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On Eve of Shock Arrival in Poland, Stateless Ex-Georgian President Vows to Fight for Adopted Homeland

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, and then-governor of Odessa region Mikheil Saakashvili, center, are greeted by a local resident near the regional state administration in Odessa, Ukraine, May 30, 2015.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, and then-governor of Odessa region Mikheil Saakashvili, center, are greeted by a local resident near the regional state administration in Odessa, Ukraine, May 30, 2015.

Mikheil Saakashvili, since last week the world's only stateless former president, says he could have remained safely in the United States, or perhaps settled with his family in his wife's home nation, the Netherlands.

But instead, the former Georgian leader, who last week was stripped of his adoptive Ukrainian citizenship, turned up without notice Thursday in Poland, where he stands at risk of being deported to Georgia to face criminal charges that he says are politically motivated.

"No, I could have [received residency in the United States], I was even offered to do it, but I didn't want to take it," he told VOA's Georgian service in an interview this week. "Like many people, I obviously have [a temporary] visa, but that's it. I never had any intention to stay in the U.S. and I am not now intending to stay."

As for the Netherlands, "If I had wanted a Dutch citizenship, I would have taken it a long time ago," he said. "On the contrary, my wife is now a Georgian citizen. My kids are Georgian. Formally I'm not, of course, but I am in real terms. This thing will never be on the table for me."

Saakashvili, who reportedly had been staying with relatives in the New York borough of the Bronx while planning his next move, told VOA he loves to visit the United States. "I feel at home here, but my home is Georgia and Ukraine, for sure."

Both countries, however, are off limits, especially without a passport. Georgian authorities insisted this week they are going ahead with criminal proceedings against him and, after a falling out with his college friend President Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine is threatening to deport him to Tbilisi if he turns up there.

It was not immediately clear why he chose to travel to Poland, where news reports say he attended an event marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. But it does get him closer to home.

It also leaves him in considerable jeopardy. A spokesman for the Chief Prosecutor's Office in Tbilisi says authorities in Poland have already been approached with a request for his extradition.

It has been a strange and winding journey for Saakashvili, the hero of Georgia's "Rose Revolution" who led demonstrators to storm the parliament in 2003, ending the post-Soviet rule in Tbilisi of one-time Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. For years he was welcomed in Washington as a hero of Western-style democracy.

But by the end of his second and last term in office, his party had lost control of parliament, and soon afterward he left the country in the face of what he dismisses as trumped-up criminal charges.

To the rescue came his old friend Poroshenko, who provided him not only a Ukrainian passport but also a post as governor of the southwestern province of Odessa. But because Georgian law stipulates that anyone who acquires another passport automatically loses Georgian citizenship, the move cost him his Georgian passport.

Looking to burnish his own reformist credentials in the post-Euromaidan upheaval, Poroshenko placed Saakashvili, along with a handful of ex-Georgian democratic revolutionaries, in Ukrainian government sectors tainted by graft.

"But the 'Georgian team' wasn't doing well in Kyiv, hemmed in by the all-powerful bureaucracy and a political elite that wanted [Saakashvili] to fail," wrote Bloomberg's Lenoid Bershidsky.

Increasingly at loggerheads with Kyiv’s leadership, Saakashvili resigned the governorship and announced the formation of a new political movement last fall. Last week, on his first departure from Ukrainian soil since moving to form his own party, Saakashvili learned via international news reports that Poroshenko had removed his citizenship in what several experts are calling a politically paranoid maneuver.

"This is an issue that distracts from what should be the main focus of Ukrainian officials, which is economic reform, anti-corruption, and defending the homeland," David Kramer, former deputy assistant Secretary of State, told VOA.

"Why pick a fight with Saakashvili at this time?" he asked. "It doesn't make a lot of sense, though coming after President Poroshenko's trip to Tbilisi two weeks ago, it does not seem like a mere coincidence. The revoking of Saakashvili's citizenship seems intended to placate Georgian officials who viewed their former president's role in Ukraine as an irritant in relations."

“It is hard to see what benefit there is for the citizens of Ukraine in taking away Saakashvili’s passport,” said Thomas Melia, a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute who frequently visited Georgia and Ukraine as a senior official under the Obama administration.

“The stated reason — that the government of Ukraine didn’t know there were criminal charges pending against Saakashvili in Georgia when he came to Ukraine — is preposterous,” he told VOA. “All the world knew there were charges pending.”

Ukrainian officials to declined multiple requests to weigh in.

In his interview with VOA this week, Saakashvili said his temporary U.S. work visa, which he acquired during a brief stint in Washington several years ago, is set to expire in less than a year.

"This threat of denied citizenship has been there forever, and I got used to it," he said of the Ukrainian prosecutor's threat on Wednesday to extradite him to his native Georgia should he return to Kyiv.

"Frankly I did not think [Poroshenko] would do it so brutally, so immediately after coming back from Tbilisi," he said of his former boss's visit to the Georgian capital.

In keeping with his legendary appetite for political battle — his U.S. Secret Service codename was "Energizer Bunny" — Saakashvili appears determined with his sudden arrival in Warsaw to mount yet another campaign, this time in the courtrooms of Kyiv or Strasbourg.

"If the Administrative Court [of Ukraine] doesn’t work out, we will go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg," he recently told an Interfax reporter. At VOA headquarters, however, he refused to elaborate on exactly how he might advance his search for a country to call home.

"Look, I'm fighting every day. I'm talking to you. I talk to multiple Ukrainian journalists, to think tanks. I am trying to help the Ukrainian nation, the Ukrainian people," he said. "I've seen so much suffering, so much deprivation because of selfishness, greed, immorality of the ruling political class. How can I not try to help? That's my natural instinct. That has nothing to do with my political aspirations or ambitions."

He pauses.

"Of course I might have ambitions," he added. "But that is secondary."

This story originated in VOA's Georgian Service.