Thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev on Sunday in support of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, arrested in the capital on Friday after accusing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s administration of widespread corruption.
Poroshenko’s government is accusing Saakashvili of conspiring with the Russian government to undermine Ukraine, a claim Saakashvili has called “absurd,” citing his lifelong opposition to Russian intrusion in Georgia and, later, Ukraine.
Saakashvili announced a hunger strike on Friday after his arrest – Kiev’s third attempt at apprehending him after throngs of supporters freed Saakashvili from a police car last Tuesday, then attacked police attempting to arrest him in a protest tent on Tuesday night.
Following his release and re-arrest, Saakashvili repeatedly called for more peaceful protests against corruption and Poroshenko specifically. Estimates of the number of Ukrainians who assembled on Sunday vary widely, but all fall into the thousands. Regional news outlet UNIAN reports that police estimated 2,500 people organized for Sunday’s rally, while at least one member of Parliament, Borys Bereza, told reporters that about 10,000 people came together for Saakashvili.
Protesters waved Ukrainian flags and held up signs calling for Saakashvili’s freedom. They assembled in Independence Square, the Maidan Nezalezhnosti made famous for protests against Poroshenko’s predecessor Viktor Yanukovych, as Saakashvili had requested last week:
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Prior to his arrest, supporters had already established a protest tent community in front of the Ukrainian Parliament, where Saakashvili hid after his failed attempt Tuesday before being arrested on Friday.
The protesters ultimately moved to outside the detention center holding Saakashvili, demanding his liberation. UNIAN notes that the leaders of the protest were officials within the Movement of New Forces Party, an anti-corruption, anti-elitist party reportedly inspired by the electoral victory of U.S. President Donald Trump.
New Forces spokesperson Olha Halabala listed four demands on the government at the rally, according to UNIAN:
The first demand is the law on impeachment, the second one is the law on an anti-corruption court. The third one is the adoption of the election law in the second reading, as we forced the first reading on October 19. And the fourth demand is the resignation of Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, who, in collusion with [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko and others, actually wanted to stage a corrupt coup last week.
The Ukrainian Constitution allows for impeachment, but no statute exists that details exactly how to go about the process of removing a president. Saakashvili supporters are calling on the Parliament to create a mechanism for removing the president. They are also demanding the creation of an anti-corruption court that acts independently of Poroshenko and amends federal election laws.
Lutsenko, the prosecutor who charged Saakashvili with collusion with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has become one of the most prominent targets of the protesters’ scorn.
Protesters chanted, “Impeachment!” at the rally and listened to a variety of pro-Saakashvili supporters, including wife Sandra Roelofs, who urged the protesters to continue flooding the streets.
“We remember his words,” he said of her husband. “‘When they catch me, you continue despite anything, because Ukraine wants changes, Ukraine has to become a better country.’”
“The authorities have crossed a red line. You don’t put opponents in prison,” she asserted.
Saakashvili, meanwhile, announced that he would maintain a hunger strike while detained. He appeared in court on Monday, where supporters said he was “fine and full of energy despite being on hunger strike.” In statements to the press, Saakashvili called himself “a prisoner of the Ukrainian oligarchy” and reiterated that he was Putin’s “biggest enemy in the post-Soviet space” and the allegations against him are “nuts.”
“They think that the people are idiots,” he added.