Just over a week after being inaugurated as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky issued an executive order on 28 may that overturned a July 2017 decree by his successor, Petro Poroshenko, that illegally stripped Georgia’s ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship.
The decision allowed Saakashvili to return to Ukraine on 29 May where he was greeted by hundreds of his supporters after after from Warsaw. Upon his arrival, Saakashvili said he can be of help to the new administration and to the Ukrainian people as they move to rid the country of the corrosive brand of endemic corruption that has regularly threatened to ruin Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. During a heated presidential campaign that lasted through the late spring, Saakashvili was one of Zelensky’s most vocal supporters in his insurgent presidential bid to upend Ukraine’s post-Soviet political elites and expressed hope that he would have his citizenship restored once Zelensky took office.
“Since Zelensky entered politics, I’ve known his presidency would usher in a new era for Ukraine. Or rather, a new Ukraine, where Justice and rule of law are no longer subordinated to greed, corruption, and political intrigue. Zelensky’s reversal of Poroshenko’s unlawful order – restoring my citizenship – has confirmed my belief that this new Ukraine is within reach. Now, I am ready to do everything I can to help turn it into reality,” Saakashvili told New Europe.
Saakashvili served as Georgia’s president from 2004-2013 and transformed the country from an ex-Soviet failed state into the darling of the world’s emerging markets. After being forced to flee Georgia following the election of the pro-Russian oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Saakashvili went on to become a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution in 2014.
Poroshenko later granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship in order appoint him as the governor of the strategic and economically vital Odessa region, but Saakashvili and his team of pro-Western reformers were regularly thwarted by Odessa’s mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, a Russian citizen who has been accused of mass corruption and who is widely believed to be tied to Odessa’s notoriously violent organised crime syndicates.
After just over a year on the job, Saakashvili was sacked by Poroshenko once the two fell out over the latter’s moves to obstruct the pro-market and anti-corruption reforms that Saakashvili was trying to implement.
Saakashvili went on to create an opposition party called the Movement of New Forces, which prompted an angry Poroshenko to issue a decree that illegitimately stripped Saakashvili of the Ukrainian citizenship that he received when he became Odessa’s governor. This violated international law as it left Saakashvili stateless due to the fact that Ivanishvili’s rubber-stamp courts in Tbilisi had stripped the former president of his Georgian citizenship in 2015.
Zelensky’s decision will be lauded by Saakashvili’s many supporters both in Ukraine and those that remain in Georgia. The charismatic, staunchly pro-Western former leader and arch nemesis of Russian President Vladimir Putin, will, however, be met with a formidable amount of hostility from Poroshenko loyalists and the Kyiv-based, foreign-born lobbyists who work tirelessly to attack Saakashvili.
He can also expect to be met with a firewall of criticism from the influential Ukrainian diaspora, the overwhelming majority of who openly despise both Zelensky and Saakashvili and who were some of the most violently supportive backers of Poroshenko during the recent election. Zelensky’s decision to reverse the order issued by Poroshenko now puts both he and Saakashvili squarely at odds with Ukraine’s embattled oft-disgraced prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko – the man responsible for carrying out Saakashvili’s arrest in late 2017 and his deportation several months later.
Lutsenko has been in Zelensky’s crosshairs since the days of the presidential campaign and is a regular target for Ukraine’s pro-Western reformers as he is seen as the epitome of an incompetent and corrupt official who remains protected by the entrenched political establishment that Poroshenko came to represent.
A staunch ally of Poroshenko’s, Lutsenko took up his post in 2016 and has been heavily criticised for not cracking down on crooked officials and for not investigating attacks on anti-corruption activists.
During his inauguration speech on 20 May, Zelensky demanded that the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, immediately remove Lutsenko as the country’s chief law enforcement official. Lutsenko, however, has continued to cling to his position and refused to step down despite mounting pressure from Ukraine’s civil society and its Western donors.