Mikheil Saakashvili Launches His New Career as a Ukrainian Reformer

Mikheil Saakashvili’s appointment as governor of Odessa has reignited the struggle inside Ukraine’s political elite.

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In his first press conference as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region yesterday, Mikheil Saakashvili unveiled an ambitious program. The former president of Georgia, known for his reformist zeal, promised an overhaul of Odessa’s police force, measures against corruption, and improvements in the business climate.

At the same time, Saakashvili tried to play down the confrontational manner that earned him many enemies in Georgia. The new governor, who rose to fame as the leader of his homeland’s so-called Rose Revolution, depicted himself as a man with a personal stake in Odessa’s success, recalling the years he spent in Ukraine when he was serving in the military and attending university during the Soviet period.

Saakashvili’s appointment to the post — announced by President Petro Poroshenko two weeks ago — came as a surprise. To be sure, Poroshenko has previously appointed several foreigners to prominent positions in the government. His finance minister is Ukrainian-American Natalie Jaresko. Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius is a Lithuanian-born investment banker.

But compared with those technocrats, Saakashvili stands in a category of his own. A charismatic politician who served two terms as the president of a sovereign state would not normally be expected to administer a region in another country. Since Saakashvili is facing criminal charges in his home country (issued by a government now run by his longstanding political opponents), his appointment could antagonize Kiev’s relations with the government in Tbilisi.

But there are also pages of Saakashvili’s biography that boost his political capital in Ukraine. He ruled Georgia during the war against Russia in 2008 and the frozen conflict afterwards, experience that — in the eyes of many Ukrainians — gives him added crisis-management credibility in Odessa, a politically brittle region that borders on the Russian-supported separatist region of Transnistria. While many Georgians may be tired of Saakashvili’s brand of leadership, his eloquent anti-Putin rhetoric endears him to many Ukrainians.

Little noted by the outside world, though, is the way that Saakashvili’s appointment has reignited the continuing struggle inside Ukraine’s political elite. It’s no accident that the bitterest critique of the new governor came from business tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, the man who has been the main target of Poroshenko’s self-declared effort to break the power of Ukraine’s oligarchs. “This is a temporary figure,” Kolomoisky declared, referring to Saakashvili’s appointment. “He will yield up Odessa to the Russians, and we will have to win it back afterwards.”

Few Ukrainians seem to have taken Kolomoisky’s remark seriously, but there was no mistaking the signal he was trying to send. Until recently, Kolomoisky himself served as a governor of another crucial region, Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. He was dismissed by Poroshenko after a heated proxy dispute between the two over the management of state oil companies, an issue in which the oligarch has substantial vested interests.

Despite losing his government job, Kolomoisky’s business assets still make him a force to be reckoned with. He controls several oil and gas companies, owns a major chunk of the crucial steel industry, co-owns the country’s biggest commercial bank, and holds stakes in several influential media outlets. Like other oligarchs, Kolomoisky earned his wealth primarily thanks to Ukraine’s murky privatization process. Unusually for other Ukrainian oligarchs, however, Kolomoisky has also managed to earn considerable public support. Last year he positioned himself as an outspoken nationalist, even sponsoring a military unit to support Ukraine in its fight against pro-Russian separatists in the east.

It isn’t hard to figure out why Kolomoisky might feel particularly irked by Saakashvili’s appointment. Saakashvili’s predecessor in Odessa was none other than Ihor Palytsia, Kolomoisky’s long-time business partner and lobbyist, who had held the job for the past year. Kolomoisky, who already has major business interests in the Odessa region, was positioning himself to benefit from the planned privatization of several major companies there. It’s also important to remember that governors in Ukraine still have extensive administrative and budgetary powers. The loss of access to these resources is a major blow to Kolomoisky and his allies in the region.

