Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Ukrainian protesters free former Georgian leader Saakashvili from detention

December 5, 2017 at 11:36 AM

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Supporters of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili broke him free just hours after he was detained in Kiev, Ukraine, on Dec. 5. (Christopher Miller)

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was freed by supporters on Tuesday only hours after Ukrainian authorities detained him.

Masked officers took Saakashvili into custody in his apartment building in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, earlier Tuesday, as protesters rallied outside in his support. At one point, Saakashvili even climbed on the building’s rooftop to address them.

The van in which authorities attempted to transport him was blocked by protesters, who held it up for hours. Saakashvili was eventually dragged out of the vehicle. Once free, he repeated his calls for protests against Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

“I urge you to start a peaceful protest to remove Poroshenko. You should not be afraid of anything,” Saakashvili told the crowd, according to Reuters.

Tuesday’s high-tension drama is the latest episode in the unlikely political rise and subsequent fall of a now-stateless former president. Both celebrated and feared, the anti-Russian Saakashvili built political careers in two countries but may now face charges in both places.

It was not clear why authorities tried to detain Saakashvili, although Ukrainian media reported Tuesday that he may have been preparing a coup against Poroshenko’s government or could be charged with covering up “criminal activities.” Ukraine also has a history of imprisoning political opponents — such as former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko — and Saakashvili’s supporters immediately questioned the real motives behind his attempted detention, especially because he had just announced plans to campaign against Poroshenko, a former ally.

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Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was briefly detained Dec. 5 in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, before his supporters freed him. (Vladislav Kutsenko)

Saakashvili — who served as Georgia’s president for almost a decade — left his country in 2013 to accept a teaching engagement in the United States. By the end of his presidency, he was widely reviled in Georgia, where many blamed him for a mismanaged justice system and a 2008 war with Russia that left the Georgian military humiliated and weakened. In the months leading up to his electoral defeat, mass protests swept the country.

Saakashvili's political career had come to an end — but only in Georgia.

Shortly afterward, protests in Ukraine toppled then-President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. Saakashvili sensed an opportunity and became active in Ukrainian politics, where the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east bore striking similarities to the Georgian conflict. Saakashvili's anti-Russian credentials and his alliance with the new president, Poroshenko, saw the former Georgian leader launch a second political career as he was granted Ukrainian citizenship.

As governor of Ukraine’s Odessa province, Saakashvili soon emerged as one of the country’s most popular politicians. Yet within a year, his projects had stalled, and he resigned, claiming interference in his anti-corruption efforts.

Since then, Saakashvili has essentially acted in opposition to his former allies. His Ukrainian citizenship was revoked earlier this year while he was outside the country, probably to thwart his political ambitions. Then, in perhaps one of the more dramatic political returns in recent memory, he reentered the country with the help of supporters who burst through a police line at the Polish border.

At the time, Saakashvili said his return was accidental.

“They swept us up and carried us into Ukraine,” he said.

Activists charge against riot police during a demonstration against the stripping of Mikheil Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship in Kiev on July 27. (Stepan Franko/EPA)

Since then Saakashvili has actively campaigned against the current government.

Over the weekend, he participated in an anti-government rally on Kiev’s main Independence Square during which he urged protesters to set up a permanent camp if the government didn't give in to their demands. Protesters are demanding that an impeachment law be passed.

Supporters of the government fear that such a permanent protest camp would be dangerously similar to the 2014 Maidan protests, which led to the downfall of Ukraine's political elite.

Responding to Tuesday's developments, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “What's going on in Kiev today is Ukraine's headache. You wouldn't want to wish that guy on your worst enemy,” referring to Saakashvili.

His detention and subsequent liberation could further fuel protests in Ukraine. But while Saakashvili may be popular among the Ukrainian opposition, the attempt to detain him is likely to draw much less condemnation in Georgia.

Back home, courts stripped him of his Georgian citizenship in 2015 after issuing an arrest warrant over alleged abuse of power during his time in office. Authorities there are still seeking Saakashvili's deportation.

David Filipov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Read more: 

Saakashvili calls for protest camp in Ukraine’s capital

Ukraine doesn't want him. Georgia wants to arrest him. Saakashvili stirs things up.

Former president of Georgia seeks to free Ukraine from Moscow's orbit


Rick Noack is a foreign affairs reporter who covers Europe and international security issues from The Washington Post's Berlin bureau. Previously, he worked for The Post from Washington as an Arthur F. Burns Fellow and from London.

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