Last week President Petro Poroshenko from Ukraine stripped his former political buddy and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from his Ukrainian citizenship making the latter stateless. In December 2015 Saakashvili lost his Georgian citizenship as result of taking the Ukrainian citizenship which he needed for his new job at the time: governor of Odessa. Just nine months ago, in November 2016, he stepped down as governor after increasingly getting frustrated with the political culture in the region, and nationally, that prevented him to focus on his priorities: fighting the endemic corruption.
Since then, Saakashvili started his own political party in Ukraine, “Movement of New Forces”, strongly opposing President Poroshenko and the government for their lack of fighting corruption and their close interactions with the oligarchy. Poroshenko initially brought Saakashvili to Ukraine to give his old times college friend a cover to get away from the criminal charges against him in Georgia which he deemed politically motivated.
Under Ukrainian law citizens of Ukraine cannot be extradited to other countries, which gave Saakashvili the legal protection he needed. Something that Poroshenko confirmed just two weeks ago during his state visit in Georgia. Now that Saakashvili launched his own platform in Ukraine, openly turning against his old friend, the loyalty between the two is gone, the shelter against extradition is lifted. Ukrainian immigration officials warned Saakashvili he will be arrested once he sets foot on Ukrainian soil. Saakashvili was on his way to New York when his citizenship was stripped, which timing may imply a last act of a lost friendship: to prevent him being arrested in Ukraine and extradited.
The state visit of Poroshenko to Georgia made clear the relationship between the two countries has improved a lot recently. In the last couple of years Georgia was annoyed by Ukraine giving Saakashvili shelter, a political platform and not cooperating with extradition requests. Saakashvili himself did not refrain from interfering in Georgia’s domestic politics through his chairmanship of his Georgian UNM (opposition) party.
Ukraine on the other hand was annoyed by Georgia’s reluctance to join the international sanctions against Russia over its Crimea and Donbass aggression. Georgia has now joined the sanctions. Both countries, together with Moldova, are currently working closely towards achieving an EU membership perspective at the oncoming EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels in November this year. Stripping Saakashvili from his Ukrainian citizenship is literally a shift of loyalty by Poroshenko, it is an investment in the relationship with Georgia.
Ukraine signed and ratified in september 2013 the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness without any reservations. In article 8.1 it stipulates “A Contracting State shall not deprive a person of its nationality if such deprivation would render him stateless.”, which would apply to Saakashvili. After all, he lost his Georgian citizenship in 2015 and he has no other. In article 8.2 a few exceptions to 8.1 are given, among which: “where the nationality has been obtained by misrepresentation or fraud”. This seems the clause the Ukrainian authorities hide behind, even though initially they didn’t specify a reason, saying “he may have acquired citizenship of another country or submitted false documents”.
Since then, it has become clear the Ukrainian authorities claim Saakashvili did not indicate on the citizenship application form he was under criminal investigation and being arrested in absentia in Georgia. Something that was common and public knowledge at the time in 2015. In other words, this rule was not applied in 2015 to the application. For obvious reasons: Poroshenko granted the citizenship as an act of mutual loyalty to prevent his friend to be liable for extradition.
Regardless the fact that Saakashvili was criminally wanted, charged and arrested in absentia in Georgia in 2015, Poroshenko did grant him citizenship. Of course Poroshenko was fully aware of the immigration and naturalization rules. Regardless if Saakashvili formally did or dit not mention the criminal charges Poroshenko knew these would be reasons to officially deny him the citizenship. Instead, he still granted it. Also, Saakashvili was most likely aware these charges could compromise him, make him liable for (political) blackmail to stay in line, to stay loyal: Kompromat. Yet, he got on with it. After all, he has never been a man shying away for opportunism and political risks.
The question now is, whether this will explode in Poroshenko’s face. This case exposes once again the endemic corrupt political culture of Ukraine. It is precisely what Saakashvili has been running up against, ranting against, when he was governor of Odessa and he has the international network to exploit this. It is the very foundation of his “Movement of New Forces”. To a certain extend, it proves his points. The rule of law is dismissed by loyal behaviour. The rule of law is applied in Ukraine when one becomes disloyal, and thus is used as a bargaining (or loyalty) chip.
Selectively applying the rule of law to dispose of political opponents, weeding them out of the political arena by legal means, is a method that doesn’t resonate very well in the European Union. Ukraine knows all about that as a matter of fact: In 2010 the then President Yanukovych had former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko prosecuted over abuse of power charges among others. This negatively affected the negotiations on the Association Agreement with the EU.
Denouncing Saakashvili’s citizenship by bureaucratic formalities that were known all along, translates into getting rid of political opposition by the incumbent government. This could have negative impact on Ukraine’s path towards an EU membership perspective that it seeks at the Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2017, together with Georgia and Moldova.