The Maidan movement that began in November 2013 removed from power Viktor Yanukovych, the former “pro-Russian” Ukrainian president (although the reality was more complex). With his ouster a pro-Western government led by the oligarch Petro Poroshenko was formed, while war broke out in the Eastern province of Donbass and Russia annexed Crimea; Ukraine was split in two. It was, however, a big blow for Putin, who lost control over Ukraine as a whole. Russian direct influence was reduced to only a small number of the country’s eastern regions.
In Kiev and in the West of the country a clear pro-imperialist bloc was formed. Of course, internal contradictions and struggles between different political factions existed since the beginning in this bloc. Along with this bloc in the West there were also nationalists, anti-Russian and far right parties and groups like Pravy Sektor that emerged or got stronger during the Maidan movement. It’s those groups that presented the first challenges to the new government in Kiev. “War veterans” that fought in the East and nationalist groups appeared to be the main opposition to Poroshenko’s government in the “western side” of the country.
That opposition still exists in Ukraine of course. But what is new in the current situation is that now the main opposition and polarization is between two leaders directly linked to Western imperialism: Poroshenko and Saakashvili. This is what the last few weeks have demonstrated: a big blow to Poroshenko and his government, even if they have not been a “death sentence”.
We can say that since last summer Poroshenko, through several mistakes, is strengthening his own opponents. His first mistake occurred in July, when he decided, with the cooperation of Georgian authorities, to revoke the Ukrainian citizenship of Saakashvili, while the latter was abroad. It was a political gift for Saakashvili: he was able to present himself as a victim of repression and a plot. Indeed, Saakashvili became stateless (in 2015 his Georgian nationality was revoked too). Even if this move by Poroshenko didn’t please some European governments, it is clear that Poroshenko had the green light from his masters in Washington. Perhaps, like the Ukrainian president, the US administration couldn’t foresee the political consequences of that move for the fragile stability in Kiev.
This risk became concrete when in September Saakashvili organized a demonstration in favor of his return to Ukraine: his supporters forced their way through a border check-point, and literally carried him in their arms from Poland into Ukraine. There were bizarre scenes, but in reality it was a challenge to Poroshenko’s power and a challenge to the political stability of the country. Yulia Timoshenko was one of those who helped Saakashvili return to Ukraine, perhaps hoping that Saakashvili’s support could help her to oust Poroshenko and prepare the ground for her own bid for power. Today, however, the situation appears quite different, as recent events have made Saakashvili appear as the main opponent to Poroshenko, rather than Timoshenko.
Several key events have been major blows to Poroshenko. First, on 5 December the Special Forces of Ukraine attempted to arrest Saakashvili in his apartment in Kiev. After melodramatic scenes in which Saakashvili tried to escape over the roofs and even threatened to jump from the rooftops, while hundreds of people were arriving to support him. He was finally arrested. But the former Georgian president’s crowd of supporters surrounded the police van and freed him. After that Saakashvili and his supporters marched towards the parliament; a humiliation for Poroshenko and the government authority.
Some days later, and after similar unfruitful attempts, Ukrainian police again arrested Saakashvili. In response, on 10 December, thousands of people demonstrated in Kiev calling for freedom for Saakashvili and the impeachment of president Poroshenko. Some observers said that it was the biggest demonstration in Kiev since the Maidan movement of 2014. Finally, the next day Saakashvili was released by a court, against the opinion of the Prosecutor, who asked for house arrest for Saakashvili, accusing him of organizing a coup against president Poroshenko.
For Poroshenko, in just some months, his former friend became his biggest challenger in Ukraine. It is Poroshenko himself that in 2015, in the wave of Maidan, gave Ukrainian citizenship to the former Georgian president and proposed that he become the governor of the Odessa region to “fight against corruption”. In fact, Saakashvili was supposed to help Poroshenko reinforce his own power from Odessa – not to challenge him in Kiev. Indeed, Saakashvili resigned at the end of 2016, accusing Poroshenko’s government of corruption and of blocking neoliberal economic reforms.
On 17 December thousands of opposition supporters demonstrated again calling for the impeachment of Poroshenko, even though the demonstration was smaller than that of 10 December. The opposition accuses Poroshenko of blocking the “independent” work of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). It seems that the opposition and Saakashvili are trying to find a “Brazilian way” to oust Poroshenko. In other words, an institutional maneuver to oblige the Ukrainian president to quit power. The fact that Saakashvili was released by a court against the opinion of the prosecutor’s office suggests that perhaps this struggle is being translated within the structures of the state apparatus.
