Saakashvili Recaptured, For Now
Arrested, broke free, arrested again -- the spectacle around ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Ukraine seems straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. Following a surreal game of cat and mouse with Ukrainian police, it was ultimately the common cold that got him.
After a few near-captures on charges of allegedly assisting a criminal organization, the elusive Saakashvili was eventually cornered in Kyiv late on December 8 at a friend’s apartment, where he had retreated to recover from a cold and fever.
Before that, Ukrainian special-forces police chased him to the rooftop of his apartment building in the Ukrainian capital, but, after catching him, managed to lose him while trying to drive him away in a police van. Then, the police reportedly tried to pull him out of a tent pitched by protesters in front of parliament, but to no avail. Aided by supporters, Saakashvili fought off his pursuers and presided over an anti-government rally outside the Ukrainian parliament.
The pursuit took a particularly farcical turn when the Ukrainian authorities announced a manhunt for Saakashvili while he was standing in plain sight of the police and vowing to bring down Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s government. The prosecutor’s office set up a hotline for citizens to report sightings of Saakashvili, even though Ukrainian parliament-members could clock him from their office windows as supporters and sympathizers set up camp outside.
Now, his supporters have gathered in front of the National Security Service building, where Saakashvili, the 49-year-old leader of the opposition Movement of New Forces, is being held on charges of colluding with Ukraine’s enemies to overthrow Poroshenko’s government. He faces a potential prison sentence of three to five years.
Perhaps to avoid a heads-on confrontation, prosecutors said they would ask for a court order to put Saakashvili under house arrest with a tracking wristband pending a full trial.
From his captivity, Saakashvili called on Ukrainians to march peacefully in Kyiv on December 10 to demand the impeachment of Poroshenko. Saakashvili accuses Poroshenko, a friend-turned-foe, of presiding over a hopelessly kleptocratic regime and fabricating the charges against him. In protest, he has announced a non-stop hunger strike.
Being a prisoner is a first for Saakashvili, who through his vivacious career has been everything from a president to a governor to a stateless man. To recap his waxing-and-waning fortunes: Saakashvili was declared a political has-been after being pushed out of power in Georgia, but in 2015 he reappeared in Ukraine as a governor of Odessa Oblast; an appointment that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko must now be regretting as the worst decision of his life.
As their relations soured, Poroshenko tried to cold-shoulder his onetime buddy out of politics. The president stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship in July, while the newly turned opposition leader was out of the country. But, come September, with press and Facebook Live in tow, Saakashvili made a literal comeback, ramming his way back into Ukraine past resisting border guards.
For all the attempts to retire him from news and politics, his dramatic reappearances – most recently, on the roof of a building in Kyiv while pursued by police – are turning into a news-and-entertainment genre of their own.
The chase to catch him and the bizarre scene of Saakashvili yelling denunciations of the government from a rooftop put him in the international media spotlight and inspired an endless stream of online memes in Ukraine and Georgia. Although tensions in Ukraine are taking less than an entertaining turn, there is a robust dose of online comedy that features Misha fixing a TV antenna on a roof, wearing a Batman costume or standing right behind a search team.
Given their earlier experience, chances are that Ukrainian law enforcement sees him as a bit of a Houdini, too. Police in riot gear blocking the entrances to the Security Services building easily outnumbered the handful of protesters gathered outside to barricade the structure and oppose Saakashvili’s arrest.
In General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko’s telling, though, the show of force was just about avoiding bloodshed.