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The curious case of Mikheil Saakashvili, the stateless statesman


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Mikheil Saakashvili was the president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, presiding over market-oriented economic reforms that made Georgia the darling of Western investors and politicians. But the political tide turned against him, and in 2013 he fled him home country to avoid criminal charges. He landed in Ukraine, where he was granted citizenship and even appointed as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region in 2015. (Georgia responded by stripping Saakashvili of his Georgian citizenship.) Now, as Leonid Bershidsky reports for Bloomberg, his political fortunes in his adopted country have taken a turn for the worse as well. He ran afoul of Ukraine’s powerful president, Petro Poroshenko, and this week, while Saakashvili was traveling abroad, the Ukrainian government stripped him of the citizenship they had formerly granted him. Saakashvili is now officially stateless. Bershidsky sums up this entire dramatic and sordid affair thus: “Post-Soviet politicians are unable to overcome authoritarian temptations. They are intent on consolidating authority at the price of turning democratic institutions into hollow caricatures of themselves.” Here’s an excerpt from his news article:

Accused of embezzlement and abuse of power in Georgia, Columbia Law School-trained Saakashvili surfaced briefly in the U.S. where he had a teaching position and friends in the Republican hierarchy, such as Senator John McCain. But he ached for a political challenge, and in 2014, he found it in Ukraine, where he had once gone to college and where the “Revolution of Dignity” gave him an opening as a professional reformer. His Georgian success was an example to which may Ukrainians aspired. President Petro Poroshenko took him on as an adviser, and there was a brief period in Kiev when Saakashvili’s Georgian allies became a political force. They took key jobs in some of the most corrupt sectors of the Ukrainian state, reflecting the popular belief that Saakashvili knew how to fix graft.

The former Georgian president hesitated to take on a more practical role: A government appointment would have required Ukrainian citizenship, and he still harbored political ambitions in Georgia. But the “Georgian team” wasn’t doing well in Kiev, hemmed in by the all-powerful bureaucracy and a political elite that wanted him to fail. In February 2015, Poroshenko appointed him governor of Odessa, a large regional center with a deeply entrenched local oligarchy and strong pro-Russian leanings. Poroshenko also handed him a Ukrainian passport. In December 2015, Georgia stripped the former president of his citizenship for pledging allegiance to a different nation.

His eggs now in the Ukrainian basket, Saakashvili tried to shake up Odessa. He took public transportation to talk to ordinary people, set up a modern public services center, began rebuilding a potholed highway to the Romanian border, and fought for control of the customs service at the Odessa seaport, which he felt could be developed into a strong revenue source. At first, he acquired near-mythical status, with many Ukrainians looking his way with hope.

The local elite and increasingly jealous Kiev officials made sure the Georgian failed at everything he attempted. He made powerful enemies, notably Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who told him during a particularly contentious meeting, “Get out of my country!”

Image: Mikheil Saakashvili eats his tie. Via YouTube.