A protest march is a tried-and-true political weapon to pressure, or even topple, the powers that be. Mikheil Saakashvili, former Georgian President and former head of Ukraine’s Odessa regional administration, plans to arrive in Kiev on September 19 – the day Ukraine’s President Poroshenko will be in New York, preparing for his speech to address the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on September 20. “Kiev urgently needs to be saved!” Saakashvili says. Poroshenko’s trip to the United States will take place against all the odds. Nothing can be changed. The occasion to address the UNGA has been anticipated for a long time. The Ukraine’s president will meet President Donald Trump during his stay in America.
Stripped of Ukraine’s citizenship and forced to remain outside his adopted country for several months, Saakashvili forced his way across the border on September 10 to get the passport back and occupy a prominent place in Ukraine’s politics while leading the protest movement against overwhelming corruption. He is the leader of the political party named the New Forces Movement (Rukh Novykh Syl). Kiev is “panicking,” Saakashvili said, adding that he did “not want to overthrow President Poroshenko” but just defend his rights.
Saakashvili is wanted in his homeland for alleged abuse of power during nine years as president that saw him start and lose a brief war with Russia in 2008. He left Georgia in 2013. In 2015, he was appointed by President Poroshenko as governor of the key Odessa region on the Black Sea. He quit the job in 2016 after a political split with President Poroshenko, who stripped him of the Ukrainian citizenship in July 2017. The pretext was “inaccurate information” in Saakashvili’s citizenship application. With Ukraine’s citizenship back, Saakashvili could be elected for parliament or run for president.
It remains to be seen whether the “breakthrough” bringing Saakashvili back into Ukraine’s political limelight will translate into leadership of growing political opposition movement. Saakashvili indicates he intends to “go all the way” to challenge the Ukraine’s government of “thieves and corrupt dealers.”
He is a menace for the Poroshenko-led Ukraine’s government and he has just made a dexterous move crossing the border and making a trip across western Ukraine gaining political backing. And this menace to Ukraine’s president is supported by Washington. Saakashvili has always been a pro-US politician. It was in New York where he got the news about his being stripped of Ukraine’s citizenship.
Special US representative on Ukraine, Kurt Volker, has stressed that Mikheil Saakashvili has the right to have his case on the loss of Ukrainian citizenship heard in a Ukrainian court. “I hope that people de-escalate the political drama, focus on the legal matter, and that Ukraine really strengthens its institutions of democracy, as well as fighting corruption and economic reform," Volker said. The US official knows well that open court hearings may become a death knell for the Poroshenko’s administration, with scandalous revelations to hit media headlines.
Poroshenko is a pro-western politician, too, but disappointment with his administration is growing in the West. Kiev is under pressure from the US and the EU to curb corruption and liberalize the economy. The reforms in pension, land and tax reforms, and privatization have failed. The country tops the world corruption rating. According to the 2016 Global Fraud Survey, 88% of Ukrainian employees thought that bribery and corrupt practices were widespread in the country. European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker believes that “Corruption is undermining all efforts to rebuild Ukraine in line with European Union norms.” "What we are asking … is to increase the fight against corruption, because corruption is undermining all the efforts this great nation is undertaking," Juncker said. "We remain very concerned."
US officials have been pushing Ukraine to press ahead with reforms that would curb corruption and improve governmental transparency for some time. Visiting Ukraine in July, State Secretary Rex Tillerson admitted that Ukraine had come a long way but "We want to acknowledge that, (but) we still have more to do," he said. "This is all about securing Ukraine's future: making the place attractive for investors, being attractive to their European neighbors."
Melinda Haring, the editor of the Ukraine Alert blog at the Atlantic Council and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, believes that “The sad reality is that Ukraine’s reforms have stalled, and the window of opportunity is starting to close”. She notes that the International Monetary Fund, which pledged $17.5 billion to right the economy, has told Ukraine that it won’t get any more assistance until it legalizes land sales, reforms its troubled pension system, creates an anti-corruption court and starts to privatize some of Ukraine’s 1,800 state-run companies. Of this formidable to-do list, only pension and health reform have a chance of passing before mid-July, 2017.
“Ukraine's Western partners are disappointed with the lack of progress of the country's reform process, and with Petro Poroshenko's record as the country's president in particular,” said Andreas Umland, German analyst at the Kiev-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation. He fully supports Ukraine's attempts to reform along Western lines, but his assessment of the first two years of President Poroshenko's term in office is mostly negative, since Ukraine continues to face many of the same problems it did when he was first sworn in, along with a series of new ones.
While pledging its loyalty to the West, Ukraine’s government and political elite continue to have things their way. The West’s patience with Ukraine is not unlimited. Saakashvili can be used as a tool to exert pressure and make the Poroshenko administration do more to meet the West’s demands. According to the Rating Group Ukraine survey conducted in June, a total of 76 percent of Ukrainian citizens disapprove of the work of Petro Poroshenko as president of Ukraine. Only 1 percent fully approved the activities of the head of state.
Sooner or later, Poroshenko will go to be remembered as a miserable failure. The much vaunted loyalty to the West lasts as long as it meets the interests of the Ukraine’s ruling elite, which is pursuing its own goals. Saakashvili knows how to ride the wave of popular discontent. With Poroshenko gone, he’ll be the right person to step in. As the opposition leader, Saakashvili will guarantee that Ukraine continues dancing to the tune played in Washington and Brussels, whatever happens. If it were not for the support of the West, Saakashvili would have been arrested after crossing the border.