Paul Niland: Good riddance to manipulative Saakashvili

Much has been written about Mikheil Saakashvili over the last few days, in the wake of a breath-taking series of events that saw the former president of Georgia being arrested (not “kidnapped” mind, only his political party and Kremlin backed media use that terminology) in Kyiv and immediately deported to Poland.

Much of the debate right now is focused on the legality of the actions of Ukraine’s government. Saakashvili can apply to higher courts for a ruling on whether he has been treated justly or whether his rights have been violated, but, from a technical perspective in Ukraine, the authorities will have made sure they acted within the letter, if not the spirit of the law. Much like when his Ukrainian citizenship was stripped from him, technically, the authorities had legal grounds for their actions.

Aside from the legality of the deportation, there is also a question of the rough handling he received during his arrest: was the amount of force used reasonable? He was known to be guarded by a security detail, they could be expected to put up a fight. They did, and so did Saakashvili himself.

Having previously been freed from police custody, and not by “passersby” as he falsely claimed in an OpEd in the New York Times, Ukraine’s authorities moved to capture Saakashvili swiftly and, this time, they acted decisively. This wasn’t a ham-fisted embarrassment, as we have seen before, it was a well-executed operation.

In debating this issue (I tweet in my own name, @PaulNiland) I have been accused of ignoring the legal questions raised by these events, “just because I don’t like Saakashvili.”

That’s a tad unfair. Firstly, I don’t know Saakashvili – I met him once at a conference and he seemed OK. I’m not overlooking the legality of the actions of the Ukrainian authorities, my opinions on those issues are addressed in the preamble here. It’s not fair to say that I simply “do not like” Saakashvili – my opinions about him and his actions are informed by Saakashvili’s actions, as well as the words and also the behavior of those whom he surrounded himself with in Kyiv.

As I argued on Oct. 24, 2017, after witnessing the aftermath of his first mass march following his clearly illegal re-entry to Ukraine, that his cynical exploitation (carried out in concert with Batkivshyna Party leader Yulia Tymoshenko) of the legitimate grievances of veterans of the war in the east of Ukraine was a disgrace.

Those veterans deserve respect. The tinderbox atmosphere that was created close to parliament could have, once again, turned deadly, the lessons of the past were ignored for political showboating. On Aug. 31, 2015 four National Guardsmen were killed in the very same spot where Saakashvili and Tymoshenko were again amassing veterans.

The Last March, Feb. 4, 2018

Several thousand people gathered in Shevchenko Park. Their march, fully compliant with all laws and norms, was not only permitted by the authorities, it was escorted and protected by the police, because this is a democracy, albeit an immature one. The three-kilometer route went through the Maidan, and along Kreschatyk, to where a stage had been erected on European Square.

I arrived at European Square just as the speeches were about to start. The national anthem had just finished. The greeting “Slava Ukraini” was shouted three times and was met with a hearty response of “Heroyam Slava” each time. Then the slogan “Slava Natsii” went up three times, and the response of “Smert Voroham” came back three times too. Here is where the problem starts for me.

During Maidan, hundreds of thousands of people would shout the slogans “Slava Ukraini” and “Heroyam Slava,” which translate as “Glory to Ukraine” and “Glory to the Heroes”. While it was originally associated with nationalists, it is a normal and common greeting, used by proud and patriotic Ukrainians of all political stripes.

In contrast, “Slava Natsii” translates as Glory to the Nation, and is much less commonly used than “Slava Ukraini” – it is a phrase used by people with nationalistic persuasions, and the standard response “Smert Voroham” translates as “Death to the Enemy.”

If we go back to the Maidan revolution of November 2013 to February 2014, the latter phrase was almost never heard, and it received a lukewarm “Smert Voroham” response on the very rare occasions when it was used. This may seem like an obscure nuance to some observers, but this is significant in understanding both the Revolution of Dignity and the actions of Saakashvili and his cohorts.

While Russian propaganda paints the Revolution of Dignity as a movement led by nationalists or extremists, in reality hundreds of thousands of people showed no interest in using any nationalist slogans. But when a couple of thousand (maybe, my personal estimate is 5,000) gathered to heed the Saakashvili message, this nationalist chant is prominent.

