Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s political career in Ukraine has been defined by a dramatic series of ups and downs. He began, back in 2015, as an ally of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and was named head of Odesa’s regional administration. But since then, he has resigned from that post and evolved into one of his former patron’s chief political opponents and opposition leaders. The authorities stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian passport while he was abroad, but in defiance he triumphantly (and illegally) reentered the country last September, accompanied by a large crowd of his supporters (UATV via YouTube, September 11; see EDM, September 14).
Many observers saw Saakashvili’s return to Ukraine as a chance for him to seize the political initiative amid the temporary confusion in the highest governmental offices. “Once you have managed to cross the border, [you should] grasp the nettle and get things done,” wrote Evan Riley, a Ukrainian political media blogger based in Ohio state. “However, he [Saakashvili] seems not to be interested in results. He is enjoying the trip, where he can address the people gathering around him.” Critical of this lack of political progress to date, Riley asks, “With more than a month of voyages and preparations, what has been the result?” (Facebook.com, accessed October 26).
Indeed, this past month’s demonstrations outside the Ukrainian parliament, inspired by Saakashvili’s opposition party Movement of New Forces and its political allies (including members of the Samopomich, Batkivshchyna and Svoboda parties, as well as the National Corps and Right Sector), have so far failed to either elicit massive public support or affect the ruling class. Some organizers had presumed the protests in Kyiv would draw some 10,000 backers into the streets. But the protests peaked at around 4,000, on October 17. On the fourth day of the demonstrations, October 20, only several hundred were present; and the protesters’ tent city was mostly empty. Crowds began to swell again somewhat, but peaked (on October 22) at only about 1,500—around one third of the number of demonstrators who had come out to protest initially. By the following day, however, only a few remained in the tent city in front of the national legislature (Focus, October 17; Rian.com.ua, October 20; Hromadske.ua, October 22, 29; Atlanticcouncil.org, October 23).
The protesters called for “Big Political Reform,” a slogan that can be distilled into three specific demands: lifting parliamentary immunity, changing the electoral system to an open-party list, and creating a National Anticorruption Court. Through creative legislative maneuvering, the authorities were able to bury those demands in red tape, however. For instance, President Poroshenko presented a bill to lift parliamentary immunity, but he set the date of the draft law’s commencement for 2020. In turn, the parliament then sent both the protesters’ and president’s draft bills before a court for legal review. According to Igor Tyshkevich, an analyst with the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, the authorities are feigning willingness to speed up the legislative process on reforms, but in fact they are simply buying themselves more time and taking over the political initiative from the street (Hvylya.net, October 17). As such, the Big Political Reform initiative has turned out to be the campaign’s weakest point. Ukraine blogger Evan Riley argues that if even the three demands are met by the ruling class, this will hardly change the situation in the country as long as Ukrainian courts and the judiciary system in general remain corrupt (Facebook.com, accessed October 26).
None of the protesters’ suggestions are likely to contribute to a radical change of the current political regime, believes Vitaliy Kulyk, the director of the Kyiv-based Center for the Study of Civic Society Problems. Indeed, in his estimation, the specific elements of the Big Political Reform program would likely “prolong its existence.” According to Kulyk, the government and legislature continue to suffer from a corrupt system of clientalism, which requires “revolutionary change.” The three proposed reforms, on the other hand, cannot provide such a sharp shock to the system, Kulyk argues, and the legislative/bureaucratic process surrounding those reforms would simply preserve the status quo (Glavred.info, October 24).
Moreover, Kulyk posits that the present protest campaign has suffered from weak support because Saakashvili and his allies voiced their party slogans instead of articulating the people’s true demands. “While the Maidan of 2013–2014 stood against the abuse of power and stealing of our future—for human and civic dignity—the key deficit in today’s society is [a lack of] justice,” Kulyk maintains. According to him, the current political regime is about to complete the counter-revolutionary takeover of power and fully restore the old clientelist system. “It has been going on in all fields, from legal proceedings […] to asset-grabbing and raidership [hostile takeovers] in business; from persecuting political opponents to buying out positions in the state administration,” the political expert claims. “There has been no de-oligarchization of the economy, instead a trivial redistribution of financial flows has taken place. With power consolidating in single hands, there are risks of a return to authoritarianism. That is why protesting against the regime’s deeds or misdeeds is our right and duty as responsible Ukrainian citizens,” he asserts (Glavred.info, October 24).
The remaining protesters are prepared to continue their campaign until November 7, the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Communist Revolution. Their demands have been shifting: Now, they are calling for the resignation of both the president and the parliament, de-oligarchization, and fair courts (Kyiv Post, October 23). In the opinion of prominent Ukrainian journalist Vitaliy Portnikov, real political reform in the country would mean reforming the constitution and actually choosing between a presidential or a parliamentary system of government (thus finally putting an end to governing dualism, which repeatedly resulted in political gridlock and dysfunction in the past). Portnikov further suggests implementing decentralization, judicial reform, de-monopolizing the national economy and carrying out structural reforms—all elements neglected by the protesters (Inforesist.org, October 18).
Only those able to voice society’s real needs and articulate a meaningful vision for the country’s future can expect to enlist significant popular support, believes philosopher Sergiy Datsiuk (Pravda.com.ua, October 20). Until Mikheil Saakashvili is able to strike this right tone, his political career in Ukraine is likely to remain a lengthy succession of ups and downs.