Owen Matthews Owen Matthews

Ukraine’s last best hope

Georgia’s former president may be a reckless narcissist, but he could change everything

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.

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