Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in business doing two things he likes most – making speeches at protests and fighting his nemesis, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. This time, he got to do them both in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where street protests continue to boil.
“Hello, Ukraine!” he said in Ukrainian on December 7, addressing thousands of demonstrators gathered in the city's Maidan Nezalezhnosty or Freedom Square to push the Ukrainian government into a rethink about giving Russia precedence over the European Union. “I’ve come here… to the beating, living and singing heart of Europe,” he went on.
Consulting a written text (Ukrainian is not known to be one of the multi-lingual Saakashvili's strongest languages), the leader of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution told demonstrators that "you are defending not just your future, the future of Ukraine, but also the future of all of us, all the freedom-loving nations of the region and the world."
If the European Union can prevail in Ukraine over Moscow, he argued, it can prevail also in Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere in the ex-Soviet world.
With Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitali Klychko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk by his side, he called for a united front against Putin's Russia, which, he claimed, is trying to gobble up one country at a time.
“The Ukrainian triumph will end the era of Vladimir Putin, and the end will start here, on this very square,” he said to ovations from the crowd. (Next stop for Misha: Moldova.)
It is not the first time that Saakashvili, the graduate of a Kyiv university, has weighed in on matters Ukrainian. Before Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, he is thought to have shared his Rose-Revolution knowhow with Viktor Yushchenko, a friend who became president in the Orange Revolution's wake. Similarly, he is reported to have dispatched a Georgian task force of supporters to Ukraine supposedly to stymie the 2010 victory of the current, Russian-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Essentially excluded from politics at home, Saakashvili can do little to vex Putin these days, but the former Georgian leader's regional reputation for revolution still lingers on. Even before the ex-president set foot in Kyiv, Ukrainian news outlets, using one Georgian tabloid's report, claimed that the 45-year-old Saakashvili had come (along with his grandmother, no less) to town to join the protests.
Yet while Saakashvili's grandmother is not known to have made the trip, senior members of the ex-president's United National Movement certainly have. Grinning broadly and wearing blue-and-yellow scarves, they've been appearing on Georgian nightly newscasts.
Georgia’s current leaders, however, are far more reserved. Hoping to tiptoe to Europe around Moscow, they have refrained from open expressions of solidarity with the EuroMaidan movement, though not from emphasizing their determination to join the European Union.
But after Tbilisi initialed a landmark association agreement with the European Union, an agreement from which Kyiv stepped away, there is a sense of anxiety and anticipation within Georgia that Moscow will try to stir something up. Next year may prove a test for Georgia’s new, discreet foreign-policy ways.