The Man Without a State
How did Mikheil Saakashvili go from leader of the Rose Revolution to stateless wanderer?
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, likes to reminisce about his walks in the center of Kiev, Ukraine, where people would approach him on the street to have their picture taken with him.
Actors may get lots of similar requests, but among politicians, “I’m the one who gets most of the selfies,” he said via phone from the Hungarian capital of Budapest. “I have this because somehow I’m part of their whole popular culture.”
Saakashvili has been shuttling between Hungary and Poland because authorities in Kiev stripped him of his Ukrainian citizenship on July 26. Saakashvili, who lost his Georgian citizenship when he became a citizen of Ukraine, is now stateless.
The former president of Georgia (turned exile, turned governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, turned exile again) is now camped out in Poland. There, he and some of his supporters and allies are working to figure out when the man known to many as Misha could make his way back to Kiev.
Saakashvili has good relations with authorities in Poland and Hungary — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban campaigned for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, in its unsuccessful bid to maintain power in the 2012 election (“I’ve been friends with them for quite some time,” Saakashvili told Foreign Policy).
But Saakashvili said he has “no desire whatsoever” to stay in either Hungary or Poland. People recognize him and support him on the streets in Poland, he said, but “I don’t think I belong there.”
Where Saakashvili belongs — in the physical world, regional political space, and popular imagination — has been a question, and a subject of fascination, since he led Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003.
He is widely credited for modernizing, westernizing, reforming, and rooting out corruption in Georgia. He is also now a symbol to some of a wave of early leaders in Eastern Europe who have been accused of abandoning liberal principles in favor of authoritarianism.
How he got from running Georgia to scheming from Warsaw is “in some ways, the logical pathway, given his personality and given the way he’s lived his life,” Marc Behrendt, the director of the Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House, told FP. “He could have been the Vaclav Havel of Eurasia if he had been true to the principles.”
Things didn’t work out that way.
“He came in with such a huge mandate. He could have done anything he wanted,” Behrendt said. “Instead, he did whatever he wanted.”
In 2003, 36-year-old Saakashvili stormed the Georgian Parliament on live television. He demanded that Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who was, at the time, president of Georgia, step down over disputed parliamentary elections.
New elections shortly thereafter turned Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia Law School, from a revolutionary into a president. He set about cracking down on crime and corruption and thrusting Georgia toward the West. In 2008, he saw his country though the Russo-Georgian War. His critics say Saakashvili walked into a Russian trap by moving on the capital of South Ossetia and believing the United States would be there to back him up.
In 2009, he brought on a fresh slate of international advisors, including Molly K. McKew, who described working with Saakashvili and his government as a “really unique experience” because Georgian officials actually wanted advice. “It was a project I think all of us really miss — working for a government trying to do transformational things,” she said.
Saakashvili also brought Western attention, in part by currying favor with the U.S. administration of George W. Bush. Saakashvili hired a healthy spate of lobbyists and advisors, and in 2013 the Sunlight Foundation ranked Georgia in the top 10 list of countries based on lobbying spending.
Even his detractors admit that Saakashvili put Georgia on the map. “I do think he brought tremendous attention and energy and vision to Georgia,” Michael Cecire, an international security program fellow at New America, told FP.
“Saakashvili absolutely deserves credit for supercharging state-building reforms in Georgia in the wake of the Rose Revolution,” he said.
But roses wilt, and, for some, the Rose Revolution did, too. Saakashvili’s critics claim he strengthened the state, but not his citizens’ freedoms, and that Western leaders didn’t say enough when he took over the judiciary, cracked down on protests, and fired thousands from the police force in the name of reform.
Cecire said Saakashvili and his team skirted rule of law and centralized and personalized power. “Now,” he noted, “even most of his closest former lieutenants in Georgia have sought distance from him.”
“Many good people hoped that he would provide a leap forward in modernization, as emblemized by the Revolution of the Roses,” wrote Tedo Japaridze, a onetime Saakashvili colleague, in an email to FP. “However, as Saakashvili was nearing the end of his first term it became abundantly clear that he was using his authority to create an unshakable power fiefdom within Georgia.”
