14 December 2017
Saakashvili v Poroshenko
Confrontation in Kiev.
by Neil Tidmarsh
They’re armed and masked when they come for him. But he escapes onto the rooftop while they’re smashing the door down. They give chase and finally corner him on the edge of a deep drop to the street below. He threatens to throw himself off the building but they grab him before he can make such a desperate and hopeless bid to escape. He’s handcuffed and bundled from the building and into a police van.
The crowds out in the street have witnessed the whole thing. Now they surround the police van, stop it from driving away and force the doors open. The security officers turn on them with tear gas. The officers are all battle-hardened in the country’s fierce and still on-going civil war; the crowds are afraid they’ll be mown down with automatic weapons, but that doesn’t deter them. They free the arrested man and he disappears into the multitude, the handcuffs dangling from his wrist.
The police have lost him, but the hunt goes on. He hides out in a tented encampment run by protesters in the middle of the city.
Who is he? He was once the leader of a whole country, and the regional governor in another, but now he is a stateless man, a dissident on the run. He smuggled himself back into the country a few months ago to continue his campaign against a government and president he accuses of corruption, of back-tracking on promised reforms and of betraying the liberal ideals which brought them to power. He is calling for protests and demonstrations against them, for their impeachment and dismissal, and they are determined to silence him.
The police get wind of his whereabouts and launch a violent dawn raid on the encampment. They make their way from tent to tent but their quarry escapes yet again. The next day, however, they finally catch up with him, corner him, arrest him, and lock him up in a detention centre.
No, this isn’t the opening of a best-selling political thriller soon to filmed as a Hollywood block-buster. It happened last week in Kiev. The arrested dissident is the politician Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili. He was a reformist president of Georgia for ten years following the pro-western Rose revolution in 2003; then, in 2015, President Poroshenko of Ukraine appointed him governor of the Odessa region. But he fell out with Poroshenko, claiming that his attempts to tackle corruption there were being thwarted, and he resigned and became a critic of the president and his government. Earlier this year, Poroshenko cancelled Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship while he was abroad, rendering him stateless (he’d had to relinquish his Georgian citizenship on becoming governor of Odessa).
And now he’s being accused of plotting a coup d’état with “members of a criminal organisation”. Ukraine’s prosecutor general claims that Saakashvili received half a million dollars to fund the overthrow of the government from a Ukrainian businessman and alleged criminal who fled to Russia three years ago and who has links to Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine who was ousted in the pro-western revolution of 2014 (who is also in exile in Russia and who is wanted for in the Ukraine for high treason).
Mikheil Saakashvili was freed from detention after being charged, but he’ll soon go to trial and could be imprisoned for up to ten years. He denies the charges and says his arrest was politically motivated.
Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, but he could just as easily have been describing contemporary Ukraine. Many questions about it remain unanswered and perhaps unanswerable. Is the civil war a covert Russian invasion of the West, or is the Kremlin in fact involved in the insurrection primarily to stabilise the situation, to the extent of killing off the more extreme and maverick leaders of the anti-Kiev Russian-speaking separatists? (See Ukraine’s Fragile Ceasefire, June 2015). Was the West – Nato and the EU – wise in trying to push its borders right up against Russia by attempting to absorb a Russian-speaking country which has always been a Russian satellite? How responsible is the EU for the civil war precipitated by its trade and security treaty with Ukraine? Is that treaty helping Ukraine to become a liberal democracy respecting the rule of law? How can you tell who is corrupt, when everyone is accusing everyone else of corruption? Will the EU continue to honour that treaty now that the Netherlands has rejected it? (See That Other EU Referendum, April 2016).
Similar enigmas and riddles surround this latest clash between Saakashvili and the Poroshenko regime. Should we believe Saakashvili, who claims that he is being persecuted for criticising the regime as corrupt and compromised? Or should we believe the regime, which accuses Saakashvili of criminally conspiring to overthrow the government with a Russian-funded coup d’état?
These questions, however, are somewhat less intractable than the others. President Poroshenko’s government has been criticised by the West this month; the US and the UK have both expressed concern that anti-corruption measures are being undermined. And Mr Saakashvili proved himself a pro-Western reformer in Georgia and an anti-corruption campaigner in Odessa; would he, a vocal and long-standing opponent of Putin, be likely to throw in his lot with a corrupt and criminal anti-Western, pro-Russian plot to violently overthrow the government of Ukraine?
“I consider myself a prisoner of Ukrainian oligarchs” he declared in the court room. “The only person to win from this circus is Putin, who is roaring with laughter.”
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