The chaotic scenes in Kyiv as supporters freed Mikhail Saakashvili after the police arrested him, seemed to suggest that the erstwhile Georgian president could be a leader of those opposing president Poroshenko. This, however, is hard to reconcile with the actual support he has, writes Mark Galeotti. Saakashvili is a symptom, not a cause of the prevailing political disarray in Ukraine.
If there is one thing more damaging to a government than being regarded as vindictively repressive towards its critics, it is seeming incompetently so. If there is one thing more damaging to an opposition figure than being regarded as dangerously populist, it is seeming incoherently so. The soap opera that is Ukrainian politics, alas, continues to lurch from one cliffhanger to the next, as President Poroshenko struggles to control one-time ally turned nemesis, Mikhail Saakashvili.
Poroshenko and Saakshvili when they where still allies. Photo Wikimedia
Ever since he forced his way across the Ukrainian border in September, Saakashvili has been escalating his rhetorical campaign against Poroshenko. He has described him as ‘a cheap Mafioso’ and called for his impeachment and removal.
Nonetheless, talk of the erstwhile Georgian president as a potential opposition leader is hard to reconcile with the facts on the ground. His significance is a product of the volatile nature of today’s Ukrainian politics, or at least the situation in Kyiv, where a motley array of ultra-nationalists and disgruntled veterans of the Donbas war set up a protest camp outside the Rada. Ostensibly done at his urging, they needed little encouragement.
When I explored the camp on Tuesday, as speakers attacked the government and several hundred riot-armoured police and National Guard encircled parliament, it was clear the protesters were prepared, maybe even eager for the worst. Veterans stood guard at the entrances, with no weapons visible but wearing helmets and sometimes body armour. Meanwhile, home-made defences were ready, including tank-traps to block vehicles, and heaps of tyres which would be turned into burning barricades.
Saakashvili is often described as ‘fiery’ and it is precisely in such literally flammable conditions that he is able to ignite events, as witnessed in the scenes when the authorities tried to arrest him in his flat on Tuesday 5th and then again at the protest camp on Wednesday. However, it is a mistake to conflate a willingness to tangle with the police and strike a blow against an unpopular oligarchic government with support for ‘Misha’.
Battering ram for Yuliya Timoshenko
Saakashvili polls at present in the low single-digits – 3% is the generally accepted figure – and he lacks any real support base or credible policy platform. In this context, it is perhaps no wonder that the wily political survivor Yuliya Timoshenko was one of the figures behind getting him back into the country. At present, she is polling around 12%, second only to Poroshenko’s 14%, these less-than-impressive ratings saying much about the fragmented and fractious nature of Ukrainian politics. Saakashvili is her battering ram, shattering itself against the walls of the Presidential Administration on Bankova street, and the Rada, but in the process – she hopes – opening the kinds of breaches she can push her way through.
From her point of view, Saakashvili is eminently expendable. From Poroshenko’s perspective, he appears frustratingly enduring. However, this owes much less to Saakashvili’s own talents and much more to astonishing incompetence on the part of the authorities. From the failed attempt to prevent him from entering the country to the botched arrests, time and again the state has failed to display even basic tradecraft.
The initial decision to try and detain him in mid-morning, surrounded by allies, deploying a relatively small detachment of security officers, was sufficiently clumsy that I heard speculation in Kyiv that it was deliberately mishandled. This is unlikely, but such is the state of Ukrainian politics that rumour abounded, from a bid to embarrass Poroshenko within the SBU security service to a Machiavellian plan precisely to goad him and his supporters into the kind of violence that would justify a serious crackdown.
This is, however, likely to be reading far too much into simple incompetence. The problem is knowing quite whom to believe, as outlandish claims and unsupported allegations have become the staple of Ukrainian political rhetoric.
Indeed, General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko now claims that Saakashvili is in cahoots with Sergei Kurchenko, a businessmen connected to disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych, now in Russia. It seems hard to credit the die-hard anti-Russian Saakashvili would take money from Moscow’s proxies, but a need for cash and an impulsive nature could conceivably have driven him to make incautious alliances.
More likely is that this is just another smear in an ever-more-filthy political environment. Despite the optimism of the 2013-14 EuroMaidan rising, and the undeniable vigour of Ukrainian civil society, national politics seems locked in zero-sum, oligarchic competition. A particular case in point has been the struggle to subvert, rather than support, the fight against corruption. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) is generally regarded as genuinely committed to prosecuting its mandate, which is perhaps why officials from Poroshenko and Lutsenko to lawmakers in the Rada have tried to bring it under their control.
This week, legislation was introduced in the Rada to give it the power to fire NABU’s head. This whipped up a storm of international protest, as well as a #SaveNABU twitter campaign, which succeeded in forcing a climb-down, but the question remains for how long.
It is such self-interested cynicism, combined with overt incompetence, that is creating the conditions in which such an unlikely figure as Mikhail Saakashvili can create the havoc he is. Ultimately, though, he is a symptom, not a cause of the prevailing political disarray in Ukraine. Arguably, the real struggle for the country is not being fought on the Donbas line of contact but in the Rada, the Bankova, and everywhere politics is still being practiced. Saakashvili himself offers Ukraine little hope, but his language and his appeal does illuminate the crisis in the country, the extent to which there are constituencies who feel change, any change, would be for the best.