KYIV -- Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian leader who is now an ardent opponent of Ukraine's president, said corruption had inflicted far greater damage on Ukraine than Russia had.
Speaking one day after a judge rejected prosecutors' request to put him under house arrest, Saakashvili said on December 12 that he had no ambitions himself to become Ukraine's president, saying the position should always be held by an ethnic Ukrainian.
The authorities "really think that it’s enough to shout 'Russia' and 'agents of the enemy,' and everyone will just buy that. People are not stupid. They didn’t buy it earlier, they’re not buying it now,” he said in an interview with Current Time TV, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
"They know that apart from the main enemy we have an inner one, and that is corruption. This inner enemy does even more damage to Ukraine. The image of Saakashvili in prison was the best gift Vladimir Putin could ever get," he said, referring to the Russian president.
"And he got it. It was not my decision, but that of Poroshenko. The image of me in handcuffs was the biggest hit on Russian TV in years," he said.
Saakashvili’s comments come after a turbulent week that highlighted both his continuing draw as an outspoken, fiery opposition figure, and also differing opinions within the government about how to handle the fervent support he has garnered.
Saakashvili became governor of the Black Sea Odesa region in 2015 but quit a year later, accusing the authorities of sabotaging reform efforts. He is now a vocal opponent of Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko, an acquaintance from the time when both attended university in Kyiv in the Soviet era.
Authorities have accused Saakashvili of abetting an alleged "criminal group" led by former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after his ouster in February 2014. They have also suggested that Saakashvili’s protests are part of a Russian plot against Ukraine.
Police on December 5 tried to detain Saakashvili but supporters crowded around a police vehicle where he was held and then freed him.
Three days later, he was detained on December 8, and prosecutors had sought to place put him under house arrest. But a judge on December 11 turned down the request.
Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko said he would appeal the judge's ruling.
While he was in custody, thousands of people demonstrated in central Kyiv to demand his release and to call for Petro Poroshenko’s resignation.
After Yanukovych was ousted in 2014, Russia moved to annex the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, and fomented an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,300 people and displaced more than 1 million.
Saakashvili also faces criminal charges in his home country of Georgia.
Saakashvili was president of Georgia during the brief, disastrous war with Russia in 2008, which resulted in Russian forces invading and effectively carving off two important regions -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- both of which are dependent on Russia for economic support.
Saakashvili's political fight in Ukraine has drawn the support of another charismatic politician, Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who is now an opposition leader.
Speaking December 11, at the courthouse where Saakashvili’s case was heard, she likened Poroshenko to Yanukovych.
"You are jailing your opponents -- the way Yanukovych did it. Keep in mind how it all ended," the politician said.