© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ex-Georgian President Escapes Custody In Dramatic Confrontation In Kiev

Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (center) greets his supporters after escaping a van headed for jail in Kiev on Tuesday.
Evgeniy Maloletka
Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (center) greets his supporters after escaping a van headed for jail in Kiev on Tuesday.

Around dawn Tuesday, masked Ukrainian law enforcement officers attempted to detain former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. By sunset, they still had not succeeded. In the hours between, chaos consumed several streets in Kiev, where hundreds of supporters rallied to Saakashvili's defense as he sought to escape law enforcement and broadcast his calls for resistance against the Ukrainian president.

The Security Service of Ukraine now has given Saakashvili until Wednesday morning to turn himself in for allegedly assisting criminal organizations. The country's prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, has demanded the controversial politician come in for questioning, calling him a "fugitive from justice," according to The Guardian.

Given the drama that unfolded at his apartment building Tuesday, however, it's unlikely that Saakashvili plans to make this process easy on Ukrainian authorities.

The day began with agents storming Saakashvili's apartment building in downtown Kiev. He initially escaped their grasp by fleeing to the building's rooftop, where he shouted to supporters who had already begun to mass on the street below. There, with emphatic gestures fit for a campaign rally, he protested his treatment by President Petro Poroshenko, a former ally whom he now casts as a corrupt thief of Ukrainian funds.

"They want to kidnap me, because I rallied to the Ukrainian people's defense," he told them, as translated by The New York Times. "They wanted to kidnap me unnoticed, but they failed to do this."

Indeed, if Ukrainian officials had expected Saakashvili's detainment to go smoothly and quickly, they were to be disappointed on both counts.

By the time officers had wrangled the former Georgian president and pushed him into the van waiting to transport him to jail, a large, restive crowd was waiting for them, too. For more than an hour, Saakashvili's supporters refused to budge from around the van, despite attempts by a substantial riot police contingent to dislodge them.

Eventually, those supporters broke into the vehicle and wrenched the man free.

The Times describes what happened next:

"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."

The scene recalled an opposition rally this past weekend in Kiev's Independence Square, where thousands of demonstrators listened as Saakashvili called for the establishment of a permanent protest camp against the Ukrainian president. On Tuesday, he repeated his calls for Poroshenko's ouster: "I urge you" to remove him, Saakashvili said through his bullhorn. "You should not be afraid."

For Saakashvili, it has been a winding road that has led to this.

As president of Georgia, a former Soviet republic, he spent nearly a decade in office campaigning against state corruption and perceived aggression by the Kremlin. What began as a popular tenure, though, ran aground on a brief, disastrous border war with Russia in 2008 and increasing fears of an authoritarian streak in Saakashvili. By the time he left power and the country entirely in 2013, he was deeply unpopular with the Georgian people.

That did little to stall his popularity in Ukraine, where he was soon granted citizenship and appointed by Poroshenko to the governorship of Odessa province. Yet even that was not to last: Saakashvili stepped down last year, protesting what he said was rampant corruption and obstruction by Kiev.

In turn, Saakashvili was stripped of his citizenship while he was out of the country. Added to the fact that Georgia has also stripped its ex-president of his Georgian citizenship, charging him with abuses of power and pursuing his extradition to face those charges, the move effectively rendered Saakashvili stateless.

Still, he managed to barge back into Ukraine across the Polish border earlier this year — again with the help of a crowd of supporters over law enforcement objections. He has served as a painful thorn in the side of Poroshenko's government ever since.

Saakashvili addresses his supporters after escaping from law enforcement and leading them on a march toward the Parliament building in Kiev on Tuesday.
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP
Saakashvili addresses his supporters after escaping from law enforcement and leading them on a march toward the Parliament building in Kiev on Tuesday.

And all the while, Moscow has looked on with thinly veiled glee.

"What's going on in Kiev today is Ukraine's headache," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday, according to a Washington Post translation. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and has supported separatists in eastern Ukraine against Poroshenko's government. Still, Peskov added, "you wouldn't want to wish that guy on your worst enemy."

In comments Tuesday, however, prosecutor general Lutsenko accused Saakashvili — once known as a staunch enemy of Russia — of now working with pro-Moscow factions in order to incite political discontent. He alleged the politician has been receiving money from a group associated with Yanukovich, a pro-Russian president who was removed from office in 2014.

As the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reports, Lutsenko said authorities have "uncovered, made public and, I am sure, will punish the criminal actions of those who seek to destroy Ukraine for Moscow money."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.