Japaridze was briefly the first foreign minister in Saakashvili’s administration after the Rose Revolution, but he no longer associates himself with Saakashvili or his movement.
Now the foreign advisor to the prime minister of Georgia, Japaridze, who emphasized that his comments were in a strictly personal capacity, said he remembers when he and his wife stopped using their cell phones out of fear of being monitored. He described Saakashvili’s ruling style as “ultimately authoritarian” and noted Georgia had one of the highest incarceration rates in the world under Saakashvili.
In 2012, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party trounced Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the parliamentary elections. (Saakashvili, in his interview with FP, likened Ivanishvili, who was briefly prime minister, to Iran’s supreme leader.)
The next year, Saakashvili’s term was up, and he stepped down.
The new Georgian Dream government pursued various United National Movement politicians, including Saakashvili, who was charged with exceeding his authority. Among the incidents cited were Saakashvili’s use of force to break up a 2007 protest and ordering a raid on a media station.
Lincoln Mitchell, a Georgia analyst who advised Georgian Dream in 2012, said Saakashvili “clearly went up to the precipice of being an authoritarian leader,” but he also acknowledged that there was no space in Georgia as there was for, say, George W. Bush in the United States to live out his post-presidential days.
Saakashvili, for his part, maintains the charges are political.
Beginning in 2013, Saakashvili lived for a while in self-imposed exile in the United States, including in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, but quickly set his sights back on Eastern Europe. McKew, who once consulted for Saakashvili, said she saw the former Georgian president in late 2013 in Washington. “He was telling everybody, ‘Watch these protests in Ukraine.’”
Those protests eventually led to the Maidan revolution, a popular uprising that ousted Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President.
Petro Poroshenko, who was elected the new president of Ukraine in 2014, brought in Saakashvili to help reform the country’s corruption-riddled institutions. Several other Georgians came in with him, too, taking various posts in Kiev.
Saakashvili was made governor of Odessa and granted Ukrainian citizenship, which meant giving up his Georgian citizenship. (In a twist, the law that deprived Saakashvili of his Georgian citizenship was put in place during his tenure as president.)
“He hurt himself politically in Georgia by giving up his citizenship,” Ghia Nodia, who served in Saakashvili’s cabinet when he was president, told FP. “His decision displayed impatience and lack of strategic judgment: He cannot just wait out for better times and loves to be in the center of action.”
Saakashvili and the Georgians were meant to reform Ukraine as quickly as they had reformed Georgia. More than three years after the Maidan revolution, however, some say little progress has been made in combating corruption.
Mitchell pointed out that Saakashvili knew how Georgia worked — who was stealing from whom and which levers to pull — but said he did not necessarily know that in Odessa.
“Unlike when he was president of Georgia, and essentially had very strong powers, governors of Ukraine don’t necessarily have those powers,” added Hannah Thoburn of the Hudson Institute.
The bigger difference, according to Khatia Dekanoidze, who was in the Georgian government under Saakashvili and followed him to Ukraine to become chief of the country’s National Police, is a lack of political will. “In Ukraine, there is a coalition government, and the different parties … sometimes they don’t have the deals which are in the national interest of Ukraine,” she said.
She resigned from the post in November of last year.
That doesn’t mean the Georgian reformers thought fixing Ukraine’s institutions was impossible. “These skeptics that say, ‘Oh, it’s not possible in Ukraine.’ … It’s just not true,” said David Sakvarelidze, who worked as deputy chief prosecutor of Georgia in the second half of Saakashvili’s tenure and became deputy general prosecutor of Ukraine.
“I use the comparison: What is the difference between the big and small iPad? The technology is one and the same. The iPad is the iPad,” Sakvarelidze said. “You either have political will or you don’t. You will not achieve any drastic, serious reforms unless you have leadership in these regards.”
Sakvarelidze was fired in March 2016 after uncovering corruption in the prosecutor’s office. He is still dedicated to Saakashvili and their anti-corruption movement.
