You have to hand it to Mikheil Saakashvili: the man doesn’t give up. After a tumultuous nine years as president of Georgia, which began with a furious anti-corruption purge, culminated in a short but disastrous war with Russia in 2008 and ended with accusations of embezzlement and authoritarian practices, he is determined to return to power — not in his own country, but in Ukraine.
Saakashvili is brilliant and divisive. His many fans, principally drawn from the educated and the young of Georgia and Ukraine, see him as exactly the kind of clear-thinking, fearless leader who can sweep away the tangle of cronyism that has turned most former Soviet states into kleptocratic autocracies. To the sceptics, who include the many hundreds of thousands of officials he has put out of a job, he’s a reckless risk-taker who provoked Russia into invading the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. They also accuse him of being a relentless self-publicist more interested in showboating than actually making things work.
Having spent time with Saakashvili (at the presidential palace in Tbilisi during the war, where I scribbled furiously to keep up with his mile-a-minute conversation as he drank red wine with correspondents late into the night, and later in New York, where he transformed himself into a Williamsburg hipster during a brief post-presidential retirement), I have come to believe that both sides are right. Saakashvili combines high principle with almost manic personal ambition, rashness with ironclad self-belief. It makes him both one of the most inspiring and flawed political figures of modern times.
Saakashvili stepped down as President of Georgia in 2013, his once-popular party destroyed in the polls. The regime which succeeded him, in classic post-Soviet fashion, brought a slew of embezzlement and abuse-of-office charges against Saakashvili, and stripped him of his Georgian citizenship. But in 2015 his political career was re-launched when Ukrainian President (and chocolate billionaire) Petro Poroshenko offered Saakashvili the post of governor of the Odessa region.
Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, tying last year with Russia for 131st place out of 176 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. And Odessa is the most corrupt region of Ukraine; in fact, the multi-ethnic port city has been famous for its criminality pretty much since its foundation by a half-Spanish, half-Irish mercenary-adventurer in 1794. Saakashvili swept in on Odessa’s crooks like a righteous avenger. In Georgia, he reformed the crooked traffic police by firing every single officer, and he cleaned up corruption in the port of Poti by temporarily scrapping customs duties altogether.
Saakashvili believed that the same zero-tolerance tactics would work in Odessa. He appointed Yulia Marushevska, a 27-year-old political activist, as director of the mafia-controlled port and installed a high-tech system for tracking all shipments and customs payments that was publicly accessible, in real time, online. Saakashvili also got an old ally from Georgia, Giorgi Lortkipanidze, appointed chief of police. He drafted in foreign advisers to help his anti-corruption effort, including an anti-fraud officer from the City of London Police and an official of the EU border agency. Bate Toms, an American-born lawyer and chairman of the British-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce, spoke optimistically of Odessa becoming ‘one of the richest cities in eastern and central Europe’.
It didn’t happen. In November 2016, Saakashvili and Lortkipanidze resigned their posts, complaining that their efforts to kill off Odessa’s crime syndicates had been stymied by none other than Poroshenko himself. Fighting dismal approval ratings and an ongoing war against Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Poroshenko faced a choice between angering the criminal clans on whose political support he depended and supporting Saakashvili’s house-cleaning campaign. Poroshenko chose political expediency. Then, in late July, Saakashvili — who studied law in Kiev and speaks fluent Ukrainian as well as Russian — was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship on an obscure technicality while on a speaking tour in America. That left him officially stateless.
Saakashvili could easily have applied for political asylum in any number of countries: he has many powerful allies, including Arizona senator John McCain, who described him as ‘my great young Georgian friend’ in a presidential foreign-policy debate against Barack Obama in 2008. Instead he chose to crash right back into Ukrainian politics — quite literally. Earlier this month Saakashvili, accompanied by several hundred supporters, a handful of European parliamentarians and Ukrainian politicians, attempted to cross the Polish-Ukrainian frontier by train. Poroshenko mobilised a large force of border guards to stop him. Abandoning the train, the Saakashvili party boarded buses and tried another crossing, which they were told was closed because of a bomb threat. Undeterred, they headed for a third border control point, where around 100 supporters formed a flying wedge with Saakashvili at its centre and charged through a cordon of Ukrainian riot police. Later than evening he was addressing cheering crowds outside the Mayor’s office in Lviv.
Saakashvili claims, with some justice, that the cancellation of his citizenship was illegal and that he plans to challenge it in court, as is his right as a Ukrainian. But he is also running a massive risk. Georgian courts have requested his extradition (Saakashvili, again with strong justification, has dismissed the abuse-of-office charges as politically motivated). Though the Ukrainian prosecutor-general has said that he will not prosecute for the illegal border crossing, Saakashvili’s liberty is now at the mercy of local party politics.
The question is whether Poroshenko has the cojones to risk making Saakashvili a martyr — and himself an international pariah. Poroshenko desperately needs economic support from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, both of which have already balked at Kiev’s dismal failure to tackle corruption. Imprisoning Saakashvili, the longtime darling of the West, would destroy the last vestiges of Poroshenko’s credibility. He also needs support from the US. In July, Poroshenko travelled to Washington to ask Donald Trump personally to maintain pressure on Russia by sanctioning Kremlin-connected individuals and companies as punishment for their ongoing support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko also asked Trump to send weapons to fight what he calls the ‘Russian occupiers’, something the US has hitherto shied away from. Both efforts would be seriously complicated by throwing Saakashvili in jail.
But the more profound conundrum is whether Saakashvili, with his flamboyant and confrontational style, can actually succeed in his crusade to transform Ukraine from a dysfunctional mafia state into a prosperous European country. In June, Saakashvili founded a political party based on anti-corruption, and though its ratings remain tiny, the new political movement is generally thought to have played a major role in Poroshenko’s decision to exile his turbulent rival. Saakashvili has now vowed to stand against Poroshenko in the next presidential election.
Much more is at stake than just Saakashvili’s political career and freedom. The whole vector of the West’s foreign policy towards the former Soviet Union, including Russia, since the end of the Cold War has been to encourage the rule of law, democracy and free speech, on the promise that reform will lead to prosperity. Two popular revolutions in Ukraine and one in Georgia (the Orange and Maidan revolutions in 2004 and 2014, and the Rose revolution in 2003) have seen people angrily rise up to depose corrupt Moscow-backed regimes in favour of supposedly clean, pro-European, pro-Nato governments.
The hopes of all three revolutions, thanks in part to Russian interference, military and otherwise, have collapsed in ignominious failure and corrupt business-as-usual. If there’s to be any hope that post-Soviet nations can, in the pungent Russian phrase, finally ‘live like people’, then feisty reformers like Saakashvili have to succeed. A reckless egomaniac he may be, but he’s the closest there is to someone who’s on the side of the angels in a corner of Europe beset with ultra-nationalism, kleptocracy and Russian aggression.
Owen Matthews and Kim Sengupta discuss Saakashvili on the Spectator Podcast.