by Andrew Higgins
MOSCOW — After repeated failed attempts to lock up or at least muzzle Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, Ukrainian security officers on Monday grabbed the now stateless ex-leader in a restaurant and bundled him onto an aircraft bound for Poland.
A spokeswoman for Saakashvili said he had been detained during lunch at a Georgian restaurant in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, by armed men in camouflage uniforms from Alfa, a unit of Ukraine’s internal security agency, and the border guard service. He was then sent, against his will, to Warsaw, she said.
Video footage of the scene in the restaurant showed members of Saakashvili’s lunch party scuffling with security agents, and unidentified men rolling about the floor.
Saakashvili, a former ally turned critic of Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, entered Ukraine from Poland in September, accompanied by a throng of supporters who surged past border guards.
Ukraine, which denounced his entry as illegal, has been trying in vain since then to arrest Saakashvili, who has led a series of street protests calling for Poroshenko’s removal from office. Failing that, authorities have been trying to reduce his room for political activity in public.
Opinion polls indicate that Saakashvili has not won a large public following in Ukraine, where he studied as a student during the Soviet Union. But he has nonetheless been a major thorn in Poroshenko’s side by putting a spotlight on allegations of official corruption, an issue that mobilized street protests against Poroshenko’s predecessor Viktor F. Yanukovych in the winter of 2013-14.
Saakashvili went to Ukraine after the protests toppled Yanukovych and became a keen supporter of Ukraine’s new president, Poroshenko, who appointed him governor of Odessa, a Ukrainian region on the Black Sea notorious for corruption. Stripped of his Georgian citizenship by the authorities there, Saakashvili became a Ukrainian citizen in 2015.
But after a bitter falling out with Poroshenko, he was stripped of that nationality, too, and quit as Odessa’s governor, accusing the authorities in Kiev of enabling the corrupt deals they had vowed to uproot.
By sending him to Poland, Ukraine seems eager to remove the former Georgian leader, who has spearheaded a noisy opposition campaign against graft, as a potential political danger without jeopardizing his freedom.
Georgia, which Saakashvili governed until 2013, has requested that Ukraine hand him over to its own judicial system to face a litany of charges relating to his time in office. A court in Georgia last month sentenced Saakashvili in absentia to three years in prison for abusing his pardon powers as president.
Saakashvili has denounced the charges against him in Georgia as politically motivated, and said the same about efforts by the Georgian authorities in recent months to have him detained.
Ukraine’s previous efforts to detain Saakashvili were repeatedly thwarted by court orders and the intervention of Saakashvili’s supporters, who in December freed him from detention. A court last month rejected a request by prosecutors that Saakashvili be placed under house arrest and ruled that he could be confined to his residence only at night.
In an interview with Ukrainian media by telephone from Poland, Saakashvili denounced various charges against him as a “total falsehood” and accused Poroshenko of acting in concert with the President Vladimir Putin of Russia and the former Georgian leader Bidzina Ivanishvili “to get rid of me.”
Poroshenko “is not a president and not a man, but a sly profiteer who wants to ruin Ukraine,” Saakashvili said. “It all shows how weak they are. We will definitely win.”
Iuliia Mendel contributed reporting from Kiev, Ukraine.