Ex-Leader of Georgia Confronts Ukraine Agents in Rooftop Standoff

MOSCOW — As president of Georgia, he survived a disastrous war with Russia. As a regional governor in Ukraine committed to fighting corruption, he clashed with just about everybody, including his estranged former ally, Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko.

On Tuesday Mikheil Saakashvili, a onetime darling of the West, took his high-wire political career to bizarre new heights when he climbed onto the roof of his five-story apartment building in the center of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, with law enforcement officers in hot pursuit. As a crowd of hundreds of supporters gathered below, he shouted insults at Ukraine’s leaders and, according to several local news outlets, threatened to jump if security agents tried to grab him.

Dragged from the roof after denouncing Mr. Poroshenko as a traitor and a thief, the former Georgian leader was detained but then freed by his supporters, who, amid raucous scenes on the street, blocked a security service van before it could take Mr. Saakashvili to a Kiev detention center and allowed him to escape.

With a Ukrainian flag draped across his shoulders and a pair of handcuffs still attached to one of his wrists, Mr. Saakashvili then led hundreds of supporters in a march across Kiev toward Parliament. Speaking through a bullhorn, he called for “peaceful protests” to remove Mr. Poroshenko from office, just as protests had toppled the former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, in February 2014.

Russia reveled in a spectacle that only buttressed its view that Ukraine is a chaotic shambles incapable of running its own affairs. State television repeatedly broadcast footage of Mr. Saakashvili screaming from the rooftop and of the melee on the street below. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, took delight in mocking Mr. Saakashvili, telling journalists in Moscow, “You know, we’re not used to reacting to statements made by people who are sitting on roofs.”

He added: “We are observing events overall with interest. Of course, this is Ukraine’s headache. This is something you wouldn’t wish even on an enemy, that’s how I’d put it.”

The United States Embassy in Kiev issued a statement calling “on all sides to de-escalate tension and avoid violence. We are monitoring the situation closely and expect any investigation will be conducted expeditiously and in accordance with Ukrainian law.”

The European Union mission in Kiev also called for a fair inquiry in accordance with the law and asked that Mr. Saakashvili’s rights be respected.

The scenes outside Mr. Saakashvili’s apartment on Kostelnaya Street left some aghast, with Mustafa Nayyem, a reform-minded member of Parliament and a key figure in the 2013-14 protests against Mr. Yanukovych, describing them as “idiotism” on Facebook.

Protesters clashing with the police while trying to prevent Mr. Saakashvili’s arrest. CreditStepan Franko/European Pressphoto Agency

“Whatever your opinion of Saakashvili, the government’s actions now concern all of us,” he wrote. “This could happen to anybody who doesn’t cut a deal with them.”

Seeking to explain why Ukraine’s security agency, the S.B.U., had tried to grab the former Georgian leader, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, accused Mr. Saakashvili of assisting a criminal organization led by Mr. Yanukovych, the ousted pro-Russian president, and receiving $500,000 to fund his political activities from a fugitive Ukrainian businessman, Serhiy Kurchenko.

The prosecutor’s office released an audio recording featuring what it said was a conversation between Mr. Saakashvili and Mr. Kurchenko and their aides about the organization of protests aimed at toppling Mr. Poroshenko.

The move to arrest Mr. Saakashvili, Mr. Lutsenko told journalists in Kiev, “broke the plan of revenge by pro-Kremlin forces.”

Ukrainian political rivals routinely accuse each other of working in cahoots with the Kremlin, whatever the reality of their affiliations. The prosecutor’s accusation that Mr. Saakashvili was collaborating with Mr. Yanukovych seemed to be largely aimed at discrediting the former Georgian leader, who has attracted support in Ukraine by positioning himself as an uncompromising enemy of Russia, corruption and Mr. Poroshenko.

Protesters surrounding the van carrying Mr. Saakashvili, who ultimately escaped from the vehicle. CreditGleb Garanich/Reuters

The day’s dizzying events suggested that the feud between Mr. Saakashvili and his former sponsor, Mr. Poroshenko, has escalated to a dangerous new level. They also marked a surprising twist in the tumultuous career of a former leader who has burned so many bridges over the years that, stripped of his citizenship by both Georgia and Ukraine, he is now stateless and effectively a refugee.

But Mr. Lutsenko, the prosecutor general, said that Ukraine had no immediate plans to return Mr. Saakashvili to Georgia, which has demanded his extradition to face corruption charges.

Mr. Saakashvili took to the roof in protest after Ukrainian prosecutors came to his apartment early Tuesday morning and demanded to search it. As a flash mob of supporters gathered on the street below, he gave a rambling speech from the rooftop, urging “all Ukrainians to take to the streets and drive out the thieves.”

“They want to kidnap me, because I rallied to the Ukrainian people’s defense. They wanted to kidnap me unnoticed, but they failed to do this,” Mr. Saakashvili proclaimed. He pleaded with police officers not to carry out what he called criminal orders to arrest him.

As president of Georgia for nearly a decade, Mr. Saakashvili initially won plaudits in Washington and other Western capitals for rooting out corruption and turning his small nation into a rare success story among former Soviet lands. But his image as a heroic reformer lost much of its sheen after a 2008 war with Russia and waves of arrests that targeted not only the corrupt but also his political enemies.

After he was freed, Mr. Saakashvili spoke to protesters in front of the Parliament building in Kiev. He is a bitter enemy of Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko. CreditValentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

He left Georgia in 2013 and, after the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych in 2014, was appointed governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, a notorious swamp of corruption, by the country’s new president, Mr. Poroshenko.

Mr. Saakashvili quit the Odessa job in 2016, complaining that Mr. Poroshenko and other senior officials were blocking his efforts to fight graft. He was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship last year while out of the country and ordered not to come back.

He returned to Ukraine in September, swept across the border with Poland by a crowd of supporters in what authorities denounced as an illegal forced entry into the country.

Mr. Saakashvili’s return to Ukraine infuriated the government, raising political temperature as Mr. Poroshenko struggled with a Russian-backed armed rebellion in the eastern part of the country and mounting criticism from political opponents that, like Mr. Yanukovych, he was tolerating and benefiting from rampant corruption.

Hailed by his supporters as a standard-bearer for the fight against corruption, Mr. Saakashvili has been mocked by officials as a showboating opportunist. As his support has grown, however, the government has turned from mockery to accusations of increasingly serious crimes, including an alleged coup plot to overthrow Mr. Poroshenko.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s