Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia and ex-head of the Odesa Regional State Administration, returned to Ukraine on 10 September at a border crossing with Poland. He had been stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship at the end of July by Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, supposedly for concealing in 2015 from the Ukrainian migration service that he had been under investigation in Georgia.
Saakashvili returned to Ukraine for political reasons—he wants to challenge Poroshenko’s decision in court and build his own political platform under the banners of de-oligarchisation and fighting corruption. A key role in the political attempt will be played by the Movement of New Forces, a party established by Saakashvili in late 2016. Although the party enjoys limited electoral support (1–2%), Saakashvili’s conflict with Poroshenko may boost the party in the polls and could give it the support it needs to surpass the parliamentary threshold in elections scheduled for 2019. Saakashvili himself will not participate in the next parliamentary or presidential elections in Ukraine for formal reasons—the loss of his citizenship—however, he will try to use his political activities to discredit Poroshenko and weaken the president’s position.
Saakashvili crossed the Ukrainian border illegally, which means he may face up to five years in prison. Ukrainian police have already started an investigation. Criminal proceedings against him, however, will not be possible without Poroshenko’s consent, which may be held back out of fear that such actions against Saakashvili, even if lawful, could increase public support for the former Georgian president. On the other hand, Poroshenko’s decision will be influenced by pressure from nationalists and security-sector officials, who may accuse him of a lack of resolve and losing control over the country’s border even outside the Donbas, which they tend to believe may diminish the chance of obtaining additional military support from the U.S. and result in the EU suspending the visa-free regime with Ukraine.
Saakashvili’s presence changes the political balance in Ukraine. It may exacerbate the conflict between, on one side, Poroshenko, for whom the return of a political opponent is a personal defeat, and Yulia Tymoshenko and Andriy Sadovyi on the other. Both Tymoshenko and Sadovyi helped Saakashvili cross the Ukraine border, seeing it as an opportunity to weaken Poroshenko. Since Tymoshenko is likely to be the main opposition candidate in the next presidential election and has a high level of electoral support (10–12%), Poroshenko may be forced to take some actions to discredit the Batkivschyna party leader anyway. Helping Saakashvili therefore will only be a formal pretext to exert pressure on Tymoshenko and her faction.
All three have different goals. The main thing for Saakashvili is to build his own position on Ukraine’s political landscape. Tymoshenko would like a snap parliamentary election. Sadovyi, although in open conflict with Poroshenko since his Self-Reliance party quit the ruling coalition, strives to play the role of the constructive opposition. However, the potential for pressure from Ukraine’s authorities on Saakashvili, Tymoshenko, or Sadovyi may foster tactical cooperation between them. One potential ally seems to be former Defence Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko. They also may count on support from oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, who has a strong media empire and is in conflict with Poroshenko.