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How Ukraine's attempt to arrest Saakashvili in a rooftop speech ended

KIEV – Masked officers of the Ukrainian security services arrived early on Tuesday morning to arrest Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who currently lives here, but his plans quickly failed.

According to reports, the invaders broke the door of Saakashvili's apartment in the center of Kiev, near the main square of the Independence, to register the premises and arrest him. They spoke of their participation in a plan to overthrow the government. But Saakashvili, who has reinvented himself as a leading figure of the opposition here, gave them the slip and escaped to the roof of his building. There, he addressed hundreds of his followers who, meanwhile, ran to the scene at the news of his arrest.

"[President Petro] Poroshenko is a thief and traitor of the Ukrainian people," he said, and called on the Ukrainians to take to the streets to resist the government.

Five years without power in Georgia, Saakashvili came to Ukraine as a reformer, at the invitation of Poroshenko, but since then he has become an outspoken opponent of the president, even when Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship earlier this year (and turned the Georgians into stateless).

Ukrainian authorities said they wanted to question Saakashvili about charges of "helping members of criminal organizations." Yury Lutsenko, the country's attorney general and close ally of Poroshenko, said later that this implied a plan to overthrow the government along with allies of the country's former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia three years ago.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was briefly detained on December 5 in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, before his supporters freed him. (Vladislav Kutsenko)

The agents finally arrived at Saakashvili and dragged him carefully from the roof, steep and slippery from a snowfall in early December, and put him in a waiting police van. But the drama had just begun. The followers of Saakashvili surrounded the vehicle and prevented him from leaving. The protesters clashed with the police, who sometimes used pepper spray to keep the crowds at bay.

After a prolonged and chaotic confrontation, protesters broke a window and pulled Saakashvili out of the truck. The Georgian came out triumphantly, with the handcuffs still attached to the wrist, and was dragged to the top of a nearby Catholic church.

"They are lying small animals," Saakashvili said of those who leveled the charges against him. "We must remove this organized criminal group, led by Poroshenko, from power."

Tuesday's events are another escalation in the high-stakes struggle between Saakashvili and Poroshenko, and a testament to Georgian dominance of political theater.

Saakashvili first broke out on the international stage as the leader of the Georgia Rose Revolution in 2003, when he assaulted the country's parliament and expelled President Eduard Shevardnadze from power.

He was subsequently elected to two terms as president of Georgia, but left office under a cloud. His party had lost the parliamentary elections and was harshly criticized for being dragged into a disastrous war with Russia in 2008.

A new political life attracted Ukraine, after the 2014 pro-Western revolution in the country, which brought Poroshenko to power. Poroshenko had known Saakashvili since his university days in the late 1980s, and appointed the former Georgian leader as governor of the southern region of Odessa, ravaged by corruption.

However, Saakashvili resigned his post after just over a year, accusing Poroshenko himself of being immersed in corruption and blocking Saakashvili's attempts to reform. Poroshenko denied the charges.

In July, the Ukrainian authorities, alleging irregularities in their application for citizenship, revoked the Ukrainian passport of Saakashvili and forbade him to return to Ukraine. Saakashvili also lost his Georgian citizenship, and is wanted in his home country on charges of abuse of power while in office.

Saakashvili was in the United States at the time of the Ukrainian announcement, but a few weeks later he and his followers, in another dramatic political gesture, assaulted a Ukrainian-Polish checkpoint and re-entered the country.

On Tuesday in Kiev, the drama extended beyond the release of Saakashvili from the police van. Surrounded by masses of his followers, and a group of journalists with cameras and smart phones spread over their heads, he entered the Plaza de la Independencia and went to parliament.

On the way, they passed the seat of the Ukrainian government. From the street, protesters could see government workers watching from behind the curtains in the upper windows. "What a shame!" The demonstrators shouted.

Ultimately, the crowd reached the main square in front of the legislature, where Saakhashvili and his followers set up a week-long military-style protest camp. Saakashvili repeated the calls for the dismissal of Poroshenko, but at that moment the energy of the protest seemed to dissipate.

Recent opinion polls show that Saakashvili polled between one and two percent, which makes a number of political observers wonder why the government is so stubborn in its search for him. In fact, operations like Tuesday morning only seem to boost their political profile.

Even so, the government shows no signs of surrendering. When Saakashvili and his supporters met outside of parliament, Lutsenko was inside presenting the case against the Georgians.

He played an audio recording allegedly between Saakashvili and Serhiy Kurchenko, a Ukrainian oligarch and close ally of former President Yanukovych, who also fled to Russia. According to reports, Russia provided Saakashvili with half a million dollars to organize protests. ("I barely know who Kurchenko is," Saakashvili said.)

Lutsenko also said that Saakashvili now considered himself a fugitive from the arrest and expected him to appear in the state security services on Wednesday.

"In 24 hours, the whole system of law enforcement in Ukraine will do everything necessary for Saakashvili without a state to appear before the investigators to be accused of suspicion, and then [to appear] in court," Lutsenko said.

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