Since 25 February, 2018, Mikheil Saakashvili, former President of Georgia and former Governor of Odessa, Ukraine, continues his fight against corruption and for reforms and direct democracy in both countries from the Netherlands. His wife, Sandra Roelofs, is Dutch. She still lives partly in Georgia together with their youngest son, where Mikheil is facing a prison sentence. According to Mikheil Saakashvili, however, it is the Russian President who hates him more than anyone else, even more than the Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko. When Putin would decide to hurt me physically, he could. Nevertheless, I walk the streets without bodyguards, go out for dinner, knowing that Novichok, the deadliest poison gas in the world, is now easy to transport.
Mikheil Saakashvili lives in the heart of Amsterdam, for almost a year now. He is busy leading his opposition movement and knows he is supported by many compatriots and Ukrainians, who follow him every week with millions at a time on Facebook or cling to him on the streets. Since he left the country eight years ago, Georgia’s economic growth has evaporated and crime rates have risen again. Corruption is also on the increase, both in Georgia and Ukraine. It is difficult to reverse this trend, mainly because Eastern European leaders do not like reforms and more democracy, as that almost always means a reduction of their power and influence.
Within half an hour after this conversation in a city garden unique to Amsterdam will have ended, a Skype interview awaits him with an important news medium from Ukraine. “I travel a lot and people visit me here. I will shortly be meeting a Georgian group, including a presidential candidate for the October elections, in Poland. There I am also preparing a major conference about direct democracy in Ukraine, where I will be arguing for electronic voting systems. In October, under the auspices of Speakers Academy® , I will give a keynote speech to 2,000 students at Tilburg University on how I see the future of the Eastern European region”, he says. Meanwhile he can look back on all these events, but he is still just as busy. The battle is far from over.
Mr Saakashvili – who leads his movement from Amsterdam as a stateless citizen, with a provisional Dutch residence permit – has an exciting story to tell; almost a film script. As he pours in a glass of Aloe Vera drink, he says: “In 1998, I won a Soviet student competition. I had the most knowledge of the United Nations, so as a reward I was sent to The Hague to attend a conference in the borough of Scheveningen. It was my first trip abroad, which I experienced as an immediate cultural shock. I met my wife, Sandra, in Strasbourg, where we both studied human rights. She had already been to Georgia once, where she was part of a humanitarian mission.”
Together they study law in New York, before moving to his native Georgia in 1995, where Saakashvili first becomes a member of parliament and later a Minister of Justice for the Eduard Shevardnadze’s poltocal party. He resigns and continues as an opposition leader after his anti-corruption bill was rejected by Shevardnadze. In 2003, Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution, which eventually led to Shevardnadsi’s departure.
From 2004 to 2013, Mikheil Saakashvili is President of Georgia, with a brief interruption. The country is doing well for nine years, although its large neighbour Russia is causing the necessary turmoil. To put it mildly. “We were the only example of successful post-communist economic and political reform in the former Soviet Union. My country’s transformation frightened Putin. Georgia’s economy grew by almost 400% during my legislature. This was unique in the world, especially in view of the Russian attack on our country in that period and the global economic crisis. I am not saying this lightly, it is all supported by official figures. We have been the world’s number one reformer in the World Bank’s Business Index for five years.
“From a failed state, Georgia turned into a functioning democracy”
It is also the safest country in Europe in terms of crime statistics. In the West, Saakashvili has been praised for his policy, especially in the early days. In his own country too, but around his re-election for a second term (January 2008) – which follows a turbulent period – the opposition accuses their anti-corruption fighter of fraud and corruption.
After nine years in office, which is a long time in that part of the world, Mikheil Saakashvili loses the elections, followed by a peaceful transfer of power. “Even when you’re a successful reformer, people can get fed up with you after a while”, he laughs. “But above all, we lost because we had to compete against the Russian machine that influenced the elections, just like what has happened in America more recently. The Russians used the same tricks: cyberattacks, fake news, mass propaganda, provocations, even murder. As a small country without large financial reserves, we could not compete with Russian oligarchs who received USD 2 billion from Putin, who also spent a huge amount of money himself.”
“When Putin would decide to hurt me physically, he could.”
Saakashvili has more than thirty meetings with Putin during his legislatures. “He was and is fascinated by me, so on average he met me more often than his other neighbours. Putin even gave press conferences with me and regularly entered into debate, which is very unusual. The problem, according to the Georgian ex-President, is that Putin and his people want the Soviet Union back, which made it impossible for their interests to coincide. ”
That is why he behaved like a competitor, even though Georgia is many times smaller than Russia. ” He thinks for a moment and then says: “He remembers me like a hard opponent that can’t be broken”.
