Caught in a surreal bubble of statelessness, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has pledged to return to Ukraine from his forced exile in New York and take on those who have tried to get rid of him. But first, he needs to figure out his legal status. And that could prove an even bigger fight.
On July 26, Ukraine canceled the last citizenship that Saakashvili had. Its border boss has said he won’t be allowed back into the country. And even if he does manage it, he may be extradited to Georgia, the country’s prosecutor general has underlined.
In Saakashvili’s native Georgia, where he has been wanted on criminal charges since 2014, the government has stated it may seek Saakashvili’s extradition from the US.
Saakashvili himself insists that none of this is going to happen. He is currently in the US on a business visa valid until the end of the year. He says he will go back to Ukraine, reunite with his political party, Movement of New Forces, and sweep oligarchs and corruption out of Ukrainian politics.
Georgia, he predicts, cannot throw a spanner in the works.
In a Skype conference call with Ukrainian journalists on August 1, he claimed that nobody in the US takes the Georgian government’s charges against him seriously. “When I shook hands with President Obama, he did not grab my wrist and say ‘Gotcha! I’m now going to hand you over to Georgia,’” he recounted.
Still, Georgian Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani has said that her office may request the US government to hand over Saakashvili, “if he takes residence in the United States.” Saakashvili faces charges of alleged abuse of power, embezzlement and use of excessive force during his 2004-2013 term as president.
Yet the US readily complying with such a request from Tbilisi does not seem too likely. For starters, there is no extradition treaty between the US and Georgia.
“The Supreme Court has been very clear in the United States that a person, citizen or not, cannot be extradited if there is no extradition treaty,” commented Bruce Maloy, an adjunct professor at Atlanta’s Emory University School of Law, and a specialist in transnational crime.
That said, the 2003 UN Corruption Convention, to which both the US and Georgia are signatories, can, technically, serve as a substitute for an extradition treaty, said Maloy. “But I am not aware of any case when the US has done that,” he added.
The US government has not commented publicly about the Saakashvili charges, but concerns have previously been expressed about the potential politicization of Georgia’s prosecutions of former Saakashvili-era officials.
Saakashvili and his supporters describe the charges against the ex-president as a political vendetta by former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the current ruling Georgian Dream, and the man widely believed to be still running the government.
But even if extradition is not in the cards, that does not simplify matters for Saakashvili.
He could seek political asylum in the US, but, so far, he insists that he will not do that.
In any case, a UNHCR guide notes that US courts “have consistently found that statelessness is not an independent ground for establishing eligibility to receive the protection of asylum.” (The US is not a signatory to the 1954 UN Convention Relating to Stateless Persons or the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.)
A “well-founded fear of persecution” in the country of their “last habitual residence,” however, could qualify a person for US asylum, according to UNHCR.
Many in Ukraine condemn the cancellation of Saakashvili’s citizenship as President Petro Poroshenko’s attempt to get rid of an ally-turned-critic. The government just points to his failure to mention on his citizenship application that he was under investigation in Georgia.
Saakashvili counters that his signature was forged on the application papers cited as the reason for revoking his citizenship, and plans to petition a Ukrainian court to restore it.
If denied, he’ll take his case to the European Court of Human Rights, the enforcement arm of the Council of Europe, the continent’s supranational institution for human rights. Ukraine is part of the Council of Europe, which bars its members from leaving their citizens stateless.
But getting a response from the European Court could be a drawn-out process.
If all these avenues prove fruitless once Saakashvili’s US visa expires, he could, in theory, find himself subject to deportation – as was the case for another stateless man from Saakashvili’s native Caucasus region.
But with no citizenship, there is no place to which Saakashvili can be deported.
That would leave him in limbo.
Seen from Eurasia, the whole situation is starting to resemble that of a character from the popular 1970s Soviet-Italian comedy, "The Unbelievable Adventure of Italians in Russia." His passport stolen en route to Moscow, an Italian doctor on the hunt for hidden riches had no choice but to keep flying back and forth between Italy and the Soviet Union.
That, at least, is not in the cards for Saakashvili.