Mikheil Saakashvili is stateless. Stripped of citizenship by both nations, he kept his word when he vowed to re-enter Ukraine.

Saakashvili, an outspoken critic of President Petro Poroshenko, crossed the Polish border at Shehyni on Sunday and returned to Ukraine although both his Ukrainian and Georgia passports are no longer valid. (Reuters)
Saakashvili, an outspoken critic of President Petro Poroshenko, crossed the Polish border at Shehyni on Sunday and returned to Ukraine although both his Ukrainian and Georgia passports are no longer valid. (Reuters)

In a moment of high drama on Sunday morning, few were expecting the sight of doughty former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili and a crowd of supporters elbowing their way into Ukraine. 

But barge in they did.

The prolonged standoff on the Polish border between Saakashvili and the Ukrainian authorities took Ukrainian border guards by surprise. But who is he, and why was he there? 

Who is Saakashvili — and why is he stateless?

Saakashvili is one of the most colourful and divisive figures in the politics of both Georgia and Ukraine. 

He had developed a reputation for anti-graft policies in Georgia, winning him widespread support. 

His energetic reforms helped pull the former Soviet republic out of a morass of corruption and confusion.

However, his effort to regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Russia-backed separatist regions that split off in wars of the 1990s, proved a costly failure.

Georgian troops held only small footholds in these regions.

A university friend of Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, he backed the 2013-14 pro-democracy protests which drove Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych out of the country. 

Poroshenko offered Saakashvili citizenship, but later revoked it when the two fell out. The former said he’d withdrawn it as the latter was abusing his influence.

And Saakashvili grew disillusioned, accusing his old university friend Poroshenko of betraying their ideals.

As a result Saakashvili was left stateless, as his native Georgia had stripped him of his citizenship after he took up Poroshenko’s offer in 2015. 

Now, Georgia wants him extradited.

Last year, he founded a party in Ukraine called the Movement of New Forces. He had sought to unite reformist opposition forces but his support soon ebbed.

His seemingly fireproof self-confidence and bold actions brought him both admiration as well as disdain as Georgia's leader, and later as governor of Ukraine's Odessa region. 

What happened on Sunday?

The border breakthrough at the Medyka-Shehyni crossing point on the Polish-Ukrainian border came after a day of drama and repeatedly changing travel plans.

The move alarmed Poroshenko, who revoked Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship in July. 

He said Saakashvili committed a crime by entering the country. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said on Facebook on Tuesday that five people who crossed into Ukraine from Poland with Saakashvili were arrested on criminal charges.

From early adulthood, Saakashvili was a dynamo of ambition, speaking five languages fluently, earning a law degree in the United States. (Reuters)
From early adulthood, Saakashvili was a dynamo of ambition, speaking five languages fluently, earning a law degree in the United States. (Reuters)

Why does his presence in Ukraine pose a threat to Poroshenko?

Saakashvili doesn’t enjoy strong support in Ukraine, but his new campaign strikes at the heart of Ukrainian troubles. 

“We need new people. Ukraine is fed up with old corrupt political class. They want new people, new energy, new faces, new ideas,” he said in an interview on Sunday. 

It is “very important not to allow oligarchs to get away with an imitation of reform,” he said.

Speaking at an improvised press conference outside his hotel on Monday, the 49-year-old politician has vowed to shake-up Ukrainian politics.  He announced plans to hold rallies in towns across the country.

His supporters accompanied him to the crossing point. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Mustafa Nayyem, a lawmaker who was a key figure in the 2013-14 protests that drove Russia-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych out of the country, were also among them. (Getty)
His supporters accompanied him to the crossing point. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Mustafa Nayyem, a lawmaker who was a key figure in the 2013-14 protests that drove Russia-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych out of the country, were also among them. (Getty)

What will his unauthorized entry cost him?

“We are acting lawfully and protecting the law,” Saakashvili said on Monday. But due to his legal situation, his return puts him at risk.

In Georgia he faces accusations of abuse of power and the misappropriation of property, requesting his extradition in Ukraine. 

Ukraine said it would review the request if he re-entered the country. It is unclear if it would honor that request.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Yuri Lutsenko said on Sunday that charges would be pursued against organizers of Saakashvili's unauthorized entry. 

A bumpy journey

Saakashvili had intended to travel through another crossing point, where hundreds of supporters had gathered on the Ukrainian side. But he changed his plans at midday Sunday, claiming fears that provocateurs on the Ukrainian side were gearing up for violence.

He then travelled to the Polish city of Przemysl, where he boarded a train bound for the western Ukraine city of Lviv. But the train was held at the station for hours — so he then announced that it would not leave with anyone who lacked permission to enter Ukraine.

Saakashvili and his entourage eventually got off the train and took buses to the Medyka crossing, where Polish guards let him through. After passing the Polish checkpoint, he was confronted by cars blocking the road and a single line of guards in camouflage, carrying batons.

The crowd approached the line of guards and eventually began shoving, then broke through. Supporters who had gathered on the Ukrainian side rushed forward to greet Saakashvili and the crowd proceeded toward the Ukrainian town of Shehyni on foot.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said 17 police and border guards were injured in the confrontation. In the evening, Saakashvili and others arrived in Lviv, western Ukraine's largest city. (Reuters)
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said 17 police and border guards were injured in the confrontation. In the evening, Saakashvili and others arrived in Lviv, western Ukraine's largest city. (Reuters)

What did he do in Georgia?

At the age of 32, Saakashvili was appointed as Georgia's justice minister. He resigned that post a year later amid mounting differences with President Eduard Shevardnadze, who was respected in the West.

Elected as Georgia's president at age 36 soon after the 2003 storming of parliament, the US-trained lawyer served two consecutive terms until 2013. He was widely noted for his attempt to tackle graft.

After he went into self-imposed 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, he became Odessa governor in 2015.

Saakashvili maintains that officials working for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva have confirmed his status as
Saakashvili maintains that officials working for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva have confirmed his status as "stateless in Ukraine," meaning he has the right to be there to appeal against Poroshenko's July decision to withdraw his citizenship. (AP Archive)

How did he govern Odessa?

Saakashvili re-entered the political arena in Ukraine, where he had attended college. 

His appointment as Odessa's governor by Poroshenko surprised many, especially given Saakashvili's ability to infuriate Russia.

When he took the Odessa post, he renounced his Georgian citizenship to become an Ukrainian citizen.

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.

Saakashvili said he intended to attack Odessa's endemic corruption — but ended up clashing with other officials. An argument with powerful Interior Minister Arsen Avakov ended with Avakov throwing a glass of water in Saakashvili's face. 

After 18 months in office, Saakashvili bitterly announced he was stepping down, complaining that official corruption in Ukraine was so entrenched that he couldn’t work effectively.

What could happen next?

Local media report that Saakashivili has been ordered to appear on Monday (September 18), at a court hearing over the border incident.

Meanwhile, he told supporters in the city of Chernivtsi that he has returned to Ukraine “not simply” to challenge the revocation of his Ukrainian citizenship.

"I returned to Ukraine ... to resolve the main issue: how to get out of the political crisis that currently exists in the country."

Monday's hearing is scheduled to be held at the Mostyskiy district court in the Lviv region.

Saakashvili said on he would travel on Tuesday to Kyiv, saying the capital "urgently needs to be saved."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies