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Saakashvili on Putin, Europe’s weak leaders and a return to power

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili discusses Putin, the state of Europe and plans for his political comeback.

In December 2017, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was seen being dragged off a roof in Kiev and bundled into a police van.

He was freed shortly afterwards, when supporters ripped the doors off the van to free him, before being arrested again and later deported from Ukraine.

Saakashvili was once widely recognised as an advocate for reform and democracy thanks to his anti-corruption reforms and tough stance towards Russia.

Now, he is a stateless politician, living under temporary asylum in the Netherlands.

Saakashvili became president of Georgia in 2004. After his party were defeated in the 2013 elections, he left for Ukraine, where he supported the 2014 revolution and gave up his Georgian passport to become a Ukrainian citizen. 

Saakashvili dismisses accusations that he was heavy-handed in suppressing opposition during this second term as Georgian president, pointing instead to progress that was made under his government.

“Georgia was a failed country. You cannot make a failed country through Scandinavian methods, overnight, something like Sweden or Norway”.

“My reforms survived my presidency … most of it is still there, so from that standpoint: public services, absence of corruption, safety, I left a good legacy and a legacy that is still intact.”

There is only one choice when your country gets attacked by a hundred times bigger neighbour: either to surrender or to fight. And we chose not to surrender.

by Mikheil Saakashvili, stateless politician

Asked about an EU report’s claim that he was responsible for Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia due to his “penchant for acting in the heat of the moment”, Saakashvili says: “There is only one choice when your country gets attacked by a hundred times bigger neighbour: either to surrender or to fight. And we chose not to surrender.”

He says the Russian threat he was responding to is even more concerning today, due to a lack of strong leadership in Europe.

“The problem is the lack of leadership … we have just tacticians in Europe … nobody wants to assume responsibility.  As a result, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was playing them around.

“It’s not about Putin being so strong, it’s about these kind of leaders being so weak. 

“There is no leadership in Europe today. It’s so bleak. We see half-engagement, semi-engagement … if Europeans continue to be as weak as this, we are not going to avoid big war in Europe.” 

Saakashvili was initially embraced by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who made him governor of Odessa province, but the relationship soon soured, with Saakashvili resigning in 2016 after accusing Poroshenko of corruption.

“I left from the governorship when I felt that we were no longer in the business of reforming the country,” he tells Al Jazeera. “Staying there would be just trying to whitewash something that cannot be justified – wide-scale corruption and oligarchic rule.”

“[Poroshenko] was not serious about the reforms. Ultimately, he had to make a choice, whether to get into Ukraine’s historic textbooks or to be higher on Forbes’ billionaire’s list. He decided to get into [the] billionaire’s list, rather than the textbooks.”

If Putin wants to physically get me, I don't think any bodyguards can protect me anyway.

by Mikheil Saakashvili, stateless politician

Shortly after his resignation, Saakashvili announced plans to create a new political force in Ukraine, but his citizenship was revoked and he was sent to Poland.

Meanwhile, a court in Georgia found him guilty of abuse of power in connection with a 2006 murder case. He was sentenced to three years in prison in absentia. 

In Ukraine, a prosecutor accused Saakashvili of having connections with a suspected criminal gang, led by Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych.

Saakashvili says he’s still running his parties in both Georgia and Ukraine from the Netherlands and, despite personal threats made by Putin, he plans to continue with his anti-Russia, anti-corruption programme.

“I was asked by Dutch police whether I needed special protection and I told them ‘no’. Whatever happens, I’ve made my impact on the history of this region, nobody can dispute that.

“If Putin wants to physically get me, I don’t think any bodyguards can protect me anyway.”