It will not be easy for Saakashvili be successful in his move. He must solve the question of his Ukrainian citizenship, even if another maneuver reinstates it as easily as it was revoked. The government and Ukrainian justice system are now talking about deporting him to Georgia where he has criminal charges leveled against him. President Poroshenko is also maneuvering to create his own anti-corruption institutions. Last week, in cooperation with the IMF, he stressed that his government will create a special anti-corruption court next February.
Poroshenko, Saakashvili, or any another capitalist government, know that in a semi-colonial Ukrainian economy in deep crisis, they must apply harsh measures against workers and the popular classes. In the context of an economy in deep crisis and of an indebted state, of a latent war in the east against forces supported by Russia and against the strong political pressure of growing nationalist and far right wing currents, the imperialist powers and local capitalist factions need the most legitimate government possible in Kiev. Saakashvili and his supporters are trying to show that they are better than Poroshenko for “the job”.
However, as Andrej Nikolaidis has argued regarding the “struggle against corruption” in the Balkans: “the anti-corruption struggle in our Balkan democracies is as permanent as purges were under Stalinism. If liberal democracy keeps insisting on the struggle against corruption, is that not because corruption is inherent to liberal democracy? The anti-corruption struggle will never end and corruption will never be stamped out (…) Ultimately, the arrests must never end and the system’s process of self-cleansing must never end.”
In other words, the “struggle against corruption” (inherent to capitalism) is only a useful and always-available pretext to eventually get rid of a government turned problematic for some fractions of the ruling classes and imperialism. This statement can be extended to the whole Eastern European region, particularly in Ukraine.
For the moment imperialists do not seem to have sided with Saakashvili or Poroshenko. Or rather, Westerners play on both sides. Western powers are above all nervous about the crisis in the pro-West bloc. They dislike the spectacular actions of Saakashvili’s partisans. Imperialists don’t like uncontrolled crowds in the streets, freeing people from legitimate authorities or crossing borders by force. Saakashvili doesn’t like that either. It is for this reason that, in his last statements, he has tried to appear more “responsible”.
For now Saakashvili is clearly not a consensual alternative for Westerners. Poroshenko continues to appear as “their man”. However, imperialists don’t like Poroshenko’s methods either. To jail and/or deport opponents is not great practice for the candidate that supposedly stood for a “democratic renewal” and break with “authoritarian pro-Russian” governments. Maybe the initial plan was to push Saakashvili out of Ukraine, with an arrangement to relocate him to the US, calming down the crisis in the pro-West bloc.
At the same time we can’t exclude the possibility that the rising of Saakashvili and his allies will reopen differences between the imperialist powers, with the US on the one hand and Germany/EU on the other. For the US it’s out of the question to allow Putin to take advantage of the situation in Ukraine after his victory in Syria against the US and it regional allies. As former US ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst, said some days ago: “Fighting Moscow’s aggression in Donbass, the country needs internal peace and reform. Leading politicians need to air their differences and grievances with civility and consistent with the national interests of the country”. For that reason, Poroshenko could be seen as the “less bad” solution.
But for Germany, even though it supports economic sanctions against Russia, Saakashvili’s faction could be an opportunity to have someone with closer ties to Berlin in power in Kiev. Germany and the EU could be interested in improving relations with Russia. Not only for economic and geopolitical relationships with Moscow in Europe but also having in mind the “reconstruction market” in Syria, a cynical but potentially a very lucrative market.
Although for the moment it’s not clear how, Putin will certainly try to reinforce his position in the East of Ukraine and take advantage of the situation. It’s for this reason that the pro-Poroshenko media and politicians have claimed that Saakashvili is being funded by pro-Russian businessmen. Of course, we cannot exclude anything, but it seems very unlikely that Russia is supporting Saakashvili.
Concerning workers and the popular classes of Ukraine, they will continue to be trapped in this reactionary struggle between Russia and the Western imperialists for control of their country. There will never be an independent Ukraine as long as the imperialists and Russia continue to use their country as a playground for their own interests. In the current situation, there is no alternative that really represents their interests. Neither Poroshenko nor Saakashvili, nor the nationalist and far-right parties, nor Putin’s Russia and its local allies, let alone the imperialist powers.
More than 25 years after the fall of the USSR, the Ukrainian people are still paying for the political inheritance of the Stalinist regime that prevented workers from organizing independently of the state and the bureaucratized Communist Party. That is the main reason that shameful politicians like Saakashvili, Poroshenko and others of their kind are still deciding the future of millions of people. But we can’t exclude that this crisis between those on the top could create for workers and the masses an opportunity to defend their own interests independently of the capitalists and their state, the imperialists or Putin and his local allies.