The announcement that former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has had his Ukrainian citizenship withdrawn has shocked the Ukrainian body politic.
It was only in 2015 when, with some fanfare, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko bestowed Ukrainian citizenship on his former university friend, and gave him the mandate of reforming (cleaning up) the Odesa administration.
The latter was seen as potentially providing a model for the rest of Ukraine. Odesa had long been viewed as a hot bed of graft and corruption. Given Saakashvili’s celebrated success in his home country of Georgia in fighting graft and improving the business environment, the view was that if Odesa could be cleaned up, there was real hope for the rest of Ukraine. By appointing Saakashvili, Poroshenko also had his own reform credentials augmented, and won friends in the West, particularly in the US. There Saakashvili was still hailed by the DC establishment for standing up to Russia and President Putin in the brief Russo-Georgian war of 2008.
Cleaning up Odesa proved more difficult than Georgia. This quickly began to look like a poisoned chalice for Saakashvili. Increasingly Saakashvili complained about foot-dragging from the Poroshenko administration in Kyiv. He levelled none too veiled criticism of the president himself, accusing him of not being committed to the war on graft. Eventually Saakashvili resigned. In doing so, he revealed his political ambitions in Ukraine. Eyeing the presidential elections in 2019, he formed his own political party to act as a launch-pad.
But the decision by Poroshenko to remove Saakashvili’s citizenship is a strange one in many respects. Saakashvili, while seen as a skilled political operator and orator, has struggled to build momentum behind his own campaign since leaving office. Perhaps this reflects his own Georgian origins which might not have tuned fully with the Ukrainian electorate, and his failures in Odesa.
A recent poll by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation/Razumkov Centre put support for his Movement of New Forces at just 1.8%, below the threshold required to secure parliamentary representation, and well behind the likes of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna Party with 11.2%, and Poroshenko’s Solidarity Bloc with 9.3%.
Saakashvili’s star in Ukraine seemed to wane. So why would Poroshenko move now against his former friend? This move would seem to have only downside risks. It risked criticism from foreign friends and foes for moving against a loyal ally of the West in Saakashvili, and for showing less than democratic credentials.
It risked playing into the hands of Poroshenko’s opponents. Even Yulia Tymoshenko came out quickly in support of Saakashvili, not a natural ally of her own brand of populism. Tymoshenko milked the move by arguing that it reveals Poroshenko’s weak democratic credentials. Even members of Poroshenko’s party, argued that it played against the interests of Ukraine.
Perhaps this is just a case of pure political and indeed personal revenge, with the criticism of his presidency by Saakashvili, just grating too much with Poroshenko. And he waited for the right opportunity to move: in this case, allegations that Saakashvili failed to declare allegations of wrong-doing in his native Georgia on filling out his Ukrainian citizenship application. It has to be said though that those allegations had been long known and were levied by Saakashvili’s political nemesis in Georgia, Ivanishvili.
More likely, this is a case of Poroshenko clearing the decks for looming elections, and messaging to other potential political opponents his own ruthless political nature. Perhaps Poroshenko is signaling that he is ready for a brutal political fight to come. Indeed, Poroshenko also moved to undermine another potential “reform” candidate for the 2019 elections, Andriy Sadovyisinger, the Mayor of Lviv, via that city’s recent trash scandal.
But the biggest threat to Poroshenko comes not from Tymoshenko, but from a new, fresh/different face on the political landscape. Perhaps this will be someone like musician Slava Vakarchuk, who seems to be quietly building momentum behind a potential challenge in the 2019 presidential elections.
Remember Ukraine has a track record of relative political novices coming from the side-lines to win the presidency. One example is Leonid Kuchma in 1994. Even Poroshenko himself in 2014, came from left field, albeit admittedly he was an experienced political operator. During the Euromaidan, few people identified Poroshenko as a likely future president. (Actually I did). In the 2010 presidential election, Serhiy Tyhipko came from nowhere to secure a surprise third place, becoming a king maker for the second round run-off vote between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko. So perhaps Poroshenko fears most a fresh faced reformer, offering something different and new.
But move against Saakashvili could be the clearest indication yet that Poroshenko is considering moving to early parliamentary/presidential elections – taking out one potential rival, and sending a signal of intent to others.
Perhaps it might also send a signal to his own ambitious prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, not to get ambitions above his stature, and to hold back from moving to challenge for the presidency. By moving to early elections, Poroshenko catches Vakarchuk et al off guard, benefits from the relative economic recovery, and stalls much needed and difficult reforms on the anti-corruption front.
Posted July 28, 2017
(Bloomberg) -- 11.2% of Ukrainian voters would back ex-
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party if early
elections were held, according to poll conducted jointly by
Razumkov Center for Political and Economic Research and
Democratic Initiatives Fund.
* President Petro Poroshenko’s Solidarnist would get 9.3% of
votes and former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s
Hromadyanska Pozytsiya would get 8.3%
* Opposition bloc, including allies of former President Viktor
Yanukovych, would garner 8.4%
* Lawmaker Vadym Rabinovych’s Za Zhyttya has 7.7% support, Oleh
Lyashko’s Radical Party 7.3% and Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy’s
* 2,018 people were polled June 9-13; margin of error doesn’t
* NOTE: Yanukovych Allies Would Get Most Votes in Ukraine