‘It’s Complicated’: the strained relations of Kyiv, Tbilisi and Saakashvili6 min read
On the surface, Georgia and Ukraine appear natural allies. Their shared Soviet legacies, similar paths toward Euro-Atlantic integration, and hostile relations with the Kremlin all point to a straightforward strategic partnership. Yet, despite these shared experiences, this relationship has become somewhat strained in recent years. With the dramatic return of former Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, to his native homeland, the two states appear to have run into even more obstacles.
While it would be false to assume that commonalities in history are certain to lead to happy future relations, Ukraine and Georgia share much more than their Soviet past. At the start of the millennium, both states made history with their respective colour revolutions, signalling an intention to move away from authoritarian models of governance in favour of a more western-style approach. Earlier this year, the two states established the Associated Trio initiative alongside Moldova. The tripartite format seeks to encourage further cooperation between the three states based upon a common interest in European integration. While this initiative is arguably yet another symbolic gesture of cooperation, it does suggest that their policies remain oriented to western integration.
The two states are also united in a common issue of security: Russia. Maintaining territorial integrity has long been at the core of Georgia’s security policy. As such, Russia’s control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — both formally recognised as part of Georgian territory — is a severe blow to the Georgian national Self. Likewise, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 served as a decisive shift in Ukraine’s relations with Russia. With both states viewing Russia as their primary aggressor, they are united in a common enemy. But if Kyiv and Tbilisi appear to share such similar visions of their future, then why have relations between the two been so strained recently? Much of the uneasiness between the states comes down to one polarizing figure, Mikheil Saakashvili.
Saakashvili in exile
Once lauded by the West for his reformist and pro-democracy stance, Saakashvili has slowly but surely fallen from his previous political heights. While it is hard to deny Saakashvili’s early successes following the 2003 Rose Revolution — the spurring of economic growth, a crackdown on elite-level corruption, and the de-escalation of tensions in Adjara to name but a few — his political record became shakier over the years. Transparency International reports released during Saakashvili’s second term revealed increasingly authoritarian acts, such as the closing down of oppositional media outlets and the dispersal of protests through violent means. As allegations of misconduct began to stack up, a now-infamous prison torture scandal cemented Saakashvili’s loss of his grip over Georgian politics and his United National Movement’s nine years in power came to an end.
Despite being sentenced in absentia on two separate charges of abuse of authority, his political career was far from over. In 2013, Saakashvili made the decision to avoid the charges — which he believed to be politically motivated — by fleeing to the home of his alma mater: Ukraine. In 2015, then-president Petro Poroshenko, a friend from his university days, offered him a Ukrainian passport. However, this friendship was not meant to be. Saakashvili was appointed governor of the southern region of Odessa because of his track record of spurring on reforms, but later accused Poroshenko of worsening levels of corruption and announced his intention to create a new opposition movement in Ukraine. Saakashvili’s citizenship was promptly revoked and he was deported to Poland.
A lot can change in a short space of time. By 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected amidst growing demand for swift reforms. He promised an overhaul of Ukrainian politics, so who better to call on than the former champion of reformist politics and critic of his predecessor? As such, last year saw Zelensky restore Saakashvili’s citizenship and appoint him chair of Ukraine’s National Reform Council’s Executive Committee. This move marked yet another setback for Ukraine’s relations with Tbilisi, as the incumbent Georgian Dream (GD) party decided to summon its ambassador to Ukraine back to Tbilisi in May 2020. This ‘special relationship’ between the two countries would soon become even rockier.
Misha’s return: a catch-22 for Zelensky?
Despite playing a significant role in Ukrainian politics, Saakashvili never abandoned his roots on the Georgian political stage. Throughout his exile, the former president remained actively critical of the ruling Georgian Dream party for their increased authoritarianism and links to corruption, as well as remaining an Honorary Chairman of the United National Movement. Most importantly, Saakashvili promised to return to his homeland, causing the seemingly ominous message of “Misha is coming” to flood the comments of Georgian Dream’s social media.
Misha was not bluffing. On October 1, ahead of Georgia’s polarising municipal elections, Saakashvili arrived in Tbilisi and was immediately arrested. Since his arrest, the former president spent some 49 days on hunger strike in protest of his detention and was transferred to Gori Military Hospital on November 19 due to his rapidly deteriorating health. Saakashvili’s imprisonment sent shockwaves throughout Georgia, with protests filling the streets of the capital on an almost daily basis: many are protesting his imprisonment, holding signs with the motto “#FREEMISHA”; some focus solely on his human rights whilst in prison following allegations of abuse; others are counter-protesting against the protesters themselves. Either way, Saakashvili certainly made his arrival known.
So, where does this leave Kyiv? Zelensky now faces a tough decision. For a more confrontational approach, he could demand Saakashvili’s release given his official status as a Ukrainian official, risking further deterioration of Georgian-Ukrainian bilateral relations. This approach would send a clear signal of disapproval to the GD for their actions, which have become increasingly authoritarian since last year’s parliamentary elections. Alternatively, the Ukrainian president could accept the conviction in order to ease tensions with the Georgian government and work towards rebuilding this strategic partnership. This option would likely mark an end to Zelensky’s relationship with Saakashvili and risk alienating those who support him both inside and outside Ukraine.
Initially, Zelensky opted for the former. In early October, the president stated he would not “abandon” Ukrainian citizens who face difficulties abroad and declared his intention to return Saakashvili to Ukraine. Yet, very little has happened to put these words into action. Instead, Kyiv seems to have changed its tune entirely and embraced “a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Georgia,” according to one Foreign Ministry spokesperson. This U-turn signals discord among officials regarding their position on Saakashvili’s imprisonment. It seems that the same debates seen on the streets of Tbilisi are being echoed inside the Rada [Ukrainian parliament]. After witnessing the deterioration of its relations with this key ally, it is not difficult to understand why many Ukrainian politicians feel hesitant to show further support, especially given the muted response from the West regarding the situation.
Kyiv is stuck between a rock and a hard place. In a hope to spur on reforms and hold the previous government to account, Zelensky took a gamble and called on the former Georgian president. In doing so, an already difficult dynamic between Tbilisi and Kyiv was put under further strain. Ukraine now finds itself on a political battlefield between Saakashvili loyalists and the incumbent Georgian Dream government with one question remaining: was the risk worth it? As the long-term health effects of Saakashvili’s recent hunger strike remain to be seen and Kyiv struggles to make a decision on what to do next, the benefits of bringing Saakashvili back into Ukrainian politics are yet to clearly materialise and put the future of this ‘special relationship’ under pressure.