KYIV, Feb. 10 – Ukraine’s opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili says he is the victim of an international plot to “squeeze” him out of Ukraine following his vocal criticism of the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko, The Guardian reported.
A court in Kyiv last week rejected Saakashvili’s appeal for protection against possible extradition to Georgia, where he is ruled to have illegally pardoned in 2008 four police officers accused of murder. The Ukrainian court ruling came a month after a judge in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, sentenced him to three years in jail in absentia.
Saakashvili, who ruled Georgia for nine years until 2013, denies the charges, and alleges that the extradition request and prison sentence were orchestrated jointly by Poroshenko and the former Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessmen and political foe.
“The Georgian authorities never asked for my extradition when I was in America or in Europe,” said Saakashvili, 50, during an interview at the offices of his Movement of New Forces opposition party in central Kyiv, a short walk from Ukraine’s parliament. “They only did it when I returned to Ukraine because Poroshenko asked them to.”
He alleged that the Kyiv court’s decision to reject his appeal against extradition came after Ukraine had “begged” several European countries to take him. “The countries said: ‘Yes, fine, we can take him, but he has to make a formal request.’”
The Ukrainian justice minister, Pavlo Petrenko, denies that the extradition proceedings against Saakashvili, who is currently stateless, are politically motivated.
Poroshenko, who was elected president in 2014 after a revolution that toppled Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader, Viktor Yanukovych, appointed the fiery Georgian-born politician as the governor of the Black Sea region of Odessa in 2015.
But Saakashvili resigned as Odessa’s governor in November 2016 in protest at what he said was ingrained high-level corruption and launched a campaign to oust Poroshenko. In July, Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship.
He was later arrested and charged with involvement in a Russian-backed plot to destabilize Ukraine, an accusation that Saakashvili, a longtime Kremlin critic, dismisses as politically motivated “lies”. A judge in Kyiv rejected the prosecutor’s arrest to place him under house arrest, however, ordering him instead to observe a nightly curfew that expired on Tuesday.
Although opinion polls indicated that Saakashvili was Ukraine’s most popular politician during his governorship of Odessa, with approval ratings of over 40%, his ratings have slid to less than half that figure since his resignation. Poroshenko, who many Ukrainians say has betrayed the country’s 2013-14 revolution, also has approval ratings of around 15%.
“It will be a big problem for the Georgian and the Ukrainian authorities if I am extradited,” Saakashvili said. “There will be a huge outcry, huge protests in Ukraine. This is not just about me; this is about injustice. And Ukrainians hate injustice.” (gd/ez)