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How Saakashvili And Poroshenko Got Themselves Into This Mess


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili meet with local Odesa residents in July 2015.

KYIV -- The adventures of Mikheil Saakashvili reached new heights this week when masked Ukrainian security agents broke down his apartment door and eventually apprehended him on the building's rooftop, where he screamed insults about onetime ally President Petro Poroshenko to supporters on the street below.

The agents hauled the Tbilisi-born Saakashvili into a police van but couldn't get him out of the scrum as hundreds of Saakashvili supporters rushed to the scene to prevent them from taking the onetime Georgian president and ex-governor of Ukraine's Odesa region away. The van only made it as far as the corner before it was forced to stop near a Catholic church and about 100 meters from the capital's European Square.

Scuffling ensued, with Saakashvili supporters clashing with police in riot gear as they tried to free him. Saakashvili eventually emerged, triumphantly raising a hand with handcuffs still attached to his wrist to offer a "victory" sign to the jubilant crowd.

Later in the day, Saakashvili vowed at a tent city of supporters outside parliament to fight corruption and "remove a criminal group from power and impeach it." By nightfall on December 5, Ukrainian prosecutors had charged Saakashvili with a crime and police had placed him on the national wanted list.

He was a fugitive.

WATCH: Ukrainian security forces arrested former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on suspicion of assisting a criminal organization but he later escaped from custody in Kyiv with help from his supporters. (RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)

Tensions persisted, with clashes between Saakashvili supporters and police and a December 6 deadline expiring for Saakashvili to turn himself in. He has suggested he will only meet with the authorities at the tent city, which appeared quiet around midday on December 7.

Even by the standards of Saakashvili -- whose political career has been peppered with dramatic and controversial events -- it has been a remarkable several days.

But how did Ukrainian officials and Saakashvili find themselves in this situation, and how far could it lead?

Does this risk blowing up?

Some analysts are convinced that the whole thing could have severe consequences for the country, not to mention Saakashvili.

Ukraine's prosecutor-general suggested later on December 5 that the man who as Georgia's president led an ill-fated, five-day war against Russia over two breakaway Georgian regions has -- wittingly or not -- become a stooge for a Russia-based "organized crime" group allegedly led by exiled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Adrian Karatnycky, senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, argues that the "sensational charges leveled against Mikheil Saakashvili by the Ukrainian procuracy [prosecutors] have the potential to reshuffle the entire political deck in Ukraine."

If prosecutors are proven correct, then Saakashvili will have been shown to have "colluded" with and accepted money from elements friendly to Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in 2014.

"This is an either-or situation," Karatnycky says, highlighting how tricky it might be to find middle ground. "Either Saakashvili was playing footsie with exiled members of the former Yanukovych team, or the Ukrainian procuracy and security services have perpetrated the fraud of the century and Saakashvili is an innocent victim of trumped-up charges not seen since the Stalin era."

And beyond any threat to Poroshenko's popularity among Ukrainians, the clampdown on Saakashvili risks denting the Ukrainian administration's international support. Sudden, dramatic events of this sort generally don't sit well with Kyiv's Western allies, and frustration was already mounting.

The day before the botched arrest, the U.S. State Department raised "concerns" about signs that Kyiv might be backsliding on its commitment to fight corruption. The statement appeared to be a response to a bitter feud pitting Ukraine's independent National Anticorruption Agency (NABU) against the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), both of which are headed by presidential appointees.

After the rooftop raid, the U.S. Embassy and the European Union mission in Kyiv each called on all sides to deescalate the situation and urged the authorities to conduct a fair investigation in accordance with the law.

Why is Saakashvili in legal hot water in Ukraine anyway?

Ukrainian authorities provided little explanation when they announced that they had withdrawn Saakashvili's citizenship in July, raising a minor international stir and prompting Saakashvili's defiant reentry into Ukrainian territory in September despite warnings that he could face arrest.

But more recently, Saakashvili this week was accused by Ukrainian authorities of links to criminal elements around the exiled Yanukovych and other Russia-based plotters. If found guilty, Saakashvili could face up to 10 years in prison.

Saakashvili has called the charge political and the evidence against him -- which includes an alleged wiretapped conversation between him and Serhiy Kurchenko, a mercurial billionaire ally of Yanukovych -- "fake." He says Poroshenko is trying to eliminate him as a political opponent. He has claimed that Ukrainian rivals would like to extradite him to his native Georgia to face what he says are politically motivated abuse-of office-charges stemming from his presidency there, or else cut a deal that would allow him to avoid the charges against him in Ukraine in exchange for leaving the country.

