Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 11.09.2017
On Sunday, September 10, Mikheil Saakashvili pushed his way into Ukraine. This is not a figurative statement. A large crowd of what appeared to be supporters of the former governor of Odesa region charged at a line of police and border guards, storming the Poland-Ukraine border at the Medyka-Shehyni crossing point. 12 police officers and five border guards were injured by the well-organized mob. Saakashvili illegally entered Ukraine. Seeing uniformed state officials being overwhelmed by mob violence, many Ukrainians watching the live feed were horrified. The memory is very fresh of Russia-sponsored mobs doing the same thing to Ukrainian soldiers and officials in Crimea and Donbas during the first year of Putin’s invasion in 2014. The co-ordinated violence of Saakashvili’s mob was a shocking reminder of very bad times … it all looked too similar.
Russia benefits when mob violence overwhelms the monopoly of violence that legitimately belongs only to sovereign states (in this case, Ukraine). A constant of Kremlin propaganda is that Ukraine is “not a real country.” Russia violates Ukraine’s borders to be able to say that Ukraine cannot control them and is not, therefore, a sovereign country. Not being able to control borders is the propaganda the Soviet Union pushed when it invaded Poland in 1939 and it is the propaganda Russia pushes as it is invading Ukraine since 2014. Russia violates Ukraine’s borders routinely with soldiers, “titushky” thugs, and rent-a-mobs just like the one Saakashvili used to crash into Ukraine.
Saakashvili was brought in as governor of Odesa to tackle endemic corruption, especially at the port and the customs house. He resigned as governor of Odesa region on 7 November 2016, and tried to make a go of it as an opposition politician. He didn’t make much headway and has never scored higher than two percent support in public opinion polling. In July, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship. “The Bankova” (the Presidential Administration of Ukraine) said that Saakashvili had entrenched corruption in Odesa instead of fighting it while governor.
What has Poland got to do with all this? Saakashvili was in New York City, but turned up in Poland despite the fact that he had no valid Georgian passport, no valid Ukrainian passport, and no other known valid passport. The Polish government didn’t try to sideline Saakashvili’s border crossing stunt, as a way to give friendly help to neighbour Ukraine. Polish Member of European Parliament Jacek Saryusz-Wolski was with Saakashvili to support him, and Radio Liberty referred to him as saying Ukraine’s Ambassador to Poland, Andriy Deshchytsia, was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland to provide explanations. Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Mariana Betsa, denied Mr. Saryusz-Wolski’s assertion, saying this on Twitter: “As of 10:00 on September 11, the information about the Ukrainian Ambassador to Poland being summoned to the Foreign Ministry is not true". Russia benefits from discord between Poland and Ukraine."
What has Tymoshenko got to do with all this? Yulia Tymoshenko is leader of the All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” or Batkivshchyna political party. She travelled to Poland to appear alongside Saakashvili. “We are with Saakashvili today to protect Ukraine from dictatorship,” she says on her party’s official website. For many Ukrainians, this falling out with Poroshenko will evoke memories of her falling out with former President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko. Tymoshenko appeared on the stage during the Orange Revolution of 2004, and she appeared on the stage (in a wheelchair, just released from prison) on the last day of the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. She fell out with the other people who were with her on stage, after both these historic events. Russia benefitted from the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko spat by placing Putin’s agent of influence Viktor Yanukovych into power. Russia benefits from Tymoshenko and Saakashvili aligning against Poroshenko, especially when they go so far as to employ mob violence and to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Ukraine as a whole suffers in this shabby episode because it shows that politics is not yet normal in the country: it is still too personal. Poroshenko needed to show a universal principle, founded in the rule of law, that would justify removing Saakashvili’s – or anybody’s – citizenship, but he left the impression that he was punishing a rival. Saakashvili should not have run a media circus, instigated mob violence, and illegally entered Ukraine. Tymoshenko should not have put her name on a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Being president or wanting to be president never justifies putting self before country in the public realm.
Russia started its invasion of Ukraine in 2014 with rent-a-mobs: organized crowds that would overwhelm soldiers or police with made-for-Internet-live-feed violence. Saakashvili used the same tactic to crash into Ukraine on Sunday. When Ukraine’s sovereign control of borders is broken, Russia wins. Ukraine must not give in to any mob, whether orchestrated by Russia or by Saakashvili. “Not a real country” can become not-a-country-at-all if Ukraine does not apply exclusive control over its side of international borders. That means standing up to Russia, and that means standing up to aggrieved former governors.