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Citizenship Restored, Saakashvili Returns To Ukraine

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Saakashvili Back In Ukraine -- 'It's A Whole New Country'
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WATCH: Saakashvili Back In Ukraine -- 'It's A Whole New Country'

KYIV -- Mikheil Saakashvili returned to Ukraine on May 29, arriving amid a political transition a day after new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy reinstated the former Georgian leader's citizenship in a country he told RFE/RL he considers his homeland.

Saakashvili, the reformist former Georgian president who had a short second career as governor of Ukraine's Odesa region before he was fired and stripped of his citizenship, arrived at Kyiv's Boryspil airport in the early evening on a flight from Poland.

Speaking to reporters and supporters, Saakashvili said he does not plan to take part in Ukraine’s upcoming snap parliamentary elections but wants to join in efforts to reshape the political landscape and bring new faces to power.

"Personally, I will not be going to any election," he said. "But, of course, I will facilitate and assist in every way in changing politicians in Ukraine, purging [the country] of swindlers and people who have plundered Ukraine.

"I haven't come here for revenge, punishment, [or] to destroy someone," he said, adding: "I want to participate in building a new Ukraine jointly with millions of Ukrainians after a historic chance, with a new president, with a new team."

At the airport, Saakashvili was welcomed by a group of supporters who were holding flags from his Movement of New Forces party. There was also a banner adorned with the Ukrainian and Georgian flags that read: “We are friends.”

Saakashvili is greeted by supporters at Boryspil airport outside Kyiv on May 29.
Saakashvili is greeted by supporters at Boryspil airport outside Kyiv on May 29.

Eduard Gospadyan, dressed in a traditional embroidered shirt and draped in a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag, said he hoped the man he called a "strong leader" and a "real reformer" would jump back into Ukrainian politics.

"We hope that with his help Ukraine will become a true European country in the near future," Gospadyan told RFE/RL.

In a Skype interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on May 28, Saakashvili hinted that he wanted to play a substantial role in public life but did not specify what it might be. He said he considered both Georgia and Ukraine to be his homeland.

"So I'm returning home. And then we'll see -- I'll consult, I'll be talking to people," Saakashvili said, emphasizing his gratitude to Zelenskiy for restoring his citizenship -- annulled by Zelenskiy's predecessor, Petro Poroshenko -- so quickly.

"I want to emphasize again that I have no personal professional ambitions," he said, asserting that what was of "utmost importance" to him is that "Ukraine be successful."

Saakashvili's arrival comes less than 10 days after Zelenskiy, a comedian and political novice who easily defeated Poroshenko in a runoff vote, was sworn in and announced he was dissolving parliament and scheduling new elections for July 21.

"We cannot let this third chance pass us by," Saakashvili said in the interview, suggesting that Ukraine had a chance to thrive after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and a second chance after the Maidan protests that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014. "And now [it has] a third [chance] -- a peaceful electoral revolution."

Saakashvili lavishly praised Zelenskiy for restoring his citizenship, calling it a "courageous step by a courageous and worthy president." There has been speculation that Saakashvili might be handed a high post by Zelenskiy or side with him in the elections, but neither of them has commented publicly on that notion.

Saakashvili, 51, swept to power in Georgia after helping lead the peaceful Rose Revolution protests that cast out the old guard there in 2003, when he was mayor of Tbilisi. He was president of Georgia from January 2004 until 2013, a year after his party was dislodged by an opposition force in parliamentary elections.

Saakashvili was granted Ukrainian citizenship and appointed to the Odesa governor's post in 2015 by Poroshenko, an acquaintance from their student days in the Soviet era in Kyiv. Authorities in Tbilisi stripped Saakashvili of his Georgian citizenship in December 2015 on the grounds that Georgia does not allow dual citizenship.

Then, when relations between Poroshenko and Saakashvili had soured over reform efforts and the fight against corruption, Poroshenko in November 2016 dismissed Saakashvili from the Odesa governor's post. In July 2017, after Saakashvili created the opposition Movement of New Forces party, Poroshenko issued a decree that stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship.

Zelenskiy restored his Ukrainian citizenship by decree on May 28.

One of the leaders of the Movement of New Forces, former Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor-General David Sakvarelizde, said on May 29 that the party planned to run in the July 21 elections.

"Our party's participation in the elections...is not just our intention, it is our duty to our voters, who are awaiting some consequential steps from us," he said in an interview with the Apostrof news agency that was posted on YouTube.

Zelenskiy was elected to a five-year term in Ukraine, a country of 44 million that faces deep-seated corruption, economic challenges, and a simmering war against Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of two provinces in the east.

Relations with Russia are in tatters because of Moscow's occupation and seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the war in the east, which has killed some 13,000 people since the same year.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Current Time
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