Invoking Trump, ex-Georgian leader launches new party in Ukraine

KIEV (Reuters) - Citing past praise by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump for his reforms, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili launched a new political party in Ukraine on Friday to fight corruption, just days after resigning bitterly as a regional governor.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili speaks during a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine November 11, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Saakashvili, who is widely credited with cracking down on graft when he led Georgia from 2004 till 2013, quit as governor of the coastal Odessa region last Monday, accusing his erstwhile patron, President Petro Poroshenko, of blocking his reforms there.

His political allies said his repeated criticism of authorities in Kiev had made him a target of political infighting.

At a news conference in Kiev, Saakashvili played an old video of a meeting with Trump in which the New York real estate tycoon praised the Georgian as a model reformer.

Saakashvili, who assumed Ukrainian citizenship to be eligible for the post in Odessa, went on to say he would look to bring about a snap election as soon as possible and by peaceful means.

“Our goal is to change the current so-called political elite,” he said. “The main goal is to bring in people who are ready to work for the country, not for their clan, pocket or oligarchic group.”

Saakashvili, a bitter opponent of Russia, was among several foreign politicians and technocrats to be given key posts by the pro-Western leadership in Kiev after the Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich fled in the face of mass street protests.

They were brought in as part of a drive to eliminate entrenched corruption and improve transparency in a country riven by cronyism, economic mismanagement and a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

Since then, many have resigned or been dismissed, amid growing disillusion with the pace of reforms. Saakashvili took more swipes at Poroshenko, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen, on Friday.

“He had a chance to use me for implementing real reforms in this country, but it turned out that the real reforms and his wealth are opposite things,” he said.

Saakashvili said his new party would not have ties to big business and would not accept politicians or officials who had been in public life for a long time.

“We will win only when we get rid of the so-called Ukrainian political elite, in reality - the dregs of society, those who are identical to the Russian ruling class,” he said.

“As long as we have authorities that want to neglect national interests, that are trading away national interests at every corner, we can not protect ourselves from enemies,” he said.

Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Richard Balmforth