SUMY, Ukraine – Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Oct. 8, together with several opposition mayors, held a rally in the northern Ukrainian city of Sumy, the latest stop on his continuing tour around Ukraine to drum up support.
At the rally, Saakashvili called on President Petro Poroshenko to resign if he fails to meet the demands that are to be made at a Oct. 17 rally in Kyiv that Saakashvili and his allies are planning. The demands include the establishment of anti-corruption courts, canceling lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution, and adopting a new electoral law that would decrease oligarchs’ influence on elections.
About 1,000 people gathered for the rally, which was held on Sumy’s main street, with its 19th century Russian Empire-era buildings, as bells rang at a nearby Orthodox cathedral.
Sumy, a city of 267,000 people, is strategically located near the border with Russia and had had strong economic ties with the nation’s northern neighbor before the Kremlin unleashed war in Ukraine in 2014.
However, being in a Ukrainian Cossack region known as Slobozhanshchina, Sumy has tended to support patriotic and pro-Western parties – in contrast to neighboring Kharkiv Oblast, where pro-Russian sentiments are stronger.
The Sumy rally was attended by the city’s Mayor Oleksandr Lysenko from former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party, Artem Semenikhin, the mayor of the city of Konotop in Sumy Oblast from the nationalist Svoboda party, and Michel Terestchenko, the mayor of the city of Hluhiv, also in Sumy Oblast.
“(The authorities) took away most of (Lysenko’s) budget because he’s not one of their guys,” Saakashvili said at the rally. “…And what they are doing to Terestchenko is cynicism and the worst form of sadism.”
Lysenko has had problems with city budget funding due to a conflict with the central authorities.
Terestchenko, the grandson of a Russian Empire economy minister, emigrated from France to his ancestral home in Hluhiv in 2003. In 2015 he got Ukrainian citizenship from Poroshenko, similarly to Saakashvili, and won a landslide victory in the election for mayor of the city.
He has also clashed with the Poroshenko Bloc and recently organized protests with Saakashvili against the government’s refusal for many months to approve the import of an ambulance for the city of Hluhiv, which was given as a gift by the Ukrainian diaspora in the Netherlands.
“Three years ago – on Feb. 20, 2014, when I saw the bodies of the Heavenly Hundred (killed EuroMaidan protesters), I decided to become a citizen of Ukraine and run as mayor of Hluhiv,” Terestchenko said. “I wanted to help Ukrainians realize the ideals of the Revolution of Dignity. But now I observe every day how the ideals of the EuroMaidan are being forgotten by those in power… Smuggling has never been as strong as now, and corruption has never been as pervasive.”
Terestchenko also accused Poroshenko of effectively giving Sumy Oblast as a fief to a “gang” of pro-Russian politicians, including Verkhovna Rada member Andriy Derkach from the People’s Will faction.
Derkach, whose father was KGB general and ex-SBU Chief Leonid Derkach, used to be a member of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and voted for the “dictatorial laws” of Jan. 16, 2014, which cracked down on civil liberties.
Semenikhin, a Ukrainian veteran of Russia’s war against Ukraine, is famous for replacing Poroshenko’s portrait with that of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in his office. He has complained that all of his efforts are being blocked by Konotop’s pro-presidential city council.
Saakashvili has also forged an alliance with Andriy Sadovy, the mayor of Lviv and leader of the Samopomich party, and expressed support for Mykolayiv Mayor Oleksandr Senkevich from Samopomich, and Cherkassy Mayor Anatoly Bondarenko from Batkivshchyna.
Senkevich has been forced out of office by an alliance of the Poroshenko Bloc and the Opposition Bloc in Mykolayiv’s city council. Sadovy, meanwhile, has seen his approval rating plummet due to a scandal over garbage disposal that he thinks was orchestrated by the Presidential Administration.
Saakashvili has also allied himself with ex-Security Service of Ukraine Chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko’s Justice party, lawmaker Viktor Chumak’s Wave party, lawmaker Sergii Leshchenko’s Democratic Alliance and lawmaker Yuriy Derevyanko’s Freedom party.
Saakashvili called on Poroshenko to resign if he does not meet demands that are to be voiced at the Oct. 17 rally in Kyiv.
“We will calmly give our demands to the president on Oct. 17,” Saakashvili said. “We’ll tell him ‘if you meet them immediately, you can serve until the end of your term, and maybe the people will even give you the chance of serving a second one. But if he doesn’t meet those demands and keeps fooling us, I’ll tell him ‘I resigned once, and maybe you’ll also step down.”
Saakashvili was referring to his decision to resign as president of Georgia ahead of schedule in 2007 during large-scale protests. He was re-elected for a second term in 2008.
“Don’t make a tragedy out of this,” he said. “They say that (Russian dictator Vladimir) Putin will come here if (presidential allies) Ihor Kononenko and Oleh Hladkovsky and (tycoon Rinat) Akhmetov are no longer in place. But I think those who are killing Ukraine are paving the way for Putin. I think our poverty is paving the way for him.”
Saakashvili also talked about his breaking through the Ukrainian-Polish border on Sept. 10, which was preceded by Poroshenko’s decree to strip him of citizenship in what Saakashvili deems to be a politically motivated, illegal and unconstitutional measure. Ukrainian authorities have so far refused to give Saakashvili documents specifying the grounds for his loss of citizenship.
“They said they won’t let me in, and threatened to open fire,” he said. “But the people of Ukraine were passing by, took out the key to the border, opened it, and let me in. And that’s the way this will happen everywhere. The keys not only to the border but also to the Verkhovna Rada and the Presidential Administration must belong to the people, and they will open these doors and look inside, because there’s a bad smell coming from them.”