He’s rammed his way across an international border, rallied cheering supporters and vowed to bring down oligarchs -- that indefatigable post-Soviet revolutionary, Mikheil Saakashvili, is back in action.
After inserting himself back into Ukraine on September 10 and setting up shop in a luxury hotel in the western city of Lviv, the 49-year-old former Georgian president and Ukrainian regional boss is now giving fiery speeches, getting visits from allies (and also, the police) and preparing for the next battle in his transnational odyssey.
“Lviv has a long tradition of sheltering the persecuted,” Saakashvili (known in Ukraine, as in Georgia, as Misha) said in a live broadcast on September 12, referring to the city’s history as a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism.
Upon Saakashvili’s arrival on September 10, Lviv’s Mayor Andriy Sadovyi welcomed him to town and the two shared dinner. “We all have been wondering today when Saakashvili was going to arrive . . .he has had a hard day today,” the mayor, wearing a vyshyvanka, a traditional embroidered shirt, commented to journalists.
He was not the only one. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s purported attempts to keep his ally-turned-foe out of the country by stripping him of Ukrainian citizenship have clearly fallen flat.
Border police showed up at Lviv’s Leopolis Hotel on September 12 to present Saakashvili with a notice about violating Ukraine’s border-crossing procedure. Ukrainian General Prosecutor Yuri Lutsenko called for charging Saakashvili with illegal border-crossing, an offense with a penalty of up to 8,500 hryvnas ($330). A court in Lviv will hear the case on September 18.
Two of Saakashvili’s supporters, who provided a human shield around him to bring him across the Ukrainian-Polish border, have been arrested for not complying with police orders.
Saakashvili claims police made off with his Ukrainian passport, which, he says, he left on the bus that brought him to the Ukrainian border from Poland. Ukrainian border personnel earlier had refused to take it, he alleges.
He maintains that President Poroshenko violated Ukrainian law by stripping him of his citizenship and supposedly trying to prevent him from coming back to appeal the decision in court. In his September 12 news conference, Saakashvili pledged to get rid of Poroshenko and his alleged coterie of oligarchs.
Faced with a war against Russian-backed rebels in the eastern end of the country and mounting public discontent with his rule elsewhere, Poroshenko appears reluctant to use force against Saakashvili, who goes about with a crowd of supporters, including volunteer fighters from the Donbass Battalion.
The Ukrainian leader described Saakashvili’s homecoming as a criminal act. “I don’t care who is violating state borders -- rebels in the east or unscrupulous politicians in the west -- there should be a clear legal punishment for it,” Poroshenko said.
Back in Georgia, longtime Saakashvili watchers have a feeling that they’ve seen this situation before.
In 2000, then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze appointed Saakashvili, a young and energetic MP and graduate of Columbia Law School, as justice minister. Accusing Shevardnadze of having no real intention of pulling the country out of a morass of corruption, Saakashvili ended up chasing his former patron out of power in 2003 during the Rose Revolution and became Georgia’s third president.
Fighting corruption was his ticket into Ukrainian national politics, too.
In 2015, Poroshenko, a former university classmate, appointed Saakashvili governor of Odessa to stomp out massive corruption there. As he had Shevardnadze, Saakashvili accused Poroshenko of stalling much-promised reforms and moved over to the opposition.
The parallel appears to have occurred to Saakashvili, too – in Poland, he told Georgia's Rustavi2 that both Shevardnadze and Poroshenko feared him.
He now has steamrolled through the Ukrainian border pretty much the way he stormed into the Georgian parliament in 2003 to protest falsified elections.
Ukraine, though, is far larger than Georgia, and its current challenges more complex. It will be harder for Saakashvili to emulate the Rose Revolution game-plan there. But he did succeed in leaving Poroshenko scrambling for a response.
One Ukrainian commentator reasons that Poroshenko’s best bet now is to try and play down the Saakashvili crisis, to divert attention away from it. Otherwise, he says, the president may, like Victor Yanukovych, end up losing touch with growing popular discontent.
Saakashvili, in the meantime, claims that he has no presidential ambitions.
“My goal is to bring new people to power in Ukraine, who will change this country. I’m gathering people all across Ukraine,” he told Tuesday’s Lviv press-conference.
That, too, is something his longtime observers in Georgia have heard before.