In the end, Saakashvili and his colleagues weren’t able to end Ukraine’s rampant corruption. “He made some progress, as I understand it, with police reform, cutting red tape,” Cecire said. “To be honest, a lot of the same type of reform he was known for in Georgia.”
Saakashvili quit in November of last year, blasting Poroshenko for insufficient support of reforms.
In Odessa, the former president of Georgia “became kind of a hostage of his unrealized ambitions,” Maxim Eristavi, a Ukrainian civil rights advocate, told FP.
It would take years for anyone to fix Odessa, Eristavi said, but Saakashvili wanted to transition quickly back to the national stage.
“He quit early … just blaming everything and everyone for himself not achieving anything during that period,” Eristavi said.
After resigning, Saakashvili founded his own party, the Movement of New Forces, a play that appeared set to put him on a collision course with Poroshenko. Saakashvili “talked a lot about wanting to run for president, trying to form his own political party, essentially biting the hand that fed him,” Thoburn said. “Those kind of things happen all the time in Ukrainian politics, but usually people had oligarchic backing.”
In July, Poroshenko revoked Saakashvili’s citizenship, ostensibly because he lied on his passport application (authorities published the application; Saakashvili said it is not his signature on the document).
Saakashvili was in the United States when news of the Ukrainian government’s decision to strip him of his citizenship broke. He nonetheless was able to return to Europe on his Ukrainian passport, and he is now trying to get back to the country to contest the revocation, which many consider to be a violation of international law.
Saakashvili says Poroshenko is afraid of him and the political threat he poses. Some say Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship after meeting and agreeing with Saakashvili’s political rival, Ivanishvili, to force his extradition back to Georgia.
But Saakashvili sees things differently. He thinks that the Georgian authorities conspired with their Ukrainian counterparts to make him “homeless.”
He maintains that, contrary to reports, Poland did not receive an extradition request from Georgia. (The Georgian Ministry of Justice told FP that the Georgian prosecutor’s office filed the request; the Polish Ministry of Justice directed FP to the Warsaw prosecutor’s office, which said that it received a request from Georgia to confirm Saakashvili was in Poland but not an extradition request.)
The story of Poroshenko taking an opponent’s citizenship away is relevant, Eristavi said, because that was a “blatant violation of international law.” But “the story of Saakashvili and his political career is absolutely irrelevant. He has no political base, no popular support, and he’s not popular because people don’t really like quitters, and he quit on Odessa.”
That’s not how Saakashvili sees the situation. “There are lots of people in Odessa who say it was the best governorship ever,” he said.
And while many in Ukraine, like Eristavi, say the party Saakashvili founded, the Movement of New Forces, isn’t polling well, the former Odessa governor is already distancing his own popularity from that of his party. “That was my party,” he said. “It wasn’t me.… I am always among the three or four most popular politicians. It’s not about my party. It’s about me.”
Yet a spring 2017 poll conducted by the International Republican Institute said only 2 percent of Ukrainians had a “very favorable” opinion of Saakashvili, while 44 percent had a “very unfavorable” opinion.
“It’s not just measured by polling numbers,” Saakashvili said. “I was very much part of the landscape.”
Saakashvili announced last week on Facebook that he would return to Ukraine on Sept. 10. He said he was not afraid and asked Ukrainian authorities not to make a circus out of his return.
Ukrainian border guards have already said they will prevent him from entering.
And so Saakashvili went from leading the Rose Revolution to the Georgian presidency to exile to Ukrainian governorship to exile again and, if all goes according to his plan, back to Ukraine for his day in court. It’s unclear what will happen when he attempts to cross the border.
There is perhaps an alternate ending to Saakashvili’s story, where he lives out his days quietly in Brooklyn, or Warsaw, working at a university or a think tank. But that is not the ending Saakashvili sees for himself.
“Ukrainians would never forgive me, that I gave up so easily. That would mean I’m just like everybody else,” he said. “And all my life, I’ve tried not to be just like everybody else.”
Photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images