Columbia University

Lending an Ear to Ukrainian Populism

As Ukraine waits to recover from the social unrest sparked by 2014’s Maidan Revolution and pro-Russian unrest in the Donbas region, it has become painfully evident that eradicating the corrupt business-as-usual mentality within the nation’s politics will be much more difficult than originally hoped for. President Petro Poroshenko, elected in the aftermath of the Revolution on the promise of stamping out the oligarchic order, has been accused of stalling efforts to truly tackle it. Moreover, with his party performing poorly in the polls, Poroshenko has been criticized for systematically undermining his opposition and cracking down on civil liberties.

It would not be fair (nor accurate) to say that Poroshenko has brought his country back to the pre-Maidan era—Ukrainians are still ready to fight for democracy, accountability, and the rule of law—but the embattled president has, ultimately, failed to capitalize on the romantic idealism that brought him to power. Supposedly clean, exciting, and pro-European, Poroshenko is now seen as bland and far too entrenched in the swamp of the ancien regime.

No one has emphasized this as loudly as former Georgian president turned-Ukrainian-opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili. Charlatan or revolutionary? Intrepid hero exposing systemic oligarchic corruption or narcissistic opportunist poisoning the airwaves of fragile democracies? As the embodiment of the rancorous, divisive post-Soviet civic order, Saakashvili is, unsurprisingly, a man of many faces. Earlier this week, in a move that can only prolong the dramatic trans-border saga behind him, Saakashvili was arrested by a dozen Poroshenko-sponsored agents at a restaurant in Kiev and forcibly deported to Poland. While Saakashvili has vowed to fight on from abroad, his deportation, like Poroshenko’s political woes, does not bode well for the health of Ukraine’s patchwork democracy.

Having stepped down as President of Georgia in 2013 after his once-popular party was destroyed in the polls, Saakashvili received a surprise offer in 2015 from Poroshenko, his former university buddy, to become the governor of Odessa. Believing that the same zero-tolerance approach to crime that he used in Georgia would work in Odessa, Saakashvili attempted to reel in rampant corruption in the province by bringing in fresh faces.

Long story short, it didn’t work. Either foundering on his own accord or thanks to the interference of government-supported special interest groups, Saakashvili resigned from his post the following year and accused Poroshenko of being in league with the criminals he was voted in to prosecute. Four days later, Saakashvili formed his own political party, the Movement of New Forces, and started to mobilize opposition against Poroshenko. In return, Poroshenko, on very tenuous legal grounds, stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship, thereby leaving him stateless and unable to lead a resistance.

Prohibited from returning to Ukraine legally, the former Georgian president and international icon of the early 2000’s had to be smuggled across the Polish-Ukrainian border. When police caught up to him in Kiev, a mob of supporters managed to free Saakashvili from the police van that he had been forced into—only underscoring the breakdown of the law of order in the country. Back on the campaign trail, Saakashvili defiantly continued to lead rallies against Poroshenko until his deportation on February 12. A new likely leader-less protest is scheduled in the days ahead, yet, regardless of its potential turnout and impact, it appears Poroshenko’s government has already committed a grave error in choosing to fight Saakashvili.

Although it is easy to dismiss the Georgian ex-president as a showboat populist (especially when he heralds himself as the voice of the real people in opposition to a crony kleptocratic class), it is dangerous and misguided to do so in practice. The Movement of New Forces might have only meager electoral support now, but it is important to recognize that behind Saakashvili’s fiery appeal to emotion and morality, there is unspoken truth. Beyond the buzzwords normally tacked on to international coverage of Ukraine—corruption, oligarchs, war—Saakashvili’s case has or, at least, will, shed light on latent processes of democratic erosion in the country.

Ironically, out of everything that Poroshenko has done (or not done), unlawfully stripping Saakashvili, whose greatest crime remains opposing the current government, of his only citizenship and then deporting him out of the country makes this point particularly evident. In sidestepping international law and ousting a political rival, Poroshenko showed the world that Ukraine is not governed by a constitutional legal order but by selective justice. Equally, Poroshenko sent a strong-handed message to Ukrainians saying that he would rather prioritize his own party’s interests than protect the country’s democratic institutions. For other opposition groups in the country preparing to contest next year’s elections, news of Saakashvili’s deportation serves as an ominous warning.

Of course, the extent to which vibrant democratic institutions have ever truly existed in Ukraine can be contested, yet, Kiev’s disastrous (man)handling of Saakashvili discloses a flagrant disregard for building these institutions anytime soon. To truly realize the promises of Maidan, Saakashvili must be brought back; not for the reason of entertaining his revolutionary agenda, but to address the serious issues that he raises. Pushing Saakashvili out of Ukrainian politics means that his rally calls against kleptocracy, ultra-nationalism, and government mismanagement fall on deaf ears. Building a strong democratic political culture requires not letting the imprudent populist rhetoric of those like Saakashvili go unanswered.


  1. Sunder Sai

    February 16, 2018 at 2:16 am

    This article clearly outlines the problems within post-conflict countries and the fragility of government in the wake of democratic-backsliding. The Ukraine social unrest involving the Madian revolution revealed government corruption, which drove the nation’s desire for fair and non-oligarch order. This goal has not entirely been achieved. I whole-heartedly support the author’s belief that by arresting and deporting his opposition, Ukraine’s current leader has made a big mistake that will lead him and Ukraine through struggle. Additionally, I believe that through his actions, President Petro Poroshenko expresses authoritarian-like qualities, which should alarm Ukraine.
    In their article, Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg attribute the act of eliminating political competition as a pathway of constitutional regression. As mentioned, the Ukraine people have seen that their government is not run by the constitution but by selective justice under Poroshenko. The act of deporting Saakashvili for opposing his government demonstrates the bending of laws and silencing of anyone who speaks out against the government. Additionally, Poroshenko’s actions fit into what authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe as authoritarian-like. In their analogy of the soccer game, authoritarians are players who capture the referee, change the rules of the game, and sideline opposition players. Essentially, Poroshenko has done this in Ukraine while pursuing Saakashvili.
    Populist individuals like Saakashvili may be seen as beneficial to democratic governments, threatening Poroshenko’s reign. Political scientist Jan-Werner Müller presents the idea that populism is troublesome because it supports anti-pluralism and poses a danger to democracy. However, Poroshenko’s opponent Saakashvili offers fresh non-corrupt perspective to Ukraine, while being valued as a fighter of the people. By speaking out, many engaged in politics and his subsequent arrest and deportation sparked outrage amongst the public. These aspects (fighter of the people, a fresh perspective, and promotion of political engagement) are positive aspects of a populist contributing to change in Ukraine.
    1) Huq and Ginsburg, How Democracies Die. New York, Crown, 2018.
    2) Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die. New York, Crown, 2018.
    3) Werner-Müller, Jan. What Is Populism? U of Pennsylvania P, 2016.

  2. In Ukraine, Revolutionary Hopes and Democratic Limbo by Joseph Glandorf @ The Ohio State University – Democratic Erosion

    March 24, 2018 at 1:38 am

    […] as another writer on this blog has suggested, Poroshenko’s attacks on Saakashvili seem a clear case of “selective justice”—despite his […]

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