How a Former Governor Invaded Ukraine

(Bloomberg View) -- On Sunday night, supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president, broke through a police and border guard cordon on the Ukrainian border to let their expelled hero back into the country. The dramatic stunt was a sad testimony to the failure of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's attempt to use foreigners to reform the corrupt post-Soviet nation. It also exposes as hollow the president's narrative of a country that has made a civilizational choice in favor of the West.

Saakashvili was one of many foreign experts Poroshenko called on after he was elected in 2014, following Ukraine's "Revolution of Dignity." The Georgian headed Poroshenko's reform advisory council and then, as his political prospects in his native country faded, accepted the Odessa governor's job to attempt the economic revival of a key, largely Russian-speaking region. Ukrainian citizenship came with the appointment.

Now, the many foreigners have resigned, displaying different degrees of frustration and fatigue. Saakashvili's Odessa projects also failed -- because of resistance from Kiev, he said. Frustrated, he decided to take up politics, forming an anti-corruption party. Poroshenko didn't take kindly to the idea and took away the Georgian's citizenship in July. Georgia had done that earlier, after Saakashvili accepted the Ukrainian government job, so the decision left him stateless.

Ukraine is party to the United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, so the only way it could leave the former Georgian president stateless was by claiming he had lied on his application. He had failed to mention the criminal charges pending against him in Georgia, where he is accused of abusing power. The charges, however, were widely reported by the media, and Poroshenko and his advisors would have had knowledge of them when he made Saakashvili a citizen. His move to revoke the citizenship was nakedly political; and it ignores the Convention, which allows Saakashvili his day in court.

Saakashvili, travelling on his technically invalid Ukrainian passport, plotted his reentry via Poland. Some Ukrainian politicians who disagreed with Poroshenko's move -- including Yulia Tymoshenko, the populist former prime minister -- joined Saakashvili in Poland. But Saakashvili abandoned his plan to cross the border by bus Sunday after reports that a large group of thugs had shown up around the border, near where his supporters were in tents. Instead, he boarded a train with state-owned Ukrainian Railways going from Przemysl in Poland to Lviv is Western Ukraine. The train's crew announced to passengers it would remain at the Polish station until "a person banned from entry into Ukraine" disembarked. Buses were offered to passengers who needed to get to Lviv quickly.

Realizing the train wouldn't budge, Saakashvili took a bus to a different crossing, in Shehyni. The Polish border guards let him through, but on the Ukrainian side, he was told the border crossing was closed because of a bomb threat someone had called in. Saakashvili hung out in no man's land until several hundred of his supporters on the Ukrainian side broke through a line of border guards reinforced by riot police.

Saakashvili went walking the streets of Lviv with his entourage, greeted effusively by many locals and welcomed by the city's popular mayor, Andriy Sadovy, who also harbors national political ambitions. The video was posted gleefully on Facebook by Saakashvili himself. "I don't care who violates the state border, militants in the east or populist politicians in the west," President Poroshenko said in an angry statement posted on his site. "I hope this gentleman someday tries to break into Georgia with the same zeal." Interior Minister Arsen Avakov denounced the "suicidal destruction" of institutions "for the sake of a moment's political interests" and vowed to hold everyone involved responsible. Poroshenko, however, only has himself to blame. It was his idea to bring foreigners into an unreformed, corrupt, cronyist Ukrainian government system without lending them any serious bureaucratic, financial or political support. Clearly, not all of them were willing to be used in this way. It was also Poroshenko's error to try to drive Saakashvili out of the country. The law is on the Georgian's side.

Poroshenko's summary action allowed his political rivals to assert that his efforts to protect his power made him little better than the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych. "There is no doubt that a new corrupt dictatorship has arrived," Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovich jailed, wrote on Facebook on Monday. 

Tymoshenko's party, Batkivshyna (Fatherland), is the most popular in Ukraine today but that's not saying much -- it has about 11 percent support, according to a recent poll. Poroshenko's bloc has less than 10 percent. The next elections are scheduled for 2019, and, theoretically, everyone, including Poroshenko, still has plenty of time to rebuild their popularity. One thing is clear, though: Ukraine has reverted to its habitual state of anarchy and internecine strife.

It's a state of affairs Western leaders can't ignore. It's not enough for a post-Soviet country to turn its back on Russia or even fight off its armed depredations. Effort is required to establish the rule of law, abandon political cronyism and make fundamental changes to the economy -- allowing, for example, a free market in land, something the Ukrainian government has continually put off despite pressure from the International Monetary Fund. No matter how much Western support Ukraine receives for its stand against Russian President Vladimir Putin, it can still fail as a state unless its politicians -- and, at the end of the day, not well-wishing foreigners -- act to build up workable institutions and accept fair competition.

Meanwhile, as the Saakashvili border incident shows, the government still hasn't restored its monopoly on violence. Saakashvili only has 2 percent public support, so it's not as if he's about to stage a revolution. But in today's Ukraine, anyone with the ability to get a few hundred tough people together -- army veterans, anti-Russian volunteers, pro-Russian politicians or Russian intelligence services -- can project authority for a while. 

Even those who backed Saakashvili in the current conflict are chilled by that. "The pictures from Shehyni are hell," Legislator Mustafa Nayyem, who was with Saakashvili on the train in Poland but not at the border crossing, posted on Facebook. "I can't bring myself to call this a success."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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