Ukraine’s Best-Known Reformer Succumbs to the Lure of Populism

Ukraine’s Best-Known Reformer Succumbs to the Lure of Populism

Last Saturday, in the final week of what is usually a sedate period of summer vacation for almost everybody in Ukraine, the country’s bucolic southern Odessa region experienced an ominous and unusual bout of ethnic violence.

The episode had nothing to do with the simmering war between Ukrainians and pro-Russian separatists. It had the air of something more ancient, and perhaps even more sinister: a pogrom against a small community of Roma.

The violence was triggered by the discovery on August 27 of the body of a young girl, variously described as 8 or 9 years old, who police said had been raped before her murder. A day later, a 21-year-old Roma man from Loshchynivka, a village of ethnic Russians and Bulgarians that also has a tiny Roma community, was taken into custody and charged with the horrendous crime. In response, on last Saturday evening, an enraged mob of young men went on an anti-Roma rampage, throwing stones, smashing windows, burning down a house, and desecrating property. Thankfully, there were no injuries, as the Roma had already fled — but the widely shared videos of the episode led multiple Ukrainian observers to describe the situation as a pogrom, implying violence motivated by ethnic hatred.

The authorities responded quickly. After locals demanded the permanent removal of the Roma — about six families comprising about 50 individuals — the village council provided buses to take them away. Immediately after the violence, the governor of the Odessa region, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, dispatched special police units and paramilitaries to the village under the personal command of his police chief.

But it was another element of the governor’s reaction that most troubled domestic and international observers. In comments directly after the incident and again after the girl’s funeral on Wednesday, Saakashvili made public statements which, in a tense situation, are hard to see as anything but inflammatory. “I fully share the outrage of the residents of Loshchynivka,” he said, adding that in the village there was “a real den of iniquity, there is massive drug-dealing in which the anti-social elements that live there are engaged. We should have fundamentally dealt with this problem earlier — and now it’s simply obligatory.”

Saakashvili’s appointment to the governorship of the Odessa region just over a year ago was met with great excitement and engendered hopes that he could emulate his earlier success as a democratic reformer in his native Georgia. The governor is often viewed as modern, progressive, and even hip. Prior to his return to the Post-Soviet world in May of 2015, the New York Times published an amusing portrayal of his hipster-like exile in Brooklyn. He is almost universally characterized as a principled anti-corruption crusader who is attempting to make Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution produce results in the south of the country. But, in the face of stonewalling by local and national authorities, his results have been mixed. And after wasting time and political capital this spring crisscrossing the country and forging a movement for reform in misplaced expectations of early elections (these did not happen), he has now refocused his energies on creating local infrastructure. His projects include championing a new highway to Romania and finalizing construction of a long-stalled second terminal for the local airport.

Yet Saakashvili’s ungracious and even dangerous response to last weekend’s tragic incident in a region with fresh historical memory of ethnic strife highlights a different side of his character. His inflammatory rhetoric in a delicate moment was not befitting of a Westernizing reformer.

Comments offered by Saakashvili’s officials were no less revealing. “We must respect the presumption of innocence,” said Zurab Hvistani, a spokesman for the Odessa region’s interior ministry, “but it is merely the constitution of a fact that every Ukrainian and Odessan on the level of ordinary life understands that members of the Roma community are involved in the drug trade.” Local villagers have indeed been quoted complaining about a rise in crime since the arrival of the Roma families — which, of course, can offer no justification for vigilante violence.

Hvistani was insistent that the Roma were not being forced to leave the village against their will. He described their voluntary departure as an implicit admission of the reality that further peaceful coexistence with their Ukrainian neighbors would be impossible. He also declined to provide the location where the Roma families would be moving.

Meanwhile, Roma organizations have filed direct appeals to interior minister Arsen Avakov, a staunch Saakashvilli opponent, decrying the violence and noting that the state’s failure to protect the Roma stands in direct contradiction with its stated goals of building the rule of law in Ukraine.

The episode couldn’t come at a worse moment for the city and regional government. Odessa is widely viewed as the favorite candidate city to host the 2017 Eurovision song contest, for which it is competing with Kiev and Dnipro. The winner is expected to be announced in the coming weeks, and the prospect is seen as so important to the city’s future that, just a day after the killing, Saakashvilli and his sworn local enemy, Odessa mayor Gennady Trukhanov (whom he has repeatedly referred to as a separatist, bandit, and thief) hosted a joint press conference in support of the bid. It was the first time that the two had appeared together in public in almost 15 months, though Odessa’s elites have since become accustomed to seeing the two men milling about at opposite sides of banquet halls and official gatherings.

The two men’s unlikely truce is evidence that this episode of sectarian violence might endanger the city’s bid for Eurovision glory. And that, in combination with his frustration by the slow pace of his attempted reforms, is what may have prompted Saakashvili to adopt a strikingly populist tone in response. Though the incident may be viewed as a random, it is, in fact, a demonstration of the relative fragility of the social compact in the ethnically diverse region. Saakashvili’s response offers an unflattering picture of a governor many had hoped would help Odessa — and is particularly troubling since he remains the only force likely to offer the region any meaningful reforms for years to come.

Photo credit: ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images