News of former Georgian Mikheil Saakashvili’s resignation today from his position as Governor of Odessa in Ukraine brings to an end a bizarre and unhappy experiment, whose failure became obvious long ago.
Saakashvili was appointed Governor of Odessa by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in May 2015.
The purported intention behind Saakashvili’s appointment was to bring in a supposedly clean outsider to sweep away the supposedly corrupt politics of Ukraine’s premier seaport and third biggest city.
Unofficially there have been constant rumours that Saakashvili was actually brought in because as an outsider he was trusted to hold the ring and keep a balance between the fiercely competing interests of the various Ukrainian oligarchs who have interests in Odessa. A Ukrainian supposedly could not be trusted in the same way, since he or she would supposedly be bound eventually to be bought one oligarch or another.
Undoubtedly another reason for Saakashvili’s appointment is the disturbed and politically fraught mood in the city. Odessa, as a creation of Catherine the Great’s, though a culturally very diverse city, has always historically identified itself with Russia, and Russian is the prevalent language there. Odessa voted for Yanukovych in the 2010 Presidential election, and in May 2014, shortly after the Maidan coup, protests broke out against the coup in the city, during which protesters raised the Russian flag.
This led to clashes with Maidan supporters in the city, culminating in a massacre on 2nd May 2014 in Odessa’s trade union building, which was set on fire after it was occupied by anti Maidan protesters. As a result 42 anti-Maidan protesters were killed (this is according to official tallies – unofficial reports put the death toll much higher). Official investigations into what happened have continued to this day, but seem to be going nowhere.
In light of this situation Poroshenko seems to have concluded that he needed a strong “big name” figure to step in to restore the Maidan government’s reputation and authority in the city.
Saakashvili’s appointment took place at a time when appointment of foreigners to senior positions in Ukraine’s power structure were very common and had in fact become something of a fashion. Possibly the most famous example – other than the appointment of Saakashvili himself – was the appointment 9 months after the Maidan coup of the US born investment banker Natalie Jaresko to be Ukraine’s Minister of Finance.
Poroshenko may also have seen in Saakashvili’s appointment something of a propaganda coup. Saakashvili’s strident anti-Russian and anti-Putin politics whilst President of Georgia, culminating in a short war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 in which Georgia was comprehensively defeated, made Saakashvili into something of a hero for anti-Putin activists throughout the former USSR, including in Russia.
Bringing Saakashvili to Ukraine and giving him a senior position there must have seemed to Poroshenko a good way to win the support of these people, consolidating Ukraine’s claim within the territory of the former USSR to be the leader of the struggle against “Putinism”, and winning thereby for Ukraine more anti-Putin friends in the West.
As for Saakashvili, the offer of an important position in Ukraine must have looked to him like a good way of restarting his otherwise moribund political career, which appeared to have ended after his flight from Georgia on criminal charges following his unexpected electoral defeat in the Presidential elections of October 2012.
Saakashvili actually has longstanding connections to Ukraine. Whilst he was President of Georgia he forged a close alliance with Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s strongly anti-Russian Orange President, who in 2006 became the godfather of Saakashvili’s son. Before his appointment Saakashvili took a close interest in the country, and was an outspoken supporter of the Maidan movement before the Maidan coup. It is therefore easy to see how accepting an important job in Ukraine – like that of Governor of Odessa – may have seemed to Saakashvili a good way of getting his political career restarted.
In the event the appointment quickly became for Poroshenko and Ukraine a public relations disaster, with Poroshenko and Saakashvili rapidly falling out, and with Saakashvili quickly emerging as a relentless critic of Poroshenko’s government.
The speed and extent to which Saakashvili had become completely alienated from the Ukrainian leadership became starkly apparent a year ago in December 2015 – just 8 months after Saakashvili was appointed to his post – when Saakashvili and Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov had a furious public row on national television during a Ukrainian government meeting.
In truth Saakashvili’s appointment demonstrates the underlying amateurism of Ukraine’s Maidan government.
It ought to have been obvious that an outsider like Saakashvili was not the right person to navigate the complex shoals of Ukrainian politics, especially in a proud city like Odessa, and especially at a time of national crisis, whilst Saakashvili’s outspoken and domineering personality, and his record as President of Georgia, ought to have made it obvious that he would not be a loyal or compliant subordinate.
At the time of Saakashvili’s appointment even many Western commentators favourable to Ukraine thought it was a mistake, and events have proved them right.
In the event not only has Saakashvili resigned, but so apparently has Odessa’s police chief whom he appointed, whilst all the other people he brought with him to Odessa as his team – including the Russian liberal politician Maria Gaidar (daughter of Boris Yeltsin’s liberal prime minister Yegor Gaidar) – have either already left Ukraine or are under investigation by Ukraine’s government.
Saakashvili now apparently plans to lead a political movement in Ukraine in opposition to the Maidan government. Apparently its pitch will be “the revolution betrayed”.
As Ukrainians struggle to make ends meet in difficult economic conditions and with winter closing in, and as the gross corruption of their leaders becomes increasingly obvious, there is no doubt that such a pitch could gain traction. However it is most unlikely that a foreigner and outsider like Saakashvili is the person to make it successfully.