MOSCOW—Those who do not know the character of former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili may have been shocked at the scene in Kiev, Ukraine, on Tuesday.
Passionate and charismatic by nature, Saakashvili always felt in his element leading crowds of supporters to quick and colorful victories. On Tuesday, Saakashvili, 49, climbed up the rooftop of his apartment building just off Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the famous square that was the epicenter of Ukraine’s revolution in the winter of 2013-2014.
“Poroshenko is a thief!” shouted Saakashvili from the rooftop, denouncing his former ally, the billionaire president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. “He is a traitor to the Ukrainian nation!”
In the street below, Saakashvili’s supporters from the Movement of New Forces party, cheered him on.
Saakashvili, whose complicated political trajectory had taken him from Georgia to Ukraine to become first an ally of Poroshenko, then one of his most bitter opponents, had gone up to the top of the building when he learned Ukrainian authorities were on their way to arrest him. He threatened to jump if that happened, but things didn’t turn out the way he or the police expected.
Bending down over the edge of the roof, Saakashvili called for Kiev’s residents to take to the streets and force Poroshenko to flee the country, as the Maidan demonstrators did with another Ukrainian president four years ago. “Drive out the thieves!”
LIFE WITH Saakashvili has never been boring, neither in his home country of Georgia, nor in Ukraine. Just a couple of months ago, after Poroshenko—who had given him Ukrainian citizenship, then stripped it away—forbid him to return, Saakashvili forced his way back into the country from across the Polish border.
In the past the American-educated lawyer and talented civil society leader was very good at organizing colorful revolutionary events. In November 2003 as a young activist Saakashvili and his supporters burst into the Georgian parliament with roses in their hands. Their stormy appearance interrupted then-President Eduard Shevardnadze's speech, eventually forcing the president and his bodyguards to leave the building—to the great joy of students protesting outside on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Prospect. Saakashvili then led the movement known as the Rose Revolution, which eventually forced Shevardnadze to resign.
Later, as his country’s elected president after 2004, Saakashvili fought against deep-rooted corruption in Georgia. He and his team inspired brilliant reforms and taught Georgian state officials to stop taking bribes—a phenomenon unique for a post-Soviet country. Georgians are still proud of that. Russia has never come close to Saakashvili’s successful anti-corruption reforms.
Early in his presidency Saakashvili fired more than 250,000 professors, teachers, and state officials, including former KGB officers—creating a huge number of hot-tempered enemies. Thousands protested against Saakashvili. Today almost every Georgian family has a story about some relative’s suffering from Saakashvili’s tough rule, which included mass prosecutions and arrests in every corner of Georgia.
But even Saakashvili’s biggest critics feel proud of the Rose Revolution and of their corruption-free police.
He introduced his country’s ancient cities to modern Western architecture, built hotels, ski resorts, even negotiated a Trump Tower project on the Black Sea. Staunchly pro-American, and supported enthusiastically by the George W. Bush administration, he named a square for the U.S. president.
But eventually Saakashvili overreached in hopes of bringing two Russian-backed breakaway regions back under Tbilisi’s control. As events spiraled into a war, Russian President Vladimir Putin had all the advantages, and Saakashvili’s American friends were determined not to get dragged into the conflict. As Moscow’s troops advanced on Saakashvili’s capital, he was so shaken at one point he was filmed by the BBC chewing on the end of his red tie like an infant sucking on a rag.
Saakashvili’s romance with the Georgian people finally ended definitively at the ballot box. His party conceded defeat—another thing that almost never happens in post-Soviet countries—and in 2013 he stepped down. Subsequently, Saakashvili was declared a wanted man for abuse of authority in his country of Georgia. He decided to move to the opposite edge of the Black Sea, to Ukraine—by then also in conflict with Moscow—and Poroshenko made him, for a time, governor of Odessa province.
From the start in Ukraine, Saakashvili was combating corruption. The fight against the lingering Soviet mentality, state corruption, and against complicated bureaucracy had been his mission for his entire career, and Poroshenko knew that perfectly well. There should have been no suprise as Saakashvili, or “Misha” as everybody addressed the new governor, tried and break the rules in one of the most corrupt regions of Ukraine. But Misha’s mission turned out to be impossible. Or, maybe, he did not try hard enough. Some blame him for that now.
