May 29, 2019 / 5:04 PM / a month ago

Ex-Georgian leader Saakashvili stages triumphant return to Ukraine

KIEV (Reuters) - Former Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili returned to Ukraine on Wednesday, greeted by cheering supporters and music at Kiev airport, after new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy restored his Ukrainian citizenship a year after he was deported.

One of the most recognizable politicians in the post-Soviet world, Saakashvili had been brought in by former President Petro Poroshenko to be governor of the southern Odessa region in 2015. They fell out and Saakashvili accused Poroshenko of corruption.

The 51-year-old said he did not want to exact revenge on anyone. But the timing of Saakashvili’s return means he could be a thorn in Poroshenko’s side as Poroshenko’s party gears up to fight a snap parliamentary election in July.

“I will just look around,” he told reporters when asked where he saw his future in Ukrainian politics, after landing on a flight from Warsaw.

“Yes we have lots of supporters, yes we have lots of very enthusiastic supporters. You are seeing it with your own eyes. But I am very impressed by the new president.”

Saakashvili said he was “here to help” if Zelenskiy’s team sought his advice, but added: “I am not here for any positions, I am not looking for positions.”

Saakashvili was hired to run Odessa based on his track record of fighting corruption as president of Georgia after the 2003 Rose Revolution.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili talks to journalists as he arrives in Kiev, after the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy restored his citizenship, at Boryspil International Airport outside Kiev, Ukraine May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

He resigned as governor in 2016 as his feud with Poroshenko escalated. Since then he has mainly been living in the Netherlands, his wife’s country of origin.

Poroshenko rejected Saakashvili’s corruption allegations and said he was trying to deflect attention from his poor performance as governor.

The Ukrainian authorities stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship when he was abroad but he barged his way through a checkpoint at the Polish border to get back into Ukraine in September 2017. He was deported five months later.

Saakashvili returned on Wednesday after Zelenskiy, who defeated Poroshenko by a landslide in last month’s presidential election, restored his citizenship.

“I came here not to take revenge on someone and to punish someone, to destroy something. To destroy is not my style,” Saakashvili said.

“I want, together with millions of Ukrainians, after an historic opportunity has arisen, with the new president, with the new team, to participate in the construction of a new Ukraine.”

An actor and comedian with no prior political experience, Zelenskiy won the presidency promising to fight entrenched corruption and to upend the political status quo.

Slideshow (5 Images)

On his inauguration day last week, Zelenskiy called a snap parliamentary election in July that will give him the chance to win seats for his new Servant of the People party.

“Saakashvili is due to return today, and I am sure he will unleash the dogs of political war on Poroshenko, and Ukraine’s old political elites,” said Timothy Ash at Blue Bay Asset Management before Saakashvili’s return.

“Presumably Zelenskiy thinks this will play well in the run up to parliamentary elections and buoy support for his Servant of the People party. There will be a lot of people very nervous now about Saakashvili’s return to Ukraine later today.”

Editing by Stephen Powell and Alexandra Hudson

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