizenship, that of Ukraine and I will not be deprived of it,” he said in a videotaped statement. “I will fight for my legal right to return to Ukraine.”
This is not the first time he vowed to make a big comeback, however. Last year, Saakashvili pledged to return to his native Georgia to defeat his archfoe Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who casts a long shadow on Georgian politics. Encouraging Georgians to vote against Georgian Dream, a party loyal to Ivanishvili, Saakashvili then said that he was just a “[Black] Sea away” from Georgia. A few days later, Georgian Dream prevailed in the parliamentary elections and Saakashvili stayed in Ukraine. Now Saakashvili is an ocean away from Ukraine and has no home country to go back to.
Reactions in Ukraine and Georgia have been as mixed as opinions tend to be about the larger-than-life Saakashvili, who is variably seen as a pro-Western, corruption-busting reformer or a one-upmanship-prone loose cannon.
In Ukraine, few appear to believe the state migration service’s justification for revoking Saakashvili’s citizenship, that it was the result of Georgian authorities providing some (unspecified) documents related to a legal case against him. Saakashvili is wanted on charges of abuse of power in Georgia.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was quick to speak up for Misha, as Saakashvili is known to friends and foes alike. “Depriving Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship is part of dirty politics that the current authorities, led by President Poroshenko, use against their opponents,” said Tymoshenko, who heads the opposition Fatherland Party.
Even tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, a no friend of Saakashvili’s, said Poroshenko’s move put a stain on Ukraine’s reputation. As governor, Saakashvili accused Kolomoisky of corruption and Kolomoisky, in turn, described Saakashvili as a “dog without a muzzle that bites everyone indiscriminately.” But on Thursday, Kolomoisky criticized his rival’s expulsion. “Even more shameful is that, despite our European aspirations, this was done in the best Soviet traditions,” he said.
In Georgia, the news about his citizenship was met with gloating by his rivals and denunciation by his supporters. “Saakashvili is yesterday,” Tbilisi Mayor Davit Narmania, an Ivanishvili loyalist, told journalists. “That man is bankrupt.” In social media discussions, some described the loss of citizenship as karma for Saakashvili, who had himself deprived Ivanishvili of Georgian citizenship in 2011.
It remains unclear what prompted Poroshenko to make the move, which came shortly after his visit to Georgia. Ukraine has refused repeated Georgian requests to extradite Saakashvili, which had cast a pall on the two countries’ relations. Poroshenko visited Georgia just a week ago, and in his statement, Saakashvili accused Poroshenko of plotting the expulsion then.
“Poroshenko travelled to Georgia not in order to establish ties between the two countries, but in order to come to another agreement, this time between two oligarchic regimes, that of the Ukrainian Poroshenko and the biggest shareholder in Gazprom, the pro-Russian Ivanishvili,” Saakashvili said.
In conversations with EurasiaNet.org, sources close to Saakashvili said that they believe that Poroshenko specifically chose to revoke Saakashvili’s citizenship when he was out of the country, to make sure that extradition does not take place.
Old college buddies, Saakashvili and Poroshenko then became political allies, but their relations grew strained in recent years. The Ukrainian president hired Saakashvili, along with several other former Georgian officials, in an effort to emulate Georgia’s success in combating rampant corruption in government agencies. Before long, however, Saakashvili began accusing Poroshenko of obstructing the necessary anti-corruption reforms. He quit last year as Odessa governor and began to try to carve his own political path.
Evgen Magda, a Kyiv-based political analyst and director of the Center of Social Relationships, said that Saakashvili posed no threat to Poroshenko and his team. “By Ukrainian law, candidates for parliament and president are required to have resided in Ukraine for five and 10 years, respectively,” he said. This means that Saakashvili could not participate in the next rounds of polls in Ukraine. “That aside, he just does not have the public support to put up competition to Poroshenko and his group,” Magda told EurasiaNet.org.
Saakashvili, who has already defied repeated attempts to remove him from politics, said he will not let Poroshenko turn him into a “refugee.” While he is exploring his options, perhaps the best epitaph to his legacy in Ukraine came from rival Kolomoisky. “History will be the judge whether he was a hero or villain for Ukraine,” he said. “I personally can say that it was never boring when he was around.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist and a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.org's Tamada Tales blog.