I may be the first former head of state since a Habsburg to be left stateless.
In the past, I’ve also been described as one of the worst enemies of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. And yet I recently spent three days in solitary confinement, held by the Security Service of Ukraine, which, among other allegations, accused me of being an agent of the Russian secret service.
How did this happen?
After I finished two terms as president of Georgia, during which I turned my homeland into what the World Bank described in 2007 as the No. 1 reformer in the world, I moved to the United States to teach.
But in November 2013, protests began in Ukraine, the country where I had earlier in my life studied and lived for many years, to get rid of a thuggish, pro-Russian president. After students were beaten in Kiev’s central square, I knew I had to be there. I traveled to Ukraine to join the demonstrations on the Maidan.
Initially, after the ouster of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, the situation in Ukraine looked promising. Following his election to the presidency, Petro Poroshenko in May 2015 granted me Ukrainian citizenship.
By November, I, along with a team of my former Georgian colleagues, helped create a new Ukrainian police force. We also completely transformed the corrupt way state contracts were purchased and helped to form the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, a watchdog.
At that time, Mr. Poroshenko welcomed our help. He described me as “a great friend of Ukraine” and granted me and other Georgian reformers citizenship. Several of us were invited to join the Ukrainian government. One became the head of the national police force and another was appointed minister of health. Another Georgian became the deputy director of the anticorruption bureau.
I volunteered to serve as governor of the Odessa region, to defend it from Russian attempts to take it over and to jump-start reforms there. Those reforms brought in many young Ukrainians, who were supported by the local population, which saw them as a chance to get rid of the post-Soviet oligarchy. Everything was going well, but by late 2016, we found our efforts at implementing reforms were being stymied by the central government.
Mr. Poroshenko, an oligarch who had gotten rich under the old system, and his entourage not only stopped helping my team in Odessa and other reformers in the government but also directly started to undermine some of our initial achievements. I believe that this was mostly out of personal interest: More transparency in public institutions was leading to less space for them to make money. Moreover, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau had begun to go after some of the president’s close associates.
In November 2016, I resigned from my post as governor and founded an opposition party. The government tried to stop us from forming it. A few months later, while traveling abroad, I was stripped of my Ukrainian citizenship. (Because I had given up my Georgian passport to become a Ukrainian national, that meant I was now officially stateless.) Despite receiving direct threats that I should not return to Ukraine, I managed to come back — officially stateless but more determined than ever.
I also began to lead a peaceful mobilization for change, forming a coalition of opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations to protest in front of Parliament.
In the meantime, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, after it initiated a case on the president’s corruption relating to military purchases, came under intense attack. Its detectives were interrogated by prosecutors, its undercover agents were exposed, and attempts were made at curtailing its authority. Just a few years earlier, the people of Ukraine had unseated their president in large part because of his corruption. They are not going to see their gains undone.
So last week my party, the Movement of New Forces, organized one of the biggest rallies since the Maidan to protest against corruption and the attacks on the anticorruption bureau. Two days later, my apartment, which is near the Maidan, was searched by special troops who tried to arrest me — without ever showing me any warrant. Passers-by intervened and freed me from the security forces’ minivan. I was arrested again a few days later. I was charged with “aiding and abetting a criminal organization” — associates of the ousted president, Mr. Yanukovych, who had fled to Russia.
The prosecutor general announced that I am an agent of the Russian secret police and that my goal is to destabilize Ukraine.
Ukraine is, indeed, being destabilized by Russia. And indeed, Russia has powerful allies in this destabilization: Ukraine’s homegrown, greedy and corrupt elites, who have turned what could be one of Europe’s wealthiest countries into one of its poorest.
I believe in a great future for Ukraine. As in other countries in Eastern Europe, its success, I believe, lies in the reversal of a trend in which oligarchs, who have learned to manipulate elections, are winning. I hope to live until the not-so-distant day when I will be in a position to share this victory with all Ukrainians and other post-Soviet nations.
On Monday, a local district judge, Larysa Tsokol, despite tremendous pressure to keep me under arrest, set me free. I will now contest the charges against me, and I am confident I will be fully vindicated. Judge Tsokol is just one of the many brave people in Ukraine. They are the country’s hope and its future.
Mikheil Saakashvili was the president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013 and the governor of Odessa, Ukraine, from May 2015 to November 2016.