Kolomoisky, who thrives on conflict, certainly hasn’t given up. While Palytsia’s firing and the loss of his own governorship have curtailed his direct political power, he still has a powerful media empire at his disposal, and he has wasted no time in bringing its forces to bear. The Kolomoisky-owned 1+1 TV channel, which boasts the second-biggest viewership in Ukraine, ran a vicious 40-minute-long documentary about Saakashvili last weekend. Painting him as a would-be dictator who was chased out of Georgia by his political opponents, the makers of the film mockingly called Saakashvili a member of the “Georgian theater of reforms,” which, it said, “has embarked on a Ukrainian tour after Poroshenko’s victory in the presidential election.”

Most Ukrainian journalists and media experts heavily criticized their colleagues for producing the film — some even going so far as to compare it with Russian propaganda (a damning indictment, coming from Ukrainians). Vakhtang Kipiani, a Georgian-Ukrainian journalist, points out that the program embraced the clichés and lies disseminated by Russian media and intentionally selected its sources solely from Saakashvili’s opponents.

This isn’t the first time Kolomoisky’s TV channel has gone after Poroshenko. In May, a popular satire show on 1+1 ran a sketch that depicted a witty and sharp-tongued Kolomoisky running rings around a hapless Poroshenko. Some political observers speculate that it may have been precisely this broadcast that prompted Poroshenko to appoint Saakashvili to the job in Odessa. By contrast, the more recent program bashing Saakashvili has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum; one 1+1 correspondent even publicly criticized her own channel’s ethical standards. The film was promptly removed from 1+1’s official YouTube channel.

Characteristically, Saakashvili immediately counterattacked. In his Tuesday press conference, he suggested that he’ll be directly involved in overseeing the privatization process in the Odessa region to prevent corruption and losses for the budget. That hint is bound to annoy Kolomoisky, one of the few Ukrainian oligarchs with enough liquidity to buy assets amid the continuing economic crisis and credit crunch.

Nor was this Saakashvili’s first sally against Kolomoisky. Just days after his appointment Saakashvili accused the oligarch of stifling competition in the Ukrainian airline market: “Only one company flies [to Odessa], and that’s because it has a representative on the State Aviation Committee.” The company is Ukraine International, the country’s biggest airline, which is co-owned by Kolomoisky.

In addition to its monopoly on domestic flights to and from Odessa, Ukraine International also controls half of all international routes in and out of the city. This drives prices up and limits the passenger flow to Odessa, an otherwise important transport and tourist center. With Crimea occupied by Russia, Odessa is poised to become the new vacation hotspot in Ukraine. Odessa is visited by an average 1 million tourists a year, a business that currently accounts for a mere 1-1.5 percent of the region’s economy, but which could easily generate far more revenue under the right conditions. Saakashvili may be trying to enlist the tourism industry as his ally in a war against Kolomoisky. In his usual brash manner, Saakashvili promised to turn Odessa into the “capital of the Black Sea region.” The reality is likely to be a bit less rosy. Saakashvili faces a long uphill battle in confronting deeply entrenched corruption in Odessa’s customs administration, police, and judiciary.

The risks are clear. Saakashvili’s penchant for grandiose showcase projects (such as the costly construction of an opera house in the Georgian provincial city of Batumi during his presidency) could easily lead to mismanagement and corruption (or the appearance thereof) if he tries indulging it in Odessa. His determination to overhaul the police force will prompt pushback from the old guard, a dangerous scenario in a highly volatile region. With a dollop of sarcasm, perhaps, Saakashvili’s predecessor, Ihor Palytsia, has wished him luck, saying that he’s “placing high hopes” in the ex-president’s tenure in Odessa.

If Saakashvili succeeds, though, he could reaffirm Poroshenko’s corruption-fighting credentials, boosting the president’s political power in the region ahead of local elections this fall. Saakashvili has been waiting for a chance to show what he’s worth in his “second Motherland.” While many Ukrainians would probably be happy to see him succeed, they also know that their country has a long record of defying reformers. Expect plenty of unflattering TV shows to come.

In the photo, Mikheil Saakashvili and Georgian volunteers attend the Kiev funeral ceremony of a Georgian fighter who was killed fighting against pro-Russian rebels.
Photo credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Ievgen Vorobiov is a trade policy analyst based in Ukraine. His research deals with EU-Ukraine relations and the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Follow him on Twitter: @vorobyov.