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Study in contrast: The West’s indifference to Mikheil Saakashvili; concern for Alexey Navalny

(FILES) This file handout picture released by the Ukrainian presidential press service on June 1, 2015 shows Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L) shaking hands with then newly appointed Odessa governor and former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili (R) during their meeting in Kiev. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on July 27, 2017 he has stripped former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship, paving the way for his possible extradition to Georgia. The charismatic reformer came to power in Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution but then fell from grace and is now wanted by Georgian prosecutors on charges of abuse of office during his nine-year rule that he insists are politically motivated. / AFP PHOTO / Ukrainian presidential press service / MYKOLA LAZARENKO / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / MYKOLA LAZARENKO" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS MYKOLA LAZARENKO/AFP/Getty Images

The former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili – on the run from the Georgian authorities on charges relating to his forcible dispersal of anti-government protest in Tbilisi in 2007 and his seizure of the Imedi television station and the other assets of the deceased Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili – and stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship by a decree of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dated 26th July 2017 – continues to thumb his nose at the Ukrainian authorities by travelling around eastern Europe on his now illegally retained Ukrainian passport.

Following a short trip to Poland latest reports place Saakashvili in Lithuania.

It seems that the authorities in Poland and Lithuania – two of the Ukrainian Maidan government’s staunchest allies in its conflict with Russia – are happy to side with Saakashvili against Ukraine, though they are almost alone amongst NATO/EU governments in doing so.

The Saakashvili affair underscores Poroshenko’s lack of political judgement.  It was Poroshenko who apparently decided to invite Saakashvili to Ukraine and to award him Ukrainian citizenship after Saakashvili had been ousted from his native Georgia and had been forced to leave his own country under a cloud.  It was also Poroshenko who in February 2015 appointed Saakashvili head of Ukraine’s International Advisory Council on Reform and who then in May 2015 promoted Saakasvhili to the key post of governor of Ukraine’s port city of Odessa.

In taking these steps Poroshenko may have been thumbing his nose at Russia – where Saakashvili is persona non grata because of his role in starting the 2008 South Ossetia war – whilst also putting in charge of Odessa a person unconnected to Ukraine’s various factions whom Poroshenko may have thought would therefore be exclusively loyal to himself.

In fact – as Poroshenko would have realised if he had followed Saakashvili’s career in Georgia at all closely – by inviting Saakashvili to Ukraine Poroshenko brought a cuckoo into Ukraine’s nest.

Saakashvili – a former President of Georgia and a compulsive self-publicist – was unsurprisingly unwilling to play second fiddle to Poroshenko – who he despises and obviously considers his moral and intellectual inferior – and quickly set himself up in opposition to Poroshenko and his government.

What must have been particularly infuriating to Poroshenko is that the issue Saakashvili chose upon which to build his opposition to Poroshenko is the perennial one in Ukraine of corruption.  Not only did Saakashvili present himself as the main opponent of corruption in Ukraine, but by December 2015 he was already setting up his own NGO “to fight corruption” in Ukraine, and there was even talk at about that time of Saakashvili setting up his own political party in Ukraine in a bid by Saakashvili to gain power on precisely that issue.

Here it is necessary to say that whilst corruption in the states that make up the former USSR is indeed an acute problem, the issue is regularly used especially by pro-Western politicians to discredit their opponents.  In Ukraine’s case political leaders like former President Yanukovych, current President Poroshenko, and former Prime Minister Tymoshenko, are especially vulnerable to attack on this issue because of the way corruption has long since become the organising principle of Ukrainian politics, making them all vulnerable to an attack based on it.

Few who have studied Saakashvili’s career at all closely would in fact consider him the right person to end corruption in Ukraine.  Certainly the present Georgian authorities do not think so.  The prevailing view in Georgia at the moment appears to be that though Saakashvili successfully ended the petty corruption which was endemic in Georgia before he became President, this was more than counter-balanced by the way he concentrated corruption around himself and his closest associates.

