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Ukraine Braces For Saakashvili's Possible Return

  • Christopher Miller

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili speaks during a press conference in Warsaw on September 8.

KYIV -- Mikheil Saakashvili, the feisty former Georgian president and ex-governor of Ukraine's Odesa region, is gathering forces in Warsaw ahead of an attempt to reenter Ukraine from Poland -- a move that could escalate the showdown between him and his former ally, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Saakashvili, who was granted citizenship by Poroshenko in 2015 to assume the post of Odesa governor only to have the president strip him of the status while out of the country in July, has said he will try to reenter Ukraine through the Krakovets border crossing in the Lviv region on September 10.

It appears he will be traveling with an entourage.

Polarizing former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, currently head of the opposition Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party in Ukraine's parliament, said on Ukraine's NewsOne channel that she would "personally" join Saakashvili.

Mustafa Nayyem, a reformist lawmaker and Poroshenko critic, said that he, too, would walk with him. Many more people -- including European parliament members, activists, and journalists, according to Saakashvili's press service -- are expected to follow along with the group in prearranged buses.

A beefed-up border-guard presence is expected to be waiting for them. RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service published video showing barbed-wire fences set up at Krakovets, while the security news site Info Resist posted images taken at the border crossing of what appeared to be a military vehicle hidden by camouflage netting.

Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for the State Border Guard Service, told RFE/RL that the service had erected "reinforcements for all checkpoints because of the exercises," a reference to the Zapad 2017 joint Belarusian-Russian military exercises to be held from September 14-20 near Ukraine's border. Kyiv fears Moscow may be using the exercises as a cover-up to set the stage for an attack on Ukraine.

But Slobodyan told the news site Ukrayinska Pravda that the service would "strengthen border patrols" at Krakovets on September 10, specifically to prevent possible "provocations" associated with Saakashvili's attempted entry.

The showdown will come at the Krakowiec/Krakovets border crossing on September 10.
The showdown will come at the Krakowiec/Krakovets border crossing on September 10.

What If He's Refused Entry?

What will happen when Saakashvili reaches the border is anyone's guess. Ukrainian border guards have said that they will not grant him entry, because his Ukrainian passport is no longer valid.

If Ukraine does refuse to let him pass, Saakashvili may live in a tent on the Ukrainian-Polish border, one member of his Movement of New Forces reportedly told the Kyiv Post newspaper on Sept. 4.

Officials in European Union states have said it would be possible for Saakashvili to apply for asylum in their countries, but the former Georgian leader has said he has "no intention, desire, or plans to apply for political asylum in another country," and will not give up on returning to Ukraine.

What If He's Detained?

The 49-year-old Saakashvili, who led Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and has been credited for Westernizing and reforming the country as president from January 2004 to November 2013, could be extradited to Tbilisi if he is detained at the border, something that his native country has sought since his time as Odesa governor. Ukraine has at least twice refused to do so.

Problems for Saakashvili in Georgia began after the country's disastrous five-day war with Russia in 2008. But they grew in the years following, as he made what critics claimed was an authoritarian turn. In 2012, his ruling party was crushed in parliamentary elections, leading to a lame-duck year before he left office in 2013.

The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office said on August 18 that it had sent an extradition request for Saakashvili to Ukraine. He is wanted on four separate criminal charges in Georgia, including misappropriation of property and abuse of office. Ukrainian authorities confirmed on September 5 that they received the request.

Saakashvili has said the charges are politically motivated.

How Saakashvili, Poroshenko Fell Out

Saakashvili moved to Ukraine to help drive reforms after the 2014 revolution that ousted Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych. In 2015, he was tapped by Poroshenko to govern the Odesa region. But he quickly found himself in conflict with the Kyiv authorities and quit the post in November 2016, accusing Poroshenko of abetting corruption.

Poroshenko has been accused by many Ukrainian activists and opposition politicians of obstructing reform efforts and turning a blind eye to corruption.

The beef between Saakashvili and Poroshenko deepened after the former relocated to Kyiv and announced the formation of the Movement of New Forces to challenge the president's party. Recent polls put the party's popularity in Ukraine around a dismal 2 percent.

On July 26, Poroshenko revoked Saakashvili's Ukrainian citizenship after the authorities claimed to have discovered he violated Ukrainian law by providing incorrect information on his citizenship application -- a charge Saakashvili denies.

Saakashvili was in the United States when he heard the news, which he condemned as an "illegal way to remove me from the political scene in Ukraine." He has also been stripped of his Georgian citizenship, making him a stateless person.

Saakashvili accused Poroshenko of playing dirty when Ukrainian police briefly detained his brother David on September 2. He was released the same day and fined for violating immigration laws.

"In this way, they're trying to influence me to change my mind about coming back," Saakashvili said in a post on Facebook.

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    Christopher Miller

    Christopher Miller is a correspondent based in Kyiv and covers the former Soviet republics. He can be reached at millerjchristopher@gmail.com

     

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