Poroshenko did not initially respond directly to any of the accusations, but he said on December 6 that Saakashvili's actions were aimed at destabilizing the situation inside the war-torn country.

A legal assessment prepared by Saakashvili's lawyer, Ruslan Chornolutsky, that was obtained by RFE/RL on December 7 alleged, "The case against Mikheil Saakashvili is purely political and represents an act of political terror against Ukraine's key opposition leader." It went on to accuse the Ukrainian government, through its actions, of having "taken a step toward authoritarianism, using terror tactics against its own citizens."

The assessment also alleged that the Prosecutor-General's Office's actions, by publicly incriminating Saakashvili, "violated the presumption of innocence, illegally, disclosed alleged details of the investigation, and violated the principle of investigative secrecy in criminal cases."

WATCH: Dozens of Ukrainian police raided a protest camp outside the parliament building in Kyiv early on December 6 in a failed attempt to detain Mikheil Saakashvili. (RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)

How did Saakashvili end up a Ukrainian politician?

To understand how Saakashvili got here, one needs to go back some ways. Less than two years after completing his second presidential term in Georgia's fiercely polarized political atmosphere, he arrived in Ukraine in the wake of the Euromaidan unrest and with Kyiv at war with Russia-backed separatists.

After giving up his Georgian citizenship and being granted Ukrainian citizenship, in mid-2015 he was appointed by Poroshenko to govern the notoriously corrupt southern region of Odesa. The idea was reportedly Poroshenko's own -- bringing in his former university pal and battle-tested reformer to clean things up. (Saakashvili had ushered in considerable institutional and economic reforms in Georgia before his allies' thumping at the polls in 2012.)

But after a stint that included occasionally dramatic acts of political theater, the Ukrainian plan went awry and Saakashvili quit in November 2016, publicly accusing Poroshenko of blocking his reform efforts. He announced the launch of his own opposition party, called Movement of New Forces, and began campaigning against his former ally.

With only marginal public support, Saakashvili had mostly fallen off the map until Poroshenko's decree in July -- while the ex-governor was visiting the United States -- that stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship and voided his passport. No justification was publicly stated.

"Everybody would have forgotten Saakashvili. Nobody was really paying attention to his words," political analyst Taras Berezovets says, adding of Poroshenko's citizenship maneuver, "Then after this, he was quoted in all international media."

The news gave Saakashvili a much-needed if short-lived PR boost that he used to rally supporters to the Ukrainian-Polish border, where they helped him break through a guard post and reenter the country. While illegal, the authorities let him off with a fine.

Why the dramatic scenes and legions of police on December 5? Was it overkill?

Some say the Ukrainian authorities' massive law enforcement operation this week signaled Poroshenko's overwhelming desire to see Saakashvili taken out of the picture in a highly public manner.

Since his return to Ukraine, Saakashvili has set his sights on campaigning for early presidential and parliamentary elections. (Presidential and legislative elections are not otherwise slated to take place until 2019.) His message has been antigovernment and specifically anti-Poroshenko, which observers say may have gotten under the president's skin.

"This seems like a personal rivalry...a battle of egos" between Poroshenko and Saakashvili, according to Kateryna Zarembo, deputy director at the Kyiv-based New Europe Center, a think tank. "It's kind of similar to Yanukovych and [former Prime Minister and eventually failed presidential candidate Yulia] Tymoshenko."

But the strength and apparent dedication demonstrated by Saakashvili's supporters this week suggest it could require a sizable contingent of police to take him into custody. In this case, it seems the authorities seriously miscalculated.

...But how could they just let him get away?

Some observers have noted that -- with the Euromaidan violence still fresh in the minds of Ukrainians -- police may be less inclined to use force against protesters.

The authorities certainly seem to have seriously miscalculated the determination of Saakashvili's followers.

But the operation itself appears to have been hastily planned. Conducting it in daylight and at Saakashvili's apartment -- on a narrow one-way street in the capital's busy center during morning rush hour -- probably reduced the odds of an efficient extraction.

How widespread is support for Saakashvili among Ukrainians?

Many Ukrainians say Saakashvili has Poroshenko to thank for his recent publicity. In fact, for months opinion polls have shown Saakashvili polling at somewhere between 1-2 percent popularity. That has many political observers scratching their heads about the authorities' tireless pursuit of him.

Like his summertime breakthrough at the Ukraine-Poland border, Saakashvili's breakout from the police van on December 5 is likely to boost his political profile, if only briefly.

With reporting by Christopher Miller in Kyiv
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