Ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on September 10 found himself stuck in a train in Przemysl, Poland, some 45 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, after railway personnel decided that the Ukrainian-run train could not continue to Ukraine so long as “a passenger without the right to travel to Ukraine” was on it. Along with his supporters, he is continuing by bus.
“Of course, they can stop a train on Ukrainian territory, but not here. Am I a terrorist or who am I, what sort of risk do I present to the country or to these passengers?” Saakashvili fumed to TV cameras on board the train.
Giving up his attempt to cross into Ukraine after the train stopped was not an option, he said, Interpressnews reported. "I won't make such a present to [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko. I will go to the border, I will talk with the passengers and defend my right to return to Ukraine." He now is headed to the Medyka-Shehyni crossing, Ukrainian media report.
The 49-year-old Saakashvili, leader of Ukraine’s opposition Movement of New Forces, lost his Ukrainian citizenship in July after Kyiv declared that he had not stated that he is under criminal investigation in Georgia. Saakashvili counters that the claim obscures an attempt to push him out of Ukrainian politics. He announced that, come what may, he would return to Ukraine to continue his political work.
Saakashvilli blamed his political foe, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, for the train stoppage in Poland, calling it “a terrorist act.” The Ukrainian National Police has denied any involvement in the order to stop Saakashvili’s train, which travels via Lviv to the Ukrainian capital.
A live broadcast showed semi-disgruntled ordinary passengers taking their luggage off the Kyiv-bound train.
Traveling with Saakashvili are a bevy of political supporters, including former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and reported members of the European Parliament, as well as his wife, Sandra Roelofs, and 11-year-old son, Nikoloz Saakashvili.
Addressing journalists earlier, Timoshenko stated she was making the trip to “defend Ukraine” as well as Saakashvili’s right to be in Ukraine, and to stand against “authoritarianism" -- an apparent reference to the decision to scrap Saakashvili's citizenship.
Continuing that theme, Saakashvili earlier said he had decided to switch from a bus to a train for his trip to Ukraine after receiving reports of a planned “provocation” by armed thugs against his group at Krakovetsy, the Ukrainian border-point where he initially had planned to cross into Ukraine from Poland.
At Krakovetsy, earlier broadcasts showed pup tents of his supporters in fields dotted by Ukrainian flags. Other supporters were shown heading to the area with sleeping bags and large water bottles as if headed for a weekend picnic.
The footage made the potential for trouble clear, though. Twenty-five-some police in bullet-proof vests circled a group of men in camouflage shown in one shot posted on Facebook by Saakashvili’s Movement of New Forces.
Earlier TV broadcasts from Krakovetsy showed men wearing the logo of the Donbass battalion, an armed, pro-government volunteer militia group active in eastern Ukraine.
Warning of congestion, Ukrainian border police had advised against using the crossing for a few days.
Saakashvili, however, thinks that Ukraine’s precautions and concentration of police forces at Krakovetsy indicate a fear that he will rally ordinary Ukrainians to take on the state’s rampant corruption.
“Shevardnadze was afraid of me like [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko is afraid of me,” he commented to Rustavi2 before setting out on his Ukrainian trip. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned in 2003 amidst massive election-result protests that brought Saakashvili to power.
Saakashvili's Ukraine trip made plain what he's learned from that time about the importance of PR. The date and time for his attempted return to Ukraine were announced in advance. A hotline (albeit malfunctioning) existed for those wishing to attend.
He posed for a selfie with tourists en route to his Ukraine-bound bus; a café meeting with Timoshenko and European Parliament member Jacek Saryusz-Wolski before TV cameras.
And whether in Ukrainian, Russian, Georgian or English, he's got his talking points down. His return to Ukraine, he says, is not about revolution and not about him, but about civil rights.
The question is how long his supporters will believe the same.