KYIV, UKRAINE - Former governor of Odessa and onetime Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was served Tuesday with a legal notice to appear before a Ukrainian court to explain why he broke through a cordon of police and border guards to enter the country from Poland.
The legal move adds more drama to a weeks-long political standoff roiling Ukraine between the country's president, Petro Poroshenko, and his onetime ally, Saakashvili, who was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship in July by the government.
Saakashvili, who claims Poroshenko revoked his citizenship illegally after the two fell out, has now sworn to rally opposition parties behind him. He and a rowdy group of supporters, that included five Ukrainian lawmakers, forced their way through the Polish-Ukrainian border Sunday after the authorities tried to deny him entry at other crossing points, first arguing his documents were invalid, and then halting a train he was traveling because of an alleged bomb threat.
After breaking through a police cordon at the Shehyni border crossing, Saakashvili made his way to a hotel in nearby Lviv and — with opposition leaders Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister, and Andriy Sadovy, looking on — he said he planned to rally Poroshenko's political opponents and help them unseat the Ukrainian president over failed promises to reform the country.
Saakashvili says he is not seeking the presidency for himself, but wants to see his former friend, Poroshenko, voted out of office at the next elections, scheduled in 2019.
"I am fighting against rampant corruption, against the fact that oligarchs are in full control of Ukraine again, against the fact that Maidan has been betrayed," Saakashvili said at a press conference, referring to the anti-government protests that saw pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych ousted from power.
In a country that, in the past four years, has witnessed high political drama, invasion and war — from the ouster of a Moscow-backed president by popular street protests to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin fomenting of conflict and separatism in the Donbas in the east of the country — Sunday's circus-like incident may seem minor by comparison.
But the clash between the friends-turned-foes is adding to a sense of alarm in the country and undermines Poroshenko's argument that Ukraine is slowly but surely stabilizing and establishing the rule of law, according to analysts.
Poroshenko has said Saakashvili will have to face a court for his illegal crossing.
"This is a state security issue," the Ukrainian president said in a video address Monday. "I don't care who breaks the state border: fighters in the east, or politicians in the west. There should be direct legal accountability."
From friends to foes
Saakashvili received Ukrainian citizenship in 2015 from Poroshenko when the president made him governor of Odessa, hoping he would help with the reform of Ukraine following the Maidan uprising. But the hard-charging Saakashvili and Poroshenko, who were old friends from university days, soon fell out.
The Georgian accused Poroshenko of abetting corruption; Poroshenko said Saakashvili had failed to deliver any real change as governor and alleged he had lied on his citizenship application form by leaving out information about possible corruption charges he could face in his native country of Georgia. Revoking citizenship rendered Saakashvili stateless, as Georgia revoked his Georgian citizenship when he became a Ukrainian.
"I think Poroshenko made a mistake inviting Saakashvili in the first place," said political scientist Oleksy Garan, a professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. "He was invited because he was viewed as a successful reformer in Georgia. But he is a man of PR stunts. He didn't perform his job well and he appeared very destabilizing and the two men clashed badly."
Like many legal experts, Garan says the revocation of Saakashvili's citizenship may be justified legally. "But from the moral and political point of view, it looked bad. The corruption investigation in Georgia was known about and everyone just turned a blind eye to it before Poroshenko used it to get rid of him," he said. "Saakashvili's antics now are playing into Russian hands — Moscow is now saying this shows how Ukraine is a failed state and chaotic."
Saakashvili's own popularity ratings in the polls are low, with under two percent of Ukrainians viewing him favorably. But populist sentiments he is beginning to trigger could be used by other opposition leaders and used against Poroshenko, analysts warn.
Saakashvili's supporters say they believe the court papers were served on him in Lviv in an effort to prevent the former Georgian president from traveling to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, something he has threatened to do. On Tuesday, Saakashvili said he would tour Ukraine's biggest cities to rally support before heading to Kyiv.
He argues he committed no offense by crossing into Ukraine, claiming he was carried by his supporters through the checkpoint and that can't be considered an "illegal breakthrough." Saakashvili also claims he has applied for asylum, and asylum applicants are exempt from penalties for border crossings with invalid papers.