KIEV, Ukraine — Masked officers from Ukraine's security services arrived early Tuesday morning to arrest Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president currently living here — but their plans went quickly awry.
The raiders reportedly broke down the door of Saakashvili’s apartment in central Kiev, near the main Independence Square, to search the premises and take him into custody. There was talk of his being involved in a plot to overthrow the government. But Saakashvili, who has reinvented himself as a leading opposition figure here, gave them the slip and escaped to his building’s roof. There, he addressed hundreds of his followers who had in the meantime rushed to the scene at the news of his detention.
“[President Petro] Poroshenko is a thief and traitor to the Ukrainian people,” he said, and called on Ukrainians to take to the streets to resist the government.
Five years out of power in Georgia, Saakashvili came to Ukraine as a reformer, at Poroshenko's invitation, but has since become an outspoken opponent of the president, even as Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship earlier this year (and rendered the Georgian stateless).
Ukrainian authorities said they wanted to question Saakashvili on charges of “assisting members of criminal organizations.” Yuri Lutsenko, the country’s general prosecutor and a close ally of Poroshenko, later said this case involved a plan to topple the government together with allies of the country’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled three years ago to Russia.
Officers eventually reached Saakashvili and carefully dragged him from the roof — steep and slippery from an early December snowfall — and into a waiting police van. But the dramatics had just begun. Saakashvili’s supporters surrounded the vehicle and prevented it from leaving. Protesters clashed with police, who used pepper spray at times to hold the throng at bay.
After an extended and chaotic standoff, the demonstrators broke a window and extracted Saakashvili from the van. The Georgian emerged triumphantly, handcuffs still attached to one wrist, and was swept to the top of the steps of a nearby Catholic church.
“They are lying little animals,” Saakashvili said about those who leveled the charges against him. “We must throw this organized criminal group, led by Poroshenko, out of power.”
Tuesday’s events are a further escalation in the high-stakes struggle between Saakashvili and Poroshenko — and a testament to the Georgian’s mastery of political theater.
Saakashvili first burst on the international stage as the leader of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, when he stormed the country’s parliament and drove President Eduard Shevardnadze from power.
He was subsequently elected to two terms as Georgia’s president, but left office under a cloud. His party had lost parliamentary elections and he was under heavy criticism for being drawn into a disastrous war with Russia in 2008.
A new political life beckoned in Ukraine, after the country’s 2014 pro-Western revolution, which brought Poroshenko to power. Poroshenko knew Saakashvili from their university days in the late 1980s, and appointed the former Georgian leader as governor of the corruption-ridden southern Odessa region.
However, Saakashvili resigned his post after little more than a year, accusing Poroshenko himself of being steeped in corruption and blocking Saakashvili’s attempts at reform. Poroshenko denied the charges.
In July, Ukrainian authorities — claiming irregularities in his citizenship application — revoked Saakashvili’s Ukrainian passport, and banned him from returning to Ukraine. Saakashvili has also lost his Georgian citizenship, and is wanted in his home country on charges of abuse of power while in office.
Saakashvili was in the United States at the time of the Ukrainian announcement, but a few weeks later he and his followers, in another dramatic political gesture, stormed through a Ukrainian-Polish checkpoint and reentered the country.
On Tuesday in Kiev, the drama extended beyond Saakashvili’s liberation from the police van. Surrounded by masses of his supporters, and a scrum of journalists with cameras and smartphones extended above their heads, he marched into Independence Square and toward parliament.
On the way, they passed the seat of the Ukrainian government. From the street, the protesters could see government workers peering down from behind curtains in the upper windows. “Shame!” the marchers shouted.
Ultimately, the crowd reached the main square in front of the legislature, where Saakhashvili and his followers have established a weeks-long military-style protest camp. Saakashvili repeated calls for Poroshenko's impeachment, but by this time the energy of the protest seemed to be dissipating.
Recent opinion surveys in fact show Saakashvili polling at somewhere between 1 percent and 2 percent — causing a number of political observers to wonder why the government is so dogged in its pursuit of him. Indeed, operations like the one on Tuesday morning seem only to boost his political profile.
Still, the government shows no signs of giving up. As Saakashvili and his supporters gathered outside parliament, Lutsenko was inside laying out the case against the Georgian.
He played an audio recording allegedly between Saakashvili and Serhiy Kurchenko, a Ukrainian oligarch and close ally of former president Yanukovych, who likewise fled to Russia and reportedly provided a half-million dollars to Saakashvili to organize protests. (“I barely know who Kurchenko is,” Saakashvili said.)
Lutsenko also said that Saakashvili was now considered a fugitive from arrest and expected him to show up at the state security services on Wednesday.
“In 24 hours, Ukraine’s entire law-enforcement system will do everything necessary for the stateless Saakashvili to appear before investigators to be charged with suspicion, and then [to appear] in court,” Lutsenko said.