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Ringside With Saakashvili's Traveling Political Circus


Even the clowns on stilts didn't look out of place at a recent Mikheil Saakashvili rally in Dnipro, Ukraine.

DNIPRO/ZAPORIZHZHYA, Ukraine -- If politics is a circus, then Mikheil Saakashvili is a ringmaster.

It's a sweltering 33 degrees Celsius on an Indian summer evening in Dnipro and the former Georgian president turned shamed former Ukrainian regional governor is again playing the role of political outsider fighting for the common man. He is in his element as he berates political foes, extols his own virtues, and pontificates in general to a crowd of rowdy supporters watched over by helpless local police who appear to see him as a confounding nuisance.

One of the greatest showmen of post-communist European politics, Saakashvili has perfected this routine over the course of many years of politicking. There's the glad-handing of supporters and the receiving of kisses from fawning elderly women; the cheeky grin that betrays a belief he has outmaneuvered his enemies; and the open-hand wave, with his arm extended high in the air in triumph, his eyes glowing with undisguised pride the whole time.

Standing more than 1.8 meters tall and boasting a hulking frame, Saakashvili naturally commands attention in a crowd. He gets more of it here in delivering his demands, in Russian, to his former ally President Petro Poroshenko, who just months ago stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship after having played a huge role in bringing him on board to help forge Ukraine's post-Euromaidan future as governor of Odesa Oblast.

The spurned Saakashvili refers to the authorities in Kyiv collectively as "hucksters" with "less power" than the previous government of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who was run out of the country by the 2014 uprising. The underlying message: Change your ways or prepare to be overthrown.

'Poroshenko Out!'

Saakashvili's speech as he stumps for his new opposition party verge on a call for a new revolution, but he's careful not to go so far. He says a better idea is to create a "calm force of the people" that will push authorities to implement reforms and a group of "300 Spartans" who will ensure these reforms go through in parliament.

The crowd of supporters indicates they're on board with shouts of "Poroshenko out!" and "Corruptioneers to jail!" They are mostly working class, middle-aged, and they refer to him as Misha, the diminutive of Mikheil. "Misha! Misha! Misha!" they chant when he delivers a good line. They all seem to begin their sentences with "Our Misha" when asked about him.

One of them is Alina Borysivna, a pensioner who is not necessarily a fan of Saakashvili's politics but dislikes the current central government and adores Georgian men. She says Saakashvili is "very handsome" and would prefer him over the current national leadership.

Mikheil Saakashvili addresses the crowd in Dnipro on September 20.
Mikheil Saakashvili addresses the crowd in Dnipro on September 20.

Not everyone here is an admirer. Konstantin, a middle-aged man who elbows his way to the front of the crowd for a prime spot to shoot video of the event, says he'll post a clip of the rally on YouTube. He hopes it will rack up thousands of views and earn him $100 or more, equal to roughly half of his monthly salary. Saakashvili, he explains, has the potential to bring him good money. "It's a circus," he says of Saakashvili's recent national tour.

In some ways, it does appear to be. As Saakashvili speaks, carnival music bellows from a turning carousel nearby, and circling the rally are three colorful clowns teetering on stilts. Nobody seems to know what their purpose is or where they came from, and they won't say. But some point to the Dnipro mayor, Borys Filatov, as being behind their presence.

'Mentally Ill'

Ahead of Saakashvili's arrival in Dnipro, Filatov, a fiery politician who is no fan of Saakashvili, posted to his personal Facebook page a signed order temporarily suspending a city ban on traveling circuses, just for Saakashvili. The order, which delved into the absurd and serves as an example of the carnival Ukrainian politics has become since Euromaidan, was also published on the official site of the Dnipro City Council.

"I order the relevant [municipal] services to ensure the disinfection of the territory and the hygiene of the [Saakashvili] event," said the mayor of the southeastern city formerly known as Dnipropetrovsk and nicknamed "rocket city" for its contribution to the Soviet Union's space program. "I allocate additional janitors and specialists of the communal enterprise 'Zoocontrol' to catch stray animals for sterilization."

"I ask all local audiences not to offend the artists. Be lenient to the mentally ill," he continued. "Let the circus remain a circus."

Dnipro Mayor Borys Filatov (file photo)
Dnipro Mayor Borys Filatov (file photo)

Saakashvili was quick to respond, publishing on his Facebook page a "letter of gratitude" in which he claimed to have been coordinating with an actual circus to bring along, adding that he'd make sure a slot was left open for Filatov himself to perform as part of a "troupe of meathead bastards." Alas, Saakashvili arrived only with a small army of beefy, bearded bodyguards to escort him.

Saakashvili's Dnipro visit came almost two months after the loss of his Ukrainian citizenship while abroad effectively barred his return and prevented him from trying to make a run at political office in his once-adopted country.

But no ban or border in Ukraine has managed to stop the Saakashvili show.

On Sunday, September 10, at a western border crossing near Poland, border guards linked arms to form a human wall in an attempt to keep out Saakashvili, who had been plotting his return in Warsaw. He proved too strong for them, breaking through with the help of a rowdy group of supporters, and stepped back on Ukrainian soil. Ukrainian authorities say his entrance was illegal and claimed that 13 police officers and nine border guards were hurt amid the chaos at the border.

"The people took me by the hand and returned me to Ukraine. It was the decision of the people," Saakashvili told reporters, adding that Ukrainian law allowed for such an entrance under the circumstances.