In any event, and completely unsurprisingly, in view of Saakashvili’s grossly insubordinate behaviour it did not take long before Poroshenko acted to bring Saakashvili’s political activities in Ukraine to a stop.  In November 2016 Saakashvili was to resign as Odessa’s governor and from his post as Poroshenko’s adviser.

In a sign of how bad relations between Poroshenko and Saakashvili had become, Saakashvili then immediately followed this up by staging an inflammatory news conference in which he claimed that Poroshenko personally supported the “corrupt clans in the Odessa region” and that the “Odessa region is being handed over not only to corrupt people, but also to enemies of Ukraine”.

Saakashvili has remained a thorn in Poroshenko’s side ever since.  This February he finally got round to setting up his political party to fight Poroshenko on an anti-corruption platform, giving it the portentous title “Movement of New Forces”.

This party successfully gained registration from the Ukraine’s Interior Ministry and has appeared to gain some traction with the Ukrainian public, with two smaller parties recently merging with it and with nine Ukrainian mayors reportedly joining it.  In April 2017 an opinion poll actually gave Saakashvili a higher rating that Poroshenko himself.  With talk of early parliamentary elections in Ukraine increasing, and with signs that Saakashvili was starting to win support, Poroshenko acted by stripping Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship.

That effectively ends Saakashvili’s hopes of making an impact in Ukrainian politics since Ukrainian law prohibits anyone but a Ukrainian citizen from holding public office in Ukraine.

I hold no brief for Mikheil Saakashvili.  I consider him a disruptive and self-interested figure who alienated Georgia against its national interests from Russia, and who led Georgia into the 2008 South Ossetia with Russia which it disastrously and predictably lost.

Saakashvili was also in my opinion – and in the opinion of many other people, including most Georgians – an autocratic and arbitrary ruler of Georgia in the time that he was its President.

I would add that I do not personally buy the claims that Saakashvili engineered an economic miracle in Georgia – people I have spoken to who know Georgia well, including some Georgians, strongly dispute this claim – and as I have already said I think the success of his anti-corruption campaign is grossly overstated.

However it remains the case that Poroshenko’s stripping Saakashvili of his citizenship in order to eliminate someone who had become a political rival is nothing short of outrageous.

It is also shocking that no one in the West seems to be at all concerned about it.

Here the contrast with the case of Alexey Navalny is instructive.

In the West the fact that Navalny has been repeatedly convicted in Russia on fraud charges – in the Kirovles case in my opinion justly – is invariably reported as something which was done to prevent him standing against Putin in the 2018 Presidential election.

This is despite the fact that every survey of Russian opinion that I know of shows that Navalny has no hope of winning against Putin in any election, even if despite his convictions he is allowed to stand in them.

Saakashvili by contrast has not been charged with committing any crime in Ukraine, and the pretext under which his citizenship has been taken away – that he did not disclose the charges the Georgian authorities are bringing against him when he was granted his Ukrainian citizenship – is so threadbare as to insult the intelligence.

Moreover whilst Navalny is no conceivable rival to Putin – whose popularity in Russia remains immense – Saakashvili has emerged as a potentially serious challenger to Poroshenko, even though I cannot imagine in any conceivable scenario Saakashvili ever becoming Ukraine’s President or winning an election there.

Saakashvili moreover – even more than Navalny – is someone who continues to be spoken of in the West as a hero because of the way that as President of Georgia he supposedly stood up to Putin and Russia.

Nonetheless when a shabby trick is used to eliminate Saakashvili from Ukraine’s political scene the response from the West is a deafening silence.

This at the same time that the West continues to criticise the Russian authorities’ far more lenient (in my opinion excessively lenient) treatment of Navalny, though it’s worth adding that the Financial Times’s latest article about Navalny suggests growing doubts in the West about him.

However it seems that supporting Ukraine’s Maidan regime and its shabby President trumps all other considerations, so that even when one of the West’s own anti-Russian heroes is treated in Ukraine in a crude and oppressive way a blind eye is turned to it.

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