KIEV — The “Chocolate Ass” got the last laugh — for now, anyway.
Last month, on a TV talk show hosted by Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who found a new political home in Ukraine, a woman in battle fatigues performed a doleful melody, backed by a rock ensemble.
“In the near east, blood flows like a river/ The Chocolate Ass laughs at the nation/ The country is drowning in tears and blood/ And the abomination sits on his throne,” sang Olha Tereschenko, a veteran of Ukraine’s war against Russian-supported separatists in the eastern Donbass region.
The “Chocolate Ass” was Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who owns the country’s largest confectionery company. To avoid any doubt, the performance was accompanied by video of a laughing Poroshenko. Saakashvili sat in the audience with what appeared to be alternating looks of contentment and seriousness.
The performance showed how badly relations have soured between two men who have known each other since their student days at the same Kiev university in the early 1990s and became political allies in Ukraine just a couple of years ago.
A few days ago, Poroshenko hit back with a much harder blow than a satirical song. He signed an order stripping Saakashvili of the Ukrainian citizenship he had granted only two years earlier. That left Saakashvili — a former head of state — stateless, since he lost his Georgian passport when he became Ukrainian.
“Poroshenko always looked up to me and mentioned me as a role model” — Mikheil Saaksashvili
What lies behind the latest twist in the men’s fraught relationship depends on who’s telling the story. Saakashvili says he is being punished for speaking out against rampant graft under Poroshenko. The president’s allies insist the move was was legally justified but also speak of Saakashvili as an impulsive, ungrateful figure who turned on the man who brought him back from the political dead.
But it seems unlikely Ukraine has heard the last of Saakashvili, who was in the United States when he heard of Poroshenko’s move but told POLITICO he is determined to return to his adopted homeland “by land, sea or air.”
Officially, Saakasvhili was stripped of Ukrainian nationality because he failed to provide details in his citizenship application of a criminal case against him in his native Georgia.
But figures across the Ukrainian political spectrum — including rivals of Saakasvhili such as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky — said the move smacked of a witch-hunt.
“We consider such actions of the government to be a reaction to political opposition posed by activists,” a group of MPs wrote in an open letter Friday. “Such governmental actions by a ruling party are in conflict with the fundamental principles of democracy and return Ukraine back on the path to authoritarianism.”
As students at Kiev’s Institute of International Relations, the two men were “not good friends, but we knew each other,” Saakashvili told POLTICO by telephone from New York.
They built up their relationship after reaching senior government positions in their respective countries — Saakashvili as Georgia’s western-oriented reformist president following the 2003 Rose Revolution and Poroshenko in various ministerial positions.
“Poroshenko always expressed admiration for what we achieved in Georgia,” Saakashvili said. “He always looked up to me and mentioned me as a role model.”
In 2013, Saakashvili left Georgia after his party suffered a defeat in parliamentary elections and he finished his second term in office. He taught at Tufts University in the United States and was spotted hanging out among the hipsters in Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, the new Georgian government announced it was opening a criminal case against Saakashvili for abuse of power while in office — an accusation Saakashvili, backed by western officials, said was politically motivated.
His career seemed to have stalled. But then Saakashvili received a new lease of political life from Poroshenko, who was elected as Ukraine’s post-revolution president and in 2015 appointed his old acquaintance as a government adviser. The men not only shared a past and stated commitment to reform but a common enemy: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sent his military across the Georgian border in 2008 and the Ukrainian one in 2014, in the wake of the Maidan revolution, annexing Crimea and stoking a violent conflict in the eastern Donbas that runs hot to this day.
In a major surprise Poroshenko then named Saakashvili governor of the southern Odessa region in May of that year.
“Mikhail Saakashvili is my friend from our student years,” Poroshenko wrote on Twitter. “I remember him as a strong and decisive person, and I have reason to trust him.”
Saakashvili’s appointment was seen either as a stroke of genius or a grave error, as he came with a heavy load of political baggage.
On the one hand, he had the reputation of a can-do reformer — the architect of Georgia’s transformation from failed state to showroom of western economic and political reforms.