As the first speaker took to the microphone, I found myself surprised that I had no idea who it was. This was not a prominent political figure, but he was leading the line-up, and he was, simply put, thoroughly dishonest.

Speaker Number One (I don’t know what else to call him) made assertions that unless Poroshenko is removed from power now, we know that the forthcoming elections will be stolen. Ukraine’s democracy is still imperfect, and we know that news outlets owned by oligarchs are used to influence the minds and attitudes of voters.

But (unlike in Russia) the days of state employees being instructed to vote a certain way or lose their jobs, or the days of mass ballot stuffing, or the days of falsification of electoral commission protocols are well, well behind Ukraine. The reports on both elections held in 2014, made by credible monitoring groups, testify to this fact.

Speaker Number One then went on to present entirely false claims relating to the Minsk peace agreements – he claimed that these agreements are a “secret pact” between Poroshenko and Putin aimed to bring an end to Ukrainian statehood. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Poroshenko’s actual position on Ukrainian statehood is the diametric opposite of the claim made.

Speaker Number One then told the crowd that Minsk meant that Ukraine had to allow elections under occupation. This dangerous lie needs to be addressed once and for all.

I am for allowing elections in the presently occupied areas. But no rational person is calling for elections to be held under the present circumstances. Of course, we cannot call the demands of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “rational,” because elections in occupied eastern Ukraine under the present circumstances are precisely what the Russian side, and only the Russian side, is calling for.

The people of eastern Ukraine must be allowed to vote, and free and fair elections unhindered by foreign intervention are the basic norms of any democracy. For that vote to happen, there must first be peace, so that there can be open and unfettered campaigning by anyone who wants to participate. Anything less than this is not even remotely acceptable to anyone in their right minds.

At this point Speaker Number Two takes over. No, I don’t know his name either. I think I can pretty much recognize any significant figure on the Ukrainian political scene, but so far the Saakashvili line up is 0 for 2. Speaker Number Two tells us that the true heroes of this movement are those who have been camped outside parliament for four months now, because they have withstood repeated attacks and provocations from special ops branches of the security forces.

This is nonsense.

The small group of people by the parliament who are exercising their right to free assembly have not been molested in any way by the authorities. They bring supplies in and take refuse out. They were told on day one that they could pitch tents in the park if they wished, but would they please not block the road. They blocked the road anyway. It would be nice if they would, four months later, unblock the road, as only 10 percent of the tents on the road are occupied and about 70 percent of the tents in the park are vacant.

Speaker Number Three now takes over. I was about to leave, I had walked around and got to a higher perch to take a photo of the crowd, and a lady (no, didn’t know her name either) took the stage. Her claims of having been raided by the authorities while she was at home with her family, including generations younger and older, seemed unbelievable – particularly in light of what had come before her.

But I was to learn her name – Kateryna Petrenko. In recent days a video has been released of the Feb. 4 march and rally. Interspersed in the video are images from the Maidan, images portraying Saakashvili heroically resisting an earlier kidnapping attempt (in reality, being illegally broken out of custody by a mob, and then there is Petrenko on the stage at the rally, standing in front of Saakashvili himself. Before and after she says the words “and now we can be robbed and imprisoned for our political views, we can be accused of crimes we have never done” the slick video switches between frames of her reading her script, and her standing with Saakashvili on the stage.

For the record, nobody in Ukraine is being robbed or imprisoned for their political views. Petrenko’s claim, made at Saakashvili’s behest, is not based on reality.

There is something familiar about Petrenko: Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe it’s another cynical manipulation, but she looks not dissimilar to Yulia Marushevska.

Marushevska’s fame started with her 2014 appeal from the Revolution of Dignity, titled I am a Ukrainian, which went viral and garnered over nine million views. Not only is there a physical resemblance, the Petrenko video based on the Feb. 4 march is clearly an attempt to copy the style and format of the Marushevska video. One YouTube user has even posted a video of the two videos set side-by-side, under the title “Manipulations.”

These are just some of the games that Saakashvili has been playing in Ukraine. These are the type of distortions that he has been foisting on the Ukrainian people. This is why he became a danger to national security – because of lies and manipulations.

This catalogue of dishonesty from Saakashvili and the people around him show what a destructive force he was in reality. He was, as all populists ultimately are, a conman and a fraud. Good riddance.


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