Saakashvili: Georgian troublemaker for Russia and Ukraine

Kiev (AFP) –


Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has become in recent years one of the former Soviet Union's most colourful and polarising politicians.

He brought down one government at home and is now trying to do the same in Ukraine.

The charismatic 49-year-old dramatically made his way out of a police van on Tuesday after it was swarmed by supporters angered over Saakashvili's arrest on charges of plotting a coup sponsored by Russia.

It was the latest chapter in the dizzying career of a man who spearheaded a pro-Western "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003 and fought a disastrous war with Russia five years later that eventually prompted him to flee the small Caucasus country.

He seized back the spotlight as a vocal and energetic champion of the three-month street uprising in Kiev that toppled a Moscow-backed government in 2014 and turned Ukraine on a pro-EU course.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko rewarded Saakashvili for his efforts by appointing him governor of the important Black Sea region of Odessa in 2015.

But an ugly falling out between the two saw Saakashvili stripped of his Ukrainian passport -- only for him to defy the authorities and force his way back into the conflict-riven country with the help of supporters in September.

Few know what will happen to Saakashvili next as he continues leading small protests in Kiev aimed at impeaching Poroshenko on claims he has failed to fight state corruption that has made Ukraine into one of Europe's poorest states.

But some say the only winner of the latest political standoff in Kiev was the Kremlin.

"The conflict between Saakashvili and the Ukrainian authorities only benefits Russia," former US deputy assistant secretary of defence Michael Carpenter told the Atlantic Council think tank.

"Fighting Moscow's aggression in (the east), the country needs internal peace and reform," added Ukraine's former US ambassador John Herbst.

Russia rejects all evidence of its involvement in a nearly four-year war that has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

- Tapping into discontent -

The idea of Saakashvili working with Russia to oust Poroshenko would -- on the face of it -- seem implausible.

Saakashvili, educated in the US and Ukraine, pulled Tbilisi out of Moscow's orbit by toppling the government of the late Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003, the first "colour revolution" to hit Russia's periphery.

His fans hail Saakashvili as a promoter of Western democratic and economic principles who rolls up his sleeves when tackling graft.

One of Saakashvili's most celebrated achievements in Georgia was his ability to clean up the bribe-happy police force by disbanding the existing one and creating a new one from scratch.

But his critics view Saakashvili as a self-promoter who has developed a knack for seeking out attention and pulling headline-grabbing stunts.

The raids on his home on Tuesday saw Saakashvili climb on his apartment block rooftop and accuse Poroshenko of being a thief and "a traitor to the people of Ukraine".

Some analysts say they believe Saakashvili is simply tapping into public discontent over corruption for little more than personal political gain.

"He likes to be followed by camera crews and photographers," political analyst Mykola Davydyuk told AFP.

"Perhaps, on occasion, he overdoes it with the PR stunts, but he also knows how to rein himself in," Davydyuk said.

"He is one of Ukraine's most experienced politicians."

Saakashvili, whose approval rating in Ukraine remains marginal, has most recently forged an alliance with the populist former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- a far more potent threat to Poroshenko.

But his proven ability to seize power on the back of waves of public discontent appears to be gnawing at Ukraine's president just as he is hearing whispers of disappointment with his leadership in the West.