“I know that many of Ukraine’s international partners warned Poroshenko that Saakashvili was quite unpredictable” — Alyona Getmanchuk, director of Kiev’s Institute of World Policy
“He came to Odessa as an outsider, with a proven track record, and little fear,” said one western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But Saakashvili also had a reputation for being polarizing, authoritarian and impulsive. Some blamed him for letting Georgia be sucked into the war with Russia in 2008.
“I know that many of Ukraine’s international partners warned Poroshenko that Saakashvili was quite unpredictable,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of Kiev’s Institute of World Policy. “The Europeans told him he was making a mistake.”
Saakashvili’s reforms in Odessa made only modest headway. Critics said that he quickly lost interest in daily nitty-gritty of running a far-flung province. Saakashvili and his team said they were being blocked and undercut from Kiev.
Soon Poroshenko himself started to become the focus of Saakashvili’s ire. The president, he said, oversaw a system in which graft permeated all levels of government.
Last November, Saakashvili resigned as Odessa governor, lashing out at what he said was the “scum” and “filth” in government, and said that Poroshenko had consistently lied to him.
Saakashvili as ‘psychopath’
Out of office, Saakashvili upped attacks on Poroshenko and the government and said he was being blocked from the major news broadcasts. He started his own talk show on the ZIK television channel, the “Chocolate Ass” song being just one of his broadsides.
This seemed to hit its mark.
“Politically, Saakashvili became really a destabilizing voice in Ukraine,” said Olexiy Haran, a professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy university who works closely with the government. “He was totally uncontrolled and emotionally uncontrolled — I would say he was a psychopath.”
Reconciliation attempts failed, although accounts differ as to when these took place and what was said.
Saakashvili says that he and Poroshenko met on the sidelines of a European People’s Party conference in Malta earlier this year. The Georgian showed up unexpectedly and took a seat directly behind the Ukrainian president.
“The last time I had a conversation with him was in March,” Saakashvili said. “He met me basically non-stop for two hours and urged me to stop opposing him — and basically I said, ‘no’.”
People close to Poroshenko’s administration would not say whether this conversation took place. But they said the two men met a few weeks before Georgia’s parliamentary election last year, in which Saakashvili’s United National Movement suffered defeat.
“Perhaps Poroshenko is signaling that he is ready for a brutal political fight to come” — Timothy Ash, political analyst
“Saakashvili called himself ‘a member of Poroshenko’s team,’” one person said. “He asked for support on Georgian elections, and asked [Poroshenko] not to call him a ‘loser,’ because it could harm his campaign.”
“When he got everything and unfortunately for him lost Georgian parliamentary elections, he called himself an opposition leader to the Ukrainian president,” this person added.
Saakashvili said he found out through Ukrainian news reports about his loss of citizenship while he was at his uncle’s home in upstate New York.
“I was surprised at the treacherous way [Poroshenko] did this, while I was out of the country,” Saakashvili said.
What comes next is anyone’s guess. Saakashvili said he would wait for political forces to mobilize and create a mass movement for his return, at which point he would return to Ukraine.
He may have to wait for such a groundswell of support. A demonstration backing Saakashvili on Kiev’s main square on Thursday drew just a few hundred protesters.
For many, Poroshenko’s move against Saakashvili seemed ill-advised. The Georgian’s newly formed political party is polling at less than two percent. Moreover, Saakashvili is barred from running for president, as he hasn’t lived in Ukraine for 10 years.
“It all looks strange and illogical,” said Getmanchuk. “Saakashvili doesn’t pose a political threat for Poroshenko.”
For some observers, Poroshenko’s decision was not so much directed at Saakashvili, as it was at other challengers ahead of a presidential vote scheduled for 2019.
“More likely this is a case of Poroshenko clearing the decks for looming elections, and messaging to other potential political opponents as to his own ruthless political nature,” political analyst Timothy Ash wrote.
Whatever the case, the drama seems far from over.
“If you pick a fight with [Saakashvili], he’s going to come right back at you — he doesn’t give up,” said the western diplomat. “I don’t think they’ve thought this through completely.”