His case was heard at a district court in the western Lviv region. It resumed on September 22 but Saakashvili did not attend. In his absence, he was found guilty of illegally crossing the state border and ordered to pay a fine of 3,400 hryvnia (about $130) along with a court fee of 320 hryvnias (about $12). The circus traveled on.

Ukraine's top prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, said at the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in Kyiv on the weekend of September 16-17 that Saakashvili would not be arrested or extradited to Georgia, where he is wanted, in part, on corruption charges from the time he served as president there between 2004 and 2013. Saakashvili says the extradition request is politically motivated.

The YES conference buzzed with rumors of Saakashvili possibly gate-crashing the event. Alas, he never showed, opting instead to wait until September 19, while Poroshenko was visiting the United Nations General Assembly and unable to stop him.

No Plan In Sight

Before he headed east, Saakashvili traveled to western cities like Lviv and Chernivtsi. In each place, he's turned out noisy crowds of hundreds. He has no stated plans to stop soon, and has given no indication that he has a real plan at all. It seems he's winging it.

"I will travel a lot. I don't have a passport so I cannot fly on a plane," Saakashvili said in Kyiv. "I will travel by car, by stagecoach, I'll hitchhike -- but I will reach every Ukrainian."

Ukrainian and foreign media have been gripped by the drama, speculating what Saakashivili might be up to -- a run at the presidency? From the look on his face, that's exactly how Saakashvili likes it.

"Clearly Misha Saakashvili is not going to disappear behind enemy lines. He will exhaust this incident for every molecule of PR he can before the effect fades and new headlining-grabbing stunts are required," wrote the pseudonymous Odesa-based political and civil society consultant Nikolai Holmov, who blogs at Odessatalk.

Saakashvili (left) with his former classmate Petro Poroshenko in 2015.
Saakashvili (left) with his former classmate Petro Poroshenko in 2015.

It's also exactly what Poroshenko, a former university classmate turned Saakashvili foe, doesn't want from the man who had managed reforms as Georgia's president.

But Poroshenko has only himself to blame for Saakashvili's recent headline-grabbing act, many observers say.

"He might have faded away," Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote of the embattled politician. "But Poroshenko then handed Saakashvili another chance to win the limelight by rashly depriving him of his Ukrainian citizenship on dubious grounds."

"The decision suggests a man who has decided to start to neutralize the opposition, but may have reenergized it instead," de Waal said of the Ukrainian president's approach.

Indeed, Saakashvili and his political party -- Movement of New Forces, formed shortly after he resigned as governor of the Odesa region -- has suffered in the polls here, hovering around a miserable 1-2 percent in nearly every recent survey. That wouldn't be enough to garner any seats in parliament if the elections were to be held now.

While there's no indication those numbers are going up due to recent events, there's also no doubt Saakashvili is banking on his road show to boost his appeal.

At the close of the hour-long Dnipro rally, Saakashvili posed for selfies with teens and pensioners alike before boarding a city bus and making his exit. Once aboard, he befriended a pensioner named Lyubov Danilivna, who invited him to her home for tea. The video of the meeting was immediately posted to Saakashvili's Facebook page, where he boasts nearly 1 million followers, and his YouTube account, which has another 42,000. On Twitter, more than 262,000 users are following him.

Saakashvili has used social media to his advantage. When he posts photos and videos, they often go viral on the Ukrainian Internet. The video of him boarding the Dnipro bus and going home with Lyubov had been viewed more than 227,000 times on Facebook and more than 70,000 times on YouTube at the time of this story's publication.

WATCH: Saakashvili Rides Tram, Gets Invited For Tea

After Dnipro, Saakashvili was heading an hour south to industrial Zaporizhzhya, where he hoped to keep his momentum going.

Ahead of his appearance, however, posters reading "The clown has arrived" had been hung on light posts and walls throughout the city. They showed a photoshopped image of Saakashvili dressed as a clown in a psychedelic wig and matching costume. A message on the posters read: "Meet the famous Georgian political clown in your city. A favorite of protesters, of trash, and fools."

'You're Being Robbed'

Standing atop a leopard-patterned soapbox, Saakashvili starts his speech by telling a group of some 400 people that he's the guy who can raise their quality of life. Butter and milk; soap and mortgages; and rent and utilities are all too expensive, he says, and it's the government's fault.

"You're being robbed," he says. He says Ukraine will be lost for good to powerful oligarchs and life for ordinary citizens will get worse, unless they throw their full support behind him.

Not all here are impressed. An elderly man wearing a blue-and-yellow Ukraine cap and a traditional embroidered shirt shouts over the crowd that Saakashvili is a phony and a dictator who left Georgia worse off by the end of his presidency. The man is quickly denounced by crowd members as a "provocateur" and roughed up. With his shirt torn, plainclothes police officers drag him away as he shouts, "This is Saakashvili's democracy!"

Local Zaporizhzhya media weren't easy on Saakashvili, sarcastically summing up the reasons the politician gave the city for backing him: "He is beautiful, he has an interesting accent, he does not steal, he does not own 99 factories" -- the last one meaning he's not an oligarch.

Before departing, Saakashvili tells the crowd in Zaporizhzhya, he'll join a rally in Kyiv on October 17th, when opposition parties and civil society activists will gather to demand immediate action on anticorruption reforms and the removal of lawmakers' immunity from prosecution. He asks for their support.

"We have to bring order. We must express our demands to the authorities or the group of people who call themselves the authorities, but in reality, they are ordinary hucksters," Saakashvili says. And with that, he disappears into a shiny, silver SUV with Georgian plates.

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