Saakashvili against Poroshenko: will there soon be a new Maidan in Ukraine?

Another revolution in the making in Kiev?

In early December, a new Maidan began to stall itself on the horizon in Ukraine. In the center of Kiev once again a tent camp of protesters has appeared, and there are daily rallies and clashes with the police. Scenes like we had seen in 2004 or more recently in 2013-14. Only this time the participants of the protests, in a surprising move, are demanding the impeachment of President Petro Poroshenko, who was elected president after the socalled Euromaidan of 2014 brought down the government by Viktor Yanukovich after he had delayed the signing of a free-trade association agreement with the European Union. One of the leaders of this new wave of protest is Mikhail Saakashvili, former president of Georgia and former governor of the Odessa region, who has declared a “crusade against corruption”.

Among the protesters in Kiev, which has already been dubbed by Mihomaidan, are many people in military uniform, the socalled ATO veterans (the anti-terrorist operation, or how the war in the Donbass is officially designed), activists of ultra-right nationalist organizations that can be identified by the black and red flags of the Organization Ukrainian nationalists (OUN) that guess back to the Interwar period between the First and the Second World War. Joining the protests are a few representatives of “anti-corruption” non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The organizers of the “Mihomaidan” claim that there are about 50,000 of them, whereas the police are talking about 2000-3000 participants.

In 2015, President Poroshenko called Saakashvili “a friend of Ukraine” and “his personal friend, who he had known for 25 years”, appointing him the governor of the Odessa region and granting him Ukrainian citizenship, but in 2017, the president changed rhetoric, deprived him of his citizenship, accusing Saakashvili of “working for Moscow” and attempting to overthrow the “constitutional order”. In this context, it should be recalled that in Georgia, his homeland, where he was president for ten years, Mikhail Saakashvili is facing (politically motivated, he says) criminal charges and Georgia is requiring his extradition for trial.

What are the reasons for the discontent with Poroshenko?

The Poroshenko government has recent become the focus of sharply criticism by Western countries, until recently unconditional allies, who accuse him of corruption and unwillingness to carry out certain “reforms”. Reports in Western media are beginning to envision the possibility that “the West supported the wrong person during the Maidan”, as Bloomberg recently wrote. This may be one of the reasons we among the supporters and financial backers of this new Maidan, we see “anti-corruption” NGOs financed by Western funds.

Saakashvili himself boasts of being supported by the US Embassy in Ukraine and former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (a longtime supporter of the Maidan). The Poroshenko government seems to be acting more in its own interests, instead of in favor of Western companies and funds. One of the main requirements of Saakashvili and his associates is the creation of an “Anticorruption Court”, independent of other branches of the Ukrainian authorities, a neutral anticorruption organ, but whose control would effectively be under the jurisdiction of the US State Department. Simply put, the United States would have the opportunity to arrest, accuse and imprison almost any Ukrainian official or businessman even without authorization from the nominal Ukrainian authorities. In fact, some critics say that the “Western partners” are simply demanding that Ukraine transfer part of its national sovereignty to an external authority. In other words, we are dealing with attempts to put Ukraine under full control from the outside, making it actually a colony, albeit with the preservation of some formal attributes of statehood, critics say.

Behing the organization of this new Maidan is rumoured to be also another old rival of Poroshenko, the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, former owner of PrivatBank, the largest retail bank in Ukraine, which was nationalised one year ago almost to the day. Kolomoisky is known to have sponsored and organized Ukrainian volunteer battalions, forming from them as some sort of private army. The oligarch, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Geneva since last year, when he lost his main banking business, still owns a number of media outlets in Ukraine, which actively criticize Poroshenko and support Saakashvili. Igor Kolomoisky, Poroshenko’s former companion on the first Maidan, can not forgive him for the alleged seizure of a number of his enterprises in Ukraine, as well as for the PrivatBank affair.

There is also an economic motive behind this new wave of discontent – the intensification of competition between the several fractions that supported the Maidan and the process of European integration in 2014, in the context of a country that has seen its economy decline by almost 30% since 2014. After the socalled “Revolution of Dignity” in 2013-2014, Ukraine lost many of its enterprises, its economy collapsed sharply, and the population became even more impoverished. In this situation, the space is narrowed for Ukrainian oligarchs to profit, as a result of which their internecine war is intensifying. Every oligarch tries to seize the business of his companions-competitors by fair means of foul, often using their private armies to smooth business deals. Financing of mass protests also has a long tradition in Ukraine and the different oligarch factions often resort to this too, usually by hiring people from the provincial areas, who for a meagre 10-15 euros a day are ready to take part in demonstrations in Kiev.

As we have seen, many ATO veterans are taking part in the “MihoMaidan” and some of them have ambitions. Among them, former commander of the battalion “Donbass”, Semyon Semenchenko or Vladimir Parasyuk, a Donbass war veteran and an MP. Parasyuk, Semenchenko and their militants from the battalions “Donbass” and “Aidar” took a significant role at the beginning of the protests, still in November, trying to break through the cordon of policemen near the Ukrainian parliament during the first days of Saakashvili’s call for a new revolution.

In this political configuration, a dual role is played by the Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov. On the one hand, he is regarded as one of the greatest rivals of  President Poroshenko and they have had much conflict over the distribution of power functions. On the other hand, Minister Avakov has had a less than friendly relationship with Mikhail Saakashvili for a long time: once, while Saakashvili accused Mr Avakov of being a bandit during an official meeting, Avakov threw a glass of water at the Georgian.

In general, it has become customary for the “pro-Maidan” parties to constantly refer to their rivals as “Putin agents” and “enemies of the people of Ukraine”, accusing each other of “betrayal of the fatherland”.

The outcome of the confrontation will largely depend on how much the United States will be able to put pressure on Poroshenko and force him to cede some of the power and allow the establishment in Ukraine of an “Anticorruption Court”, an organ that could be used as an instrument of pressure on Ukrainian officials.

So far “Mihomaydan” has attracted only a few thousand participants, but tensions are running high again in Ukraine. Some fear there could be some large-scale provocation that could dramatically increase the level of confrontation. This provocation could be, for example, another mass shooting of protesters by unknown snipers, as it was in February 2014 on the first Maidan, a development which was followed by the excape of President Yanukovich. The degree of confrontation can also be increased by the sudden death of one of the leaders of the protests, for example, Saakashvili himself, who, a few days ago, while he was facing arrest by the police (he was later freed by a crowd of his supporters) threatened to jump off the roof of a building where he has taken residence.

In such a situation, President Poroshenko is almost left alone – nor the opponents of the Maidan neither the new Revolutionary elite seem to like him much by now. The only thing that can help him stay in power would a new escalation of the tension in the Donbass. Some suspect the Ukrainian authorities have long used this method: as soon as someone seriously began to challenge their power in Kiev, a sharp escalation of hostilities in the Donbass immediately followed, with Ukrainian media persuading Ukrainians that “it is not the right time for another upheaval” with a war for the survival of the nation raging. In any case, at the moment it does seem likely that next year will bring peace to the long-suffering Donbas or to other regions of Ukraine.

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