WASHINGTON - A Georgian court on Wednesday rejected a request to postpone former President Mikheil Saakashvili's hearing on embezzlement charges.
Saakashvili's lawyers asked Tbilisi City Court to delay the hearing because the former president has been stateless since July 26, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko revoked Saakashvili's Ukrainian citizenship.
Calling the request unsubstantiated, Judge Badri Kochlamazashvili ruled that the hearing would be held at the court's discretion.
Saakashvili, 49, once a lauded pro-Western reformist, served two terms as Georgia's president, from January 2004 to November 2013. His popularity declined toward the end of his second term, in part because of a five-day war with Russia during which Moscow's forces drove deep into the South Caucasus country, and his long-ruling party was voted out of power in a 2012 parliamentary election.
In 2015, Saakashvili forfeited his Georgian citizenship by accepting an offer from his old college friend, Poroshenko, to become governor of Ukraine's southwestern Odessa Oblast province — a post that required Ukrainian citizenship.
Saakashvili, who harbors Ukrainian political ambitions, resigned as governor of Odessa in November 2016, complaining of official obstruction and corruption. He accused Poroshenko of dishonesty and said his central government had sabotaged democratic reforms required for membership to the European Union and NATO.
'Very Soviet behavior'
Saakashvili recently told VOA that Poroshenko stripped his Ukrainian citizenship in order to eliminate his main domestic political opponent and undermine democracy in the Russian-occupied Eastern European nation.
"It's a very Soviet behavior, very much reminiscent of the Soviet Union's actions," he told VOA. "First, deprive somebody of citizenship and then declare them crazy, criminal. It's very much a déjà vu."
Poroshenko, who announced the decision while Saakashvili was visiting the United States, said he nullified Saakashvili's Ukrainian citizenship upon learning that the former Georgian leader had lied on his citizenship application.
Ukrainian law requires applicants for citizenship to disclose whether they are subjects of any ongoing criminal investigations inside or outside the country.
Georgia has been seeking the former president's extradition to face charges connected to embezzlement of public funds, the violent dispersal of protests and a raid on a private television station. Saakashvili said the charges were politically motivated.
He insisted he "indicated everything rightfully" on the 2015 document, and that Poroshenko operatives had since doctored it.
"The documents that I filed were not shown," Saakashvili said. "We are demanding them to be shown because we need to see that everything was done legally. The fact that they are showing this [falsified application for citizenship reveals a] blatant desire to do something very illegal. We are talking about the forgery here."
No copy of original
Asked whether he had a copy of the original application, Saakashvili said he did not.
"I happen to trust people," he told VOA. "I have filed so many documents in my life that I don't keep copies. I trust the state institutions; I trust people that they would do their jobs fairly."
Kyiv officials declined to respond to Saakashvili's assertions or comply with a request to share a copy of the disputed application.
Although Saakashvili has vowed to return to Ukraine and fight to reclaim his citizenship, it is not known whether he has taken any official steps to initiate that legal process.
On Wednesday, Kyiv officials in Washington said he had made no efforts to reach them.
On Tuesday, Ukraine's top prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko, said he would be forced to extradite Saakashvili to Georgia should he return to Ukraine — but only if the Georgians filed a new request.
Georgian authorities unsuccessfully requested Saakashvili's extradition twice prior to Poroshenko's official visit to Tbilisi last month.
This story originated in VOA's Georgian service.