Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in his native Georgia in 2003 when he and his supporters stormed the parliament building in Tbilisi. Now, he seems to hope that his raucous re-entry into Ukraine – his adoptive homeland that stripped him of citizenship this past July – will catalyze his return to political relevancy there.
What started out as a seeming publicity stunt now threatens to turn into a predicament that strikes at the heart of Ukrainian statehood. Saakashvili’s ability to break into Ukraine on September 10, circumventing normal passport and customs procedures, is undermining Ukrainian sovereignty, and calls into question the government’s capacity to maintain border controls and enforce laws.
Uncertainty surrounds Saakashvili’s future in Ukraine. In the evening of September 11, he was reportedly in the western city of Lviv. Earlier in the day, police announced that a criminal investigation had been opened concerning Saakashvili’s return. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov urged Saakashvili to take steps to try to legalize his entry, the Ukrinform news agency reported. Meanwhile, RFE/RL quoted Avakov as describing the September 10 events at the Medyka-Shehyni border crossing as “an attack on the state’s basic institutions.”
As of late on September 11, there had been no word of any attempt by Ukrainian authorities to take the former Georgian president and governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Region into custody in connection with the border crossing.
Saakashvili maintains that he was deprived of his Ukrainian citizenship improperly. He also insists that he is currently in Ukraine legally because his lawyer submitted appropriate documentation, RFE/RL reported.
Prior to his September 10 return to Ukraine, Saakashvili’s political fortunes had been on the ebb in recent years. His National Movement Party was swept from power in Georgia in 2012, and, after serving out his presidential term in 2013, he soon thereafter left the country. He is now wanted in Georgia on abuse-of-power charges, which he maintains are politically motivated.
Saakashvili ended up in Ukraine, and was appointed governor of Odessa in mid-2015 by his then-friend Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. But by late 2016, he resigned the governorship after largely failing to deliver on promises to tame corruption there. After being stripped of Ukrainian citizenship, he spent much of his time in Poland.
Saakashvili’s return to Ukraine was by no means a surprise. He announced his intention in advance, and made sure that there were plenty of media members on hand to cover it.
There were a few bumps in the road for Saakashvili’s return. First, the Polish train that he had planned to take to the border refused to leave the Polish city of Przemyśl. That forced Saakashvili and his followers to make their way to the Medyka-Shehyni border crossing by bus.
After making their way past the Polish border post, Saakashvili and his followers found that the Ukrainian crossing was supposedly closed, and encountered a cordon of uniformed personnel blocking the path forward.
The mood in no-man’s land soon grew tense. A crowd of Saakashvili supporters chanted “Do Domu!” (We want to go home!). Later, they sang the Ukrainian national anthem. According to eyewitness estimates, the roughly 500 or so Saakashvili supporters present at the border outnumbered Ukrainian border security personnel by about 5-to-1.
Ultimately, Ukrainian authorities appeared to lack sufficient personnel to contain the situation without resorting to force, and pro-Saakashvili supporters surged forward and were able to force their way across the border. Ukrinform reported that Avakov, the interior minister, had instructed border personnel not to use force. Ukrainian authorities reported that 12 police officers and five border guards were injured during the melee.
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist covering the post-Soviet space. Kaja Puto is a Polish journalist who writes on Eastern Europe and migration.