SHEHYNI, Ukraine (AP) — Mikheil Saakashvili and a small crowd of supporters shoved their way through a line of guards at the Ukrainian border Sunday, making good on the politician’s vow to return to the land that had stripped him of citizenship.
The return of the divisive and headstrong Saakashvili, who became governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region after being Georgian president from 2004-13, poses a strong challenge to Ukrainian Petro Poroshenko, who once was Saakashvili’s patron but then revoked his citizenship in July.
Saakashvili was appointed to the Odessa post in 2015 on the strength of his record of fighting corruption in Georgia. However he resigned the post after only 18 months, complaining that official corruption in Ukraine was so entrenched he could not work effectively.
The return carries risks for Saakashvili, who is stateless. Georgia, where he faces accusations of abuse of power and misappropriation of property, has sent an extradition request for him to Ukraine. It is not clear if Ukraine intends to honor that request.
Prosecutor-General Yuri Lutsenko said late Sunday that charges would be pursued against organizers of Saakashvili’s unauthorized entry. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said 17 police and border guards were injured in the confrontation.
The border breakthrough at the Medyka-Shehyni crossing point on the Polish-Ukrainian border came after a day of drama and repeatedly changing travel plans.
Saakashvili had intended to travel through another crossing point, where hundreds of supporters had gathered on the Ukrainian side. But he changed his plans at midday Sunday, claiming fears that provocateurs on the Ukrainian side were gearing up for violence.
He then traveled to the Polish city of Przemysl, where he boarded a train bound for the western Ukraine city of Lviv. But the train was held at the station for hours — and then announced that it would not leave with a person who had no permission to enter Ukraine.
Saakashvili and his entourage eventually got off the train and took buses to the Medyka crossing, where Polish guards let him through. After passing the Polish checkpoint, he was confronted by cars blocking the road and a single line of guards in camouflage, carrying batons.
The crowd approached the line of guards and eventually began shoving, then broke through. Supporters who had gathered on the Ukrainian side rushed forward to greet Saakashvili and the crowd proceeded toward the Ukrainian town of Shehyni on foot.