Mikheil Saakashvili: A Trojan Horse for Ukraine?

In early September Mikheil Saakashvili, ex-President of Georgia, broke into top news in Ukraine and abroad. For over two years Mr Saakashvili, once considered the architect of the Georgian revolution also known as the Revolution of Roses, has been attempting to start his political career anew – now in Ukraine. He is trying to accomplish that by bombarding the positions of the incumbent Ukrainian authorities.

“We are joining the civic initiative and meet in Kyiv on Oct. 17 to put forward three demands to the government: to create anti-corruption courts, to abolish deputies’ immunity and to adopt new election legislature”, wrote Mr Saakashvili on his Facebook page. Further demands, he then added, would be formulated while he’s on his regional tour over Ukraine.

Political experts, however, are sceptical about his electoral chances. Recent polls held by various Ukrainian polling companies give support of 1% to 1.9% for his political movement in Ukraine.

“Saakashvili thinks this is his dramatic return to Ukrainian politics but he is just making himself a ping pong ball for Ukrainian factions”, says Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer at King’s College, London.

So why is Mr Saakashvili so eager to get entrenched in Ukraine? To understand, first we need to revive in memory milestones of his staying in Ukraine.

Dec. 2013 Saakashvili came to Kyiv to support Euromaidan, protests in support of EU-Ukraine Association Agreement that soon grew into a revolution that resulted in Mr Yanukovich, the then President to flee the country in Feb. 2014.

In Dec. 2014, Mr Saakashvili was offered a position of the First Vice-PM which he refused to take not wishing to lose his Georgian citizenship. In Feb. 2015, President Poroshenko of Ukraine made him his advisor on reforms, and in May 2015 Mr Saaskashvili applied and was granted citizenship to become the Governor in Odessa region, half the size of Mr Saakashvili’s native Georgia.

As the governor from May 2015 to Nov. 2016 Mr. Saakashvili, however, failed to demonstrate results comparable to what his team had achieved in Georgia. His tenure was remembered mostly by bombastic statements and much of PR activity.

Meanwhile in Georgia, in 2014, Mr Saakashvili faced a number of criminal charges on four accusations that accumulate in potential 11 years of imprisonment. Georgian authorities have contacted Kyiv three times for extradition of Mr Saakashvili to Georgia. While applying for the Ukrainian passport he failed to mention problems with prosecution he had in Georgia. So when the accusations became known Ukraine’s Migration Office terminated his citizenship.

Mr Saakashvili was quick to claim he would immediately challenge the decision in court. Instead, on Sept. 10 he, along with supporters and deputies (Yulia Tymoshenko among others) broke the Ukrainian-Polish border to enter without any due procedures observed. Pictures of this breakthrough flooded into the world media.

Vitaly Portnikov, a popular Ukrainian columnist, saw a flagrant breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty in Saakashvili’s actions. Some noted similarity with 2014 when the so-called “little green men”, a euphemism used for Russian troops without insignia invaded into Ukraine.

“The border and how you cross it is a state matter. I don’t care who breached the border –either it is Russia-backed fighters in the East, or politicians in the West. All must bear responsibility”, said President Poroshenko in his reaction to the incident.

So what challenges has Mr Saakashvili created and, more importantly, cui prodest?

Media reporters suggest that in his return into Ukraine Mr Saakashvili may have been assisted by Ihor Kolomoysky, a Ukrainian tycoon with estimated fortune of over $1 bln. as of 2016. Media claims Mr Kolomoysky might even bribe some border guards and policemen not to intervene.

Sources of Ukrainska Pravda, one of the largest online media, tell that several days before he entered Ukraine Mr Saakashvili met Mr Kolomoysky in Geneva.

Journalists believe the new alliance of Mr Saakashvili, Mr Kolomoysky and Ms Timoshenko is a counter-attack on President Poroshenko’s anti-corruption and ‘de-oligarchization’ efforts that included, among other things, the nationalization of Privatbank, the biggest bank in Ukraine owned by Mr Kolomoysky. Ms Tymoshenko having a small fraction in the Parliament would like Mr Saakashvili to shatter the situation in the country for fresh elections to be held.

Political experts also notice that, in addition to Ukraine’s politicians, Mr Saakashvili is being vigorously utilized by Kremlin in its ongoing hybrid war. It seems far-fetched a theory that Russia could be directly involved in the scandalous comeback of Mr Saakashvili, though without a hint of doubt it is putting the story to its use to deepen political controversies within Ukraine and discredit Ukrainian authorities abroad.

The Saakashvili saga looks embarrassing for Ukraine even now.

“It’s one of the questions when sometimes you make an issue where there was no issue before. I think that stripping the citizenship that was done probably created an image problem for Ukraine that Ukraine didn’t have”, says Stephen Pifer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.

While Russia continues to create tensions in Eastern Ukraine and ignores the Minsk agreements, of all the things, Ukraine needs consolidation of all – from ordinary people to those in power to international partners. And for Mr Saakashvili his thirst for revenge seems to supersede any interests of Ukrainians.