Georgian troops enter South Ossetia, internationally seen as a renegade region, in August 2008, after which the Russians interfere ‘to protect Ossetians with Russian passports’. According to Mikheil Saakashvili, Vladimir Putin has attacked Georgia with an army of 100,000 men. “The Russians bombarded us, attacked the Black Sea fleet and occupied more and more territories, some of which they already controlled before this war. They were unable to take over our capital, Tblisi, nor could they undo our reforms.” Even after Saakashvili’s departure as President, Putin cannot stop talking about his neighbour. “Although he doesn’t like me, maybe because I am not a fan of Georgian oligarchy which is Gazprom’s largest shareholder, he mentioned my name ten times at his annual press conference in December 2017.”
But what about his old study friend Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine and an oligarch? “He appointed me Governor of the most important region, Odessa, which no one else wanted because of the difficult political situation at the time. I managed to stabilise the region and started with reforms, until the local mafia thought I was going against their interests.
They lobbied Poroshenko and suddenly everyone was against me. I resigned because it had become impossible to continue my work.At one point, my Ukrainian nationality was taken away from me while I was visiting the United States. It succeeded to re-enter Ukraine. Because I was welcomed at the border by thousands of supporters, the border guards let me pass.
In the meantime the authorities started a criminal case against me. The government accused me of wanting to commit a coup d’état and conspiring with the Russians. That is the most cynical thing you can say about me. After all, the Russians hate me even more than some Ukrainians! They arrested me, but after mass protests I was released thanks to a judge who went against the government. Three months later, Poroshenko’s personal bodyguards kidnapped me in the centre of Kiev. Documents confirm that. They put me in a bus, then in a helicopter with which they flew over the city for an hour and a half, and finally they put on an airplane to Poland.”
Saakashvili says Poroshenko is not the only one responsible for the way he has been treated. “There is a group of oligarchs who absolutely hate me. That is why I have been driven out of Ukraine, and put in a rather unique situation. In fact, I am not a political refugee, because I am not hiding in order to prevent persecution in my own country. On the contrary, I wanted to return to Georgia and Ukraine. I even insisted, even though both countries had condemned me in criminal proceedings. Still, they said, ‘Stay where you are’.”
When asked whether he would like to be elected President of Georgia again, should this possibility ever arise, Mikheil Saakashvili answers: “I still play an important role in both Georgia and Ukraine, but more as a regional leader. I await what opportunities present themselves, and what role I can play in the transformation. A high position is not necessary per se, because nowadays there are many ways to reach and motivate an audience.
I’ve already talked about the many interviews I do, the conferences I speak at and the power of Facebook, but I’m also involved in a new project on direct democracy. In countries where corrupt authorities have betrayed their people, people should be given the opportunity to send unwanted leaders away more often by having them vote electronically every four or five years. In this way, the people have a chance to get the laws they want.”
The motivation for continuing to fight actively in any capacity for improvements in Ukraine and Georgia is in his DNA, especially now that he observes that his legacy is still largely intact, although his reforms are subject to ‘wear and tear’. “A quarter of Georgians now live below the poverty line again and 700,000 people have left the country and exchanged it for a European country.
Sandra still lives in Georgia, where she is very popular. She speaks the language fluently, has visited almost every remote rural area and leads a charitable foundation. She has also done a lot for health care and set up a breast cancer screening programme. Before her arrival, no woman had her breasts checked. That was a kind of taboo and a pity, because the mortality rate was high. Child mortality has also been reduced enormously, but has now doubled again.
In the Netherlands too many people know Mikheil and Sandra. NPO has broadcast a documentary about her and both have often been guests on television shows. “They know the story of my persecution in Ukraine. They show solidarity. Many people come to me and say that they are happy that I can live here peacefully and no one is bothering me. That is good.
“Only one person told me not to import my problems into the Netherlands.”
For the last time, Putin is mentioned, because according to Saakashvili the European leaders are showing weakness towards the Russian President. “But that attitude has improved. In the aftermath of what happened to flight MH17 and in Ukraine, they have become more realistic. After Russia annexed Crimea, I debated with Federica Mogherini, an Italian politician who is a member of the European Commission, and asked her why she did nothing to prevent Russia from annexing even more territory.
She replied: ‘Should we bomb Russia?’, and I sarcastically said: ‘Then you have to wait for them to bomb you’. It is not about bombing or not, but about encapsulating a problem. Show that you care. By not doing anything to prevent war, you are provoking the aggressor. If you feed a crocodile, it eventually bites off your head.
Mikheil Saakashvili looks at his watch, the next interview awaits, but finally a look at America. Businessman Donald Trump visited Georgia and called it a role model for the world. Saakashvili is proud of that. Later he visited Broadway-musicals together with Trump. “He is standing with both feet on the ground, don’t underestimate him. I was one of the few who believed he would win the presidential elections. But I was and am also good friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton. It is a pity that they are no longer part of American politics, but I note that the elite that Hillary represented has become weaker.”
Photography: Rianne Broeze-Noordegraaf