Interview

You’re Not Getting Rid of Saakashvili That Easily

You’re Not Getting Rid of Saakashvili That Easily

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili learned that he had been stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship in the middle of a trip to upstate New York. There was no formal notification; Saakashvili learned from Ukrainian media, like everyone else, that he was now a stateless person.

This was not the first time that he had been stripped of a citizenship. In 2015, after Saakashvili made the move to Ukraine and adopted Ukrainian citizenship in order to assume public office there, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili signed a decree revoking Saakashvili’s Georgian citizenship. This time, however, Saakashvili has no more passports to lose, and his exile could signal a shift toward increasingly repressive politics in Ukraine, as well as the final nail in the coffin of Saakashvili’s multinational political career.

Now staying at a relative’s home in the New York City borough of the Bronx, Saakashvili is in a fighting mood, planning his next move in the sort of political battle he has long lived for. In an interview, Saakashvili told Foreign Policy about the scheme to render him stateless while overseas, how Ukrainian civil society has rallied around him, and his plans to return to Ukraine.

“It’s very obvious [Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko] went to Georgia to make a deal connected to me,” he said, hinting at multinational plots against him. Saakashvili says that, according to his sources, when Poroshenko made an official state visit to Georgia earlier this month, he had a secret meeting with Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who led the coalition that ousted Saakashvili from power in Georgia in 2013. Under the terms of the agreement, he claims, Georgian prosecutors were to send bogus evidence concerning criminal charges against Saakashvili to Ukrainian officials, who would wait until he was out of the country to use his failure to list those charges on his citizenship application as a pretext to revoke his citizenship.

Poroshenko’s office has not yet released a formal statement on the revocation, but the Ukrainian State Migration Service, which handles visa and citizenship issues, released a statement on July 26 that largely confirmed Saakashvili’s version of events, saying it had received materials from Georgian officials showing omissions on his citizenship application. The move comes at a time when Ukrainian officials are already under heavy international criticism: Rights groups worry that the country is backsliding into the lack of accountability and abuse of authority of the pre-Maidan years while simultaneously restricting freedom of expression and media freedoms. And Saakashvili has made enemies during his years in Ukraine.

Poroshenko initially brought Saakashvili into the political fold in 2015 to boost his own reformer credentials, but that relationship has gone downhill. After being appointed governor of the Odessa region — a seeming step down for a former president — Saakashvili accused Poroshenko of blocking his attempts at reform and taking the side of corrupt officials and former allies of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Saakashvili’s critics accused him of being more interested in using Odessa as a steppingstone to national politics than in pushing through the long-lasting reforms he had made his reputation with in Georgia. Since resigning as governor of Odessa in November 2016, Saakashvili’s criticism of Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government has intensified and become the basis of his new political party in Ukraine, the Movement of New Forces. But the party has struggled to find its footing, and a 2017 poll found that only 2 percent of Ukrainians would vote for it.

Saakashvili argued that the stripping of his citizenship showed worrying authoritarian tendencies in Poroshenko. “It’s not about me. Right now, Poroshenko basically said he can do anything to keep the influence of his corrupt circle,” he said. “If he is capable of doing such illegal things against figures like me who are widely known in the world, some unknown Ukrainians can easily suffer.” Saakashvili accused Poroshenko of reverting to Soviet-era practices where dissidents were allowed or forced abroad only to have their citizenship revoked so they could not return.

The final straw for Saakashvili may have come on July 25 when U.S. President Donald Trump lashed out against Ukraine on Twitter. Saakashvili, in turn, tweeted that it was the price Ukraine had to pay for “its leadership’s incompetence.” It was particularly bad timing: Poroshenko had just completed in June a whirlwind charm offensive in the United States to win over the new president that it appeared Saakashvili was trying to sabotage.

The ex-president’s new stateless status — inconvenient though it may be — does come with some upsides. Saakashvili’s political fortunes had been on the wane in Ukraine. He had few concrete achievements during his time in Odessa and, since his resignation has been for all purposes jobless, living in Kiev and working to help his party get organized. In recent months, with no national election in sight until 2019, Saakashvili was struggling to galvanize voters and had receded from the public eye.

Being stripped of citizenship has given him an unexpected boost. Already, opposition and civil society figures who had distanced themselves from Saakashvili have rallied to protect him and protest Poroshenko’s actions. Mustafa Nayem, a parliamentarian and critic of Poroshenko, called stripping Saakashvili’s citizenship one of the greatest political mistakes since Yanukovych imprisoned the former prime minister and opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko after she lost the presidential election in 2010. It was such an egregious case of selective justice that it was brought up at every subsequent meeting with Western officials.

Saakashvili says he will not seek asylum in the United States or any other country and will find a way to return to Ukraine. But, for now, he will remain with family in New York while planning his next move; according to his spokesperson, his current visa gives him until the end of the year to remain in the country.

“[Poroshenko] wanted to discourage me, but he gave me much more incentive to intensify this fight,” Saakashvili said. “He did it because he was scared of what I was doing politically.”

Image credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images