Saakashvili’s Ukraine gambit a typically headstrong move
MOSCOW (AP) — Mikheil Saakashvili’s brash attempt Sunday to enter Ukraine echoes the day he burst into the Georgian parliament with a crowd of supporters, chased the president out of the building and into resignation, and set himself up as the country’s next leader.
Saakashvili’s seemingly fireproof self-confidence and headstrong actions brought him both admiration and disdain as Georgia’s leader and later as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. His native Georgia wants him extradited. Ukraine has stripped him of citizenship.
Elected as Georgia’s president at age 36 soon after the 2003 parliament storming, the U.S.-trained lawyer served nine years in the post. His energetic reforms helped pull the former Soviet republic out of a morass of corruption and confusion.
But Saakashvili presided over a short but fierce war with Russia that ended with the humiliating loss of two separatist territories. He also cracked down on protesters who charged that his zeal had mutated into autocracy.
After he went into self-exile in 2013, authorities in Georgia charged him with abuse of power and sought him for questioning in the mysterious death of his first prime minister. Saakashvili first took refuge in the United States, then, in a remarkable political reinvention, became Odessa governor in 2015.
Saakashvili said he intended to attack Odessa’s endemic corruption. However, he clashed with other officials. An argument with powerful Interior Minister Arsen Avakov ended with Avakov throwing a glass of water in Saakashvili’s face. Saakashvili bitterly announced he was stepping down 18 months later.
Saakashvili renounced his Georgian citizenship when he took the Odessa post and became a Ukrainian citizen. But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who had brought him into the Odessa job, rescinded his citizenship in July. The move, which has not been explained in detail, left Saakashvili stateless and plotting a return.
From early adulthood, Saakashvili was a dynamo of ambition, speaking five languages fluently, earning a law degree in the United States and appointed as Georgia’s Justice Minister at age 32. He resigned that post a year later amid mounting differences with President Eduard Shevardnadze, who was respected in the West.
When Shevardnadze’s party won the 2003 national elections in a process that independent observers labeled suspect, Saakashvili and other opposition leaders marshaled massive demonstrations that became known as the Rose Revolution.
Once elected as president himself in early 2004, Saakashvili quickly earned plaudits for cleaning up the corrupt police forces, attracting investment and taming the defiant region of Adzharia.
But his pursuit of regaining Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Russia-backed separatist regions that split off in wars in the 1990s and where Georgian troops held only small footholds, proved a costly failure.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, fearing a Rose Revolution-style uprising of his own, despised Saakashvili for his determination to bring Georgia into NATO and the European Union.
Russia quickly drove Georgian forces out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and advanced well into Georgia proper. Russia eventually withdrew from Georgia, but it was a humiliation for the volatile Saakashvili, whose star already had begun falling.
In 2007, mass demonstrations arose after an opposition television station was shut down and Saakashvili’s former defense minister accused the president of plotting to murder the tycoon who owned the station.
Saakashvili was also the focus of consistent suspicions over the 2005 death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania.
By 2012, Saakashvili’s position was so weakened that his party lost to Russia-friendly tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili’s party. Prevented by term limits from running for president again, Saakashvili left Georgia in 2013.
Saakashvili re-entered the political arena in Ukraine, where he had attended college. He expressed intense support for the protests that eventually drove Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych from power.
His appointment as Odessa’s governor by Poroshenko surprised many, especially given Saakashvili’s ability to infuriate Russia.
In his early months on the job, Saakashvili made high-profile moves to dismiss regional officials and to take back beach property that had been seized by a local tycoon. But he angered many by accusing the government of being in oligarchs’ pockets.