Addressing the crowd from the rooftop in Kiev on Tuesday, Saakashvili asked his supporters not to allow security forces to drag him away. If prosecuted and found guilty for his alleged connections with criminal groups, Saakashvili could face up to five years in prison—a grim sentence for someone who seems to draw power and life from the street.
Sometimes day after day, Saakashvili has led rallies and marches in Kiev’s downtown, outside the presidential administration and the parliament building, the State Rada, calling for Poroshenko’s to be ousted.
AS THE DRAMA unfolded in Kiev on Tuesday, the Kremlin seemed to enjoy the Saakashvili news, which was thoroughly covered by Russian state television. “We are watching what’s happening with interest,” the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “Saakashvili has gone along a thorny path, from eating his tie to climbing on the roof.”
Tuesday’s images of men in uniforms grabbing and detaining Saakashvili reminds one of an episode we reported back in August of 2008 in the Georgian town of Gori, except that on that day the men in uniforms were Saakashvili’s security and they grabbed him in order to save his life. That was in the midst of the war with Russia and Russian tanks were rolling on Georgia’s land.
President Saakashvili showed a group of journalists and foreign politicians around a block of freshly bombed apartment buildings after an attack by Russian jets. Suddenly, we the heard a sharp sound of a jet diving in above us. Next moment several men in uniforms grabbed President Saakashvili, put him flat on the ground and covered him with their bodies.
Now, Saakashvili did not have any body guards, he was alone on the roof.
It is still hard to believe that the video posted by Ukrainian MP Tetiana Rychkova on Facebook is real. It features a group of men in civilian clothes carrying Saakashvili off the roof. In her post, Rychkova accused Saakashvili of creating a secret plot with the Russian security service, the FSB, in order to receive money from Russia for organizing a coup in Ukraine.
The video of Saakashvili being detained on the roof went viral on the Internet. One creative blogger even turned footage into a dance with Georgian traditional music.
And then, another surprise.
Saakashvili’s supporters smashed the windows of the vehicle with Saakashvili inside and released their leader. He looked a little overwhelmed, but here he was once again surrounded by a thick crowd—and marching to the Maidan. But Wednesday morning he was in a tent camp, and offering to have investigators visit him there if they wanted to talk to him.
WHEN MISHA WAS president of Georgia, HE never took criticism well. He brushed away, for instance, all questions concerning pressure on his opposition, or about the shelling of Tskhinvali in breakaway South Ossetia on the night of Aug. 7, 2008. Earlier that day Georgian tanks, artillery and about 800 troops armed with GRAD rockets moved out of their base towards the contested zone. The GRAD opened fire in the direction of Tskhinvali, a town full of civilians. After that, Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, occupying miles of its land and threatening the capital.
We reporters covering Saakashvili’s presidency rarely heard him ever admit any of his mistakes. But one thing we all appreciated was his respect for press and for transparency. In good times or bad, Saakashvili always let reporters be by his side and see everything with their own eyes. He never banned us from covering both sides of the front lines during the war with Russia.
Now the clouds are growing thicker and darker over Saakashvili’s head. The prosecutor general of Ukraine, Yuri Lutsenko, has accused Saakashvili of organizing opposition rallies in order to seize the state’s power—and bring people from the administration of disgraced and exiled former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych back to power. Lutsenko claimed that Saakashvili was acting specifically in the interests of Sehiy Kurchenko, a Ukrainian oligarch.
Lutsenko told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday the effort to arrest Saakashvili is “part of the operation carried out by the SBU Security Service of Ukraine and the Prosecutor General's Office to disrupt the plan of the pro-Kremlin forces' revenge in Ukraine."
Mustafa Nayyem, a prominent member of Ukraine’s parliament, wrote in a post on Facebook that now it is time for Saakashvili to respond to the accusations and answer all the questions regarding any contacts with Kurchenko and Kurchenko’s money.
Nayyem also suggested that public opinion about the protest movement would not be focused only on Saakashvili’s name and his story, because the street protests were the result of deep public disillusionment.
“What Mikhail has been telling us for the last two years is what our society has been trying to achieve for the last 25 years,” Nayyem said in his post. “It is impossible by opening just one criminal case to kill the outrage of millions who are angry with theft and corruption.”