KYIV -- Mikheil Saakashvili has left Ukraine in much the same dramatic fashion that he returned in September after being stripped of Ukrainian citizenship: hauled across the Ukrainian-Polish border.
After several failed attempts to silence or lock up the stateless former Georgian president-turned-Ukrainian-opposition leader, authorities in Kyiv on February 12 finally nabbed him in -- of all places -- a Georgian restaurant and rushed him onto a chartered flight to Warsaw.
CCTV footage published overnight on Saakashvili’s YouTube channel showed more than a dozen armed and masked agents in camouflage sprinting into Kyiv’s Suluguni restaurant and scuffling with two men, one of whom appeared to be Saakashvili. Moments later, the agents are seen dragging Saakashvili out by his clothing and hair. A few hours after that, he was on Polish soil.
The operation was set in motion after a Kyiv appellate court rejected Saakashvili’s political asylum appeal last week, opening a legal way for his expulsion or extradition from Ukraine.
The country’s Border Guards Service said it chose expulsion “in compliance with all legal procedure.”
So what’s next for Saakashvili?
Asylum In Poland?
Don't count on it.
Saakashvili, leader of the Ukrainian New Forces Movement party, was received in Poland on the basis of an application for readmission filed by the Ukrainian State Migration Service, the Polish Border Service said.
But he has made it clear he will not ask for political asylum in the EU country, suggesting he doesn’t have plans to stay permanently, at least.
“I had a conversation with the leadership of the Interior Ministry of Poland. They called me when I arrived at the airport. The first question they asked me was whether I would ask for political asylum in Poland. I answered that I would not ask for any political salvation,” he told Ukraine’s NewsOne TV channel late on February 12 from Warsaw.
While saying the Poles had welcomed him “very warmly,” Saakashvili derided their government, saying in a separate interview broadcast live on Georgia’s Rustavi 2 channel that Warsaw “deceived” him by aiding Kyiv in expelling him, according to Interfax.
Saakashvili also said that distance wouldn’t keep him from pursuing his political fights.
“In the conditions of modern communications, the continuation of my fight against oligarchic regimes in Ukraine and Georgia is not a problem for me,” Saakashvili said on Rustavi 2. The former Georgian leader left his home country amid bitter political feuding after serving out his final term in 2013 and took on Ukrainian citizenship to become a wartime governor of Ukraine's southern Odesa region in 2015-16.
At his press conference on February 13, Saakashvili vowed that "I will be just as effective in Europe as I was in Ukraine," before directing a warning to Ukraine's leadership: "Saakashvili here will be 10 times more dangerous for you than I was in Ukraine."
Saakashvili promised that in the coming days he would "make a sort of Magnitsky List for Ukraine," a reference to the U.S. list of individuals subject to sanctions over perceived rights offenses and corruption.
But he also promised to return to Kyiv, yet again.
“I am going to return to Ukraine absolutely legally,” he said from Poland on February 13. “You have to remember that, according to Ukrainian legislation and international legislation, I am a resident of Ukraine and I have the right to stay in Ukraine.”
It seems unlikely that Saakashvili will be allowed to return before a protest on February 18 that was planned before his expulsion. Regardless of his presence, the protest will go on without its leader, Saakashvili ally David Sakvarelidze told RFE/RL, adding that he believed it would be the group’s largest yet.
A Leaderless Movement, And A Small One At That
But what does the future hold for a movement whose leader is a country away and enjoys roughly only 2 percent of popular support?
Saakashvili’s team has repeatedly dismissed polling numbers and claimed their public protests against Poroshenko and the current government are gaining momentum.
Indeed, the almost-weekly gatherings have increased in size since they began last autumn. But with less than 10,000 people at what appeared to be the largest rally on February 11, the demonstrations have been small compared to the 2013-14 Euromaidan street protests that ousted then-President Viktor Yanukovych and his government.
Authorities are banking on them winding down without Saakashvili to lead them. The February 18 protest may signal which way they are headed.
What About The Case Against Him In Ukraine?
Returning to Ukraine will be a struggle for Saakashvili. But it is worth noting that he has forced his way back into the country after essentially being barred once already.
Should he return, it’s possible he could again face detention and even prison time due to a criminal case against him.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko has claimed his office has a watertight case against Saakashvili that ties him to Serhiy Kurchenko, an ally of the exiled Yanukovych. Lutsenko alleged in December that Kurchenko had paid Saakashvili $500,000 to finance his political activities, and he published audio recordings that he said back the claim. RFE/RL has not authenticated the recordings.
Saakashvili has called the recordings fake and the case against him “a complete lie.” He accuses President Petro Poroshenko of orchestrating a smear campaign to rid himself of a political opponent.
Larysa Sarhan, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office, said they intend to continue investigating the case against Saakashvili, despite his departure.
“The criminal cases will not be closed. The investigations will continue,” Sarhan told Interfax-Ukraine.
Asking For A Little Help From His EU Friends
Saakashvili is banking on getting help from allies in the EU -- specifically German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has played a major role in pressing Kyiv on crucial reforms and negotiations on the conflict between government forces and Russia-backed forces in eastern Ukraine -- to help him return.
"I will be actively working with European politicians, European parliament, American politicians," he pledged on February 13.
“If the European Union, and especially Chancellor Angela Merkel, does not finally do something, Ukraine will collapse,” Saakashvili told the German tabloid Bild earlier. “Poroshenko destroys this country and he wants to remove me because I denounce corruption.”
The public response from the EU was not a particularly strong one.
“We continue to follow developments regarding Mr. Saakashvili. We expect the rule of law as well as the rights of Mr Saakashvili to be upheld,” the 28-member bloc reportedly said.
Merkel’s office has not commented since Saakashvili’s expulsion. Western diplomats in Kyiv have also been silent, suggesting they see this less as a major political struggle and more as a personal beef between Saakashvili and Poroshenko they would prefer to steer clear of.
The only comment from a U.S. diplomat appears to have come from Ambassador Ian Kelly in Tbilisi. According to Interfax, Kelly told reporters that Washington is closely monitoring the situation surrounding Saakashvili and stressed the importance of adhering to judicial procedures in his case.
As to how the situation may affect the political situation in Georgia, Kelly said the United States always prioritizes a strong and stable Georgia.
Will Georgia Send Warsaw An Extradition Request, And Would Poland Comply?
Trying to find a way back to Ukraine won’t be Saakashvili’s only challenge. He may still have to fend off extradition attempts from Georgia, where he has been convicted and sentenced in absentia to three years in prison for abusing his power in pardoning four policemen convicted of killing a banker.
Interfax news agency reported on February 12, citing a member of Georgia’s parliamentary majority in Tbilisi, that should Saakashvili decide to stay in Poland for an extended time the Georgian side would send a request for Warsaw to extradite him.
“He is not a suspect, the trial was held, the verdict has already been passed and, naturally, he is expected here,” lawmaker Alexander Kantaria said on Georgia’s Palitranews.
Could Saakashvili Move Elsewhere?
One option for Saakashvili is perhaps relocating to the Netherlands, where he was reportedly granted a visa in December on the basis of reuniting with family.
“He is married to a Dutch woman and if he applies for a passport it is possible under Dutch law,” Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra reportedly said in December. Saakashvili is married to Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs–Saakashvili, a Dutch native.
So far, Saakashvili has given no indication publicly that he plans to take this route. In typical fashion, he has vowed not only to return to Ukraine but to oust Poroshenko.
“He is not a president or a man, but a sneaky huckster who wants to ruin Ukraine,” Saakashvili said. “This all shows how weak they are. We will defeat them.”