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Ukrainian Authorities Begin Manhunt for Georgia’s Ex-President Saakashvili

By Gvantsa Gabekhadze
Thursday, December 7
(KYIV) – A day after hundreds of his supporters freed Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili from police custody, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko declared Saakashvili a fugitive from the law and gave the former head-of-state-turned-opposition-leaders 24 hours to turn himself in.

Saakashvili – who served as governor of Ukraine’s strategically important Odessa region from 2015-2016 – is accused by Lutsenko of being financed by “an organized crime” group with ties to Russia.

Units from Ukrane’s interior ministry and the SBU – the country’s powerful intelligence services – raided Saakashvili’s central Kyiv apartment on Tuesday afternoon, but failed to apprehend Saakashvili before he was able to reach the roof of the building to call on his supporters to resist the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

The charges were widely panned by experts, who say the Ukrainian government has failed to provide credible evidence that links the stridently pro-Western Saakashvili and his opposition Movement of New Forces to Moscow or organized crime groups connected to Russia.

Law enforcement officials briefly had Saakashvili in custody after dragging him from the roof of his apartment building, but were quickly overpowered by his supporters when a police convey attempted to vacate the square in front of the site of his arrest.

Saakashvili and several hundred core members of his opposition party then parched on the Verkhovna Rada – Ukraine’s parliament – demanding Poroshenko’s immediate ouster.

The group later retreated to a tent camp that was set up in September by the Movement of New Forces and other anti-government groups calling for Poroshenko’s impeachment and new elections aimed at bringing pro-Western reformist politicians to power.

Lutsenko ordered the camp stormed early Wednesday morning as part of a massive manhunt for Saakashvili. Interior ministry troops, however, met stiff resistance from the camp activists and called off the search after several people were badly injured in the ensuing melee.

Speaking to the media, Saakashvili’s wife Sandra Roelofs, who arrived to Ukraine from Georgia on December 5, said that some in Ukrainian government thought Saakashvili’s detention would be easy.

“The (Ukrainian) government was not prepared for this and they received what received…Misha (Saakashvili’s widely used diminutive) has strong support from average Ukrainians...the support is growing,” Roelofs said.

Saakashvili has remained defiant despite calls for his immediate arrest and new designation by Lutsenko as a “fugitive on the run”.

“I have absolutely no intention of presenting myself to the so-called chief prosecutor (Lutsenko). He is uneducated and unqualified thief,” said Saakashvili in a speech given to the international media and supporters, adding he was ready to host law enforcement officials in the tent camp, but only under the protecting and supervision of his supporters.

Georgia’s opposition parties have condemned the moves by Kyiv to arrest and deport Saakashvili, calling the charges politically motivated and a violation of his rights.

In post on his official Twitter account, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili refused to comment on the matter and said the case is an internal issue that needed to be resolved by Ukraine’s authorities.

Saakashvili served as Georgia’s president for a decade. His radical economic reforms and anti-corruption drive initially won him widespread international praise for bringing the small South Caucasus nation of 3.7 million out of the post-Soviet chaos that plagued the nation since the 1990s.

A disastrous war with Russia in August 2008 and Saakashvili’s authoritarian governing style, coupled with his penchant for self-aggrandizement, later alienated much of the Georgian population.

He fled Georgia in 2013 after his United National Movement was trounced in parliamentary elections that brought his bitter political rival, billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and the ruling Georgian Dream party, to power.

Saakashvili faces charges in his native Georgia for crimes connected to his time in office - namely the use of excessive force in breaking up opposition rallies in 2007 and the closure of TV stations who openly criticized his government.

After a short stay in New York, Saaskashvili moved to Kyiv in late 2013 and became one of the most visible supporters of the Euromaidan Revolution that overthrew Ukraine’s authoritarian pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Poroshenko appointed his then-ally Saakashvili as Odessa’s governor in early 2015, but animosity between the two former university classmates began to simmer shortly thereafter.

Saakashvili has repeatedly accused Poroshenko of profiting from Ukraine’s endemic corruption and providing cover for pro-Russian oligarchs with ties to the Yanukovych regime. He’s publically lashed out at the government for quashing reforms and failing to purge the halls of power of individuals who were directly involved in the killing of protesters during the Euromaidan Revolution.

Critics of Saakashvili have accused him of using Ukraine’s war with Russia and the political crisis that has gripped the country since Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimea Peninsula for his own personal gain.

Tensions between the government and Saakashvili fueled up late last year as the two engaged in mutual public spats over a variety of issues, including corruption. Saakashvili promptly resigned as governor in November 2016 and vowed to oust to the current government.

Poroshenko responded to the move by stripping Saakashvili of the Ukrainian passport that he was granted after becoming head of the Odessa region, leaving Saakashvili stateless as he had already been deprived of his Georgian nationality in 2015 for violating the country’s laws on dual citizenship.