Misha’s Mission Impossible

The former Georgian president takes on Ukraine’s most corrupt region. He’s got his work cut out for him.

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ODESSA, UKRAINE — Mikheil Saakashvili — exiled president of Georgia, newly minted Ukrainian citizen, and recently appointed governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region — jumped out of a public bus with a broad smile on his sweaty face, pulling up his tight Hugo Boss jeans. He had just arrived in the remote village of Tatarbunary, where most of the residents live on $100 or less per month. As locals crowded around him, he was ebullient — and full of promises. He vowed to fix the bumpy highway that passes through the village on its way to nearby Romania, in the European Union. He also pledged to take on an allegedly corrupt political boss in the regional capital (also called Odessa). Saakashvili, a man who loves to grapple with political problems, had clearly come to the right place.

One local woman, clearly gratified to have the ear of a high-ranking official, didn’t mince her words: “Odessa businessmen grab our beaches and take over the seashore,” she complained. “And the one who sells our land is standing right next to you!” She pointed at local official Igor Belinsky, who was there to escort the governor around. Belinsky stared blankly, unsure how to respond. Yet Misha, as Saakashvili likes to call himself, wasn’t paying attention. Instead, he launched into a monologue about democracy and the need for reform, brushing away the awkward moment.

In the month since he was appointed to his new job by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Saakashvili has been working hard to establish his reputation as the man who’s going to clean up one of the most corrupt regions in this corrupt country. He has yelled at prosecutors and sent top bureaucrats packing. He has chewed out members of the business and political elite. And he has unveiled sweeping plans to fight corruption and revitalize Odessa’s sagging economy.

In the process he’s received the wholehearted support of the political leadership in Kiev and the backing of the United States, which has even promised to loan members of the California Highway Patrol to support his plans for police reform and to pay the salaries of some of his staff. Many Odessans clearly look to him with hope, seeing a wholesale housecleaning of the old guard as the solution to their problems, and Misha as the one with the chops to do it. During his five years as Georgia’s president, he fired more than 200,000 former KGB officers, policemen, bureaucrats and university professors. On July 13, true to form, he announced a decision to sack 377 employees of the Odessa regional administration.

But to those who have known him for years, Saakashvili looks today less like a fearsome figure and more like a tragic one. In his homeland, where he once rode a revolution into power, he is now a pariah, facing criminal charges for, among things, dispersing an opposition protest with excessive force in 2007 (charges he dismisses as politically motivated). And in Odessa itself — a once glamorous but now dilapidated seaport famous for its organized crime, smuggled goods, and prostitutes — his fate will hinge on a multiethnic, predominantly Russian-speaking population, many of whom are less than enthusiastic about living under Kiev’s rule.

Odessa politics suggest that Saakashvili faces a steep uphill climb. The party of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych ran the city for years, and his followers remain largely in control. The Yanukovych-era “feudal leaders and their vassals” are still the real power in Odessa, local businessman Boris Khodorkovsky told me.

A few weeks ago, at the Odessa Literature Museum, I watched as Saakashvili met with representatives of the region’s civil society organizations. “We need to fire everybody!” he declared, lecturing the audience on the need to clean up the tax police, the court system, and the port authority. His listeners welcomed every word. Who can really dispute, after all, that Odessa needs reform like oxygen? Yet seated not far away, silent and gloomy, was the city’s mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, universally known as “Gena Kapitan,” a nickname that, by all accounts, goes back to his days as a local racketeer. (Unlike Saakashvili, who was appointed to his job by the president, Trukhanov was elected.)

Not present was Sergei Kivalov, long one of the most powerful figures in the city’s law-enforcement agencies, and reputed to be a major backer of the local Russian nationalist movement. Running on his openly pro-Moscow views, the influential businessman was elected to the Ukrainian parliament last December. But he’s still said to wield considerable influence over his Odessa supporters from his new office in Kiev.

“I feel sorry for Saakashvili,” another Odessa businessman, Vladimir Rondin, told me. “He can tear himself apart but Gena Kapitan and many others will still have more power here.” Even members of Saakashvili’s current team concede the point. As Alexander Borovik, one of the governor’s business advisers, explained to me over a cup of tea on a recent evening, Odessa’s businesses, courts, and seaport are all under control of city hall, which is still firmly in the mayor’s hands. “Saakashvili doesn’t have much power here, because everything is run by bandits,” Borovik told me. “He’s just here just to change the equilibrium.” Borovik admitted that Trukhanov had a good chance of being reelected in next October’s election.

Governor Misha doesn’t seem worried — and he’s full of plans. Apparently brimming with self-confidence, he fired dozens of top regional bureaucrats and police officials before his first month was out. He’s also secured a promise from Kiev to support his plan to build a highway from Odessa to the Romanian border town of Rani, in line with the promise he’d made to residents on his Tatarbunary road trip.

In late June, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk made the unusual decision to let half of the revenues from Odessa port customs be spent on the construction of the highway. (The rest will go to the budget of the central government.) In the tradition of his Georgian reforms, Saakashvili aims to set up a one-stop shop to simplify the registration of new businesses and a new logistics center for three Odessa seaports that will include a computerized customs system for greater transparency.

In Tatarbunary I overheard two older men discussing the new governor. “He’ll scream and make many enemies, but nothing is going to change,” one of them said. To be sure, Saakashvili was a highly controversial figure back home in Georgia, but he was also an insider and a winner of elections. In Odessa he is neither. Odessans are already making fun of him. In one popular Facebook group, participants debated whether Saakashvili had been drunk or stoned at a recent public meeting. (He had made a somewhat absent-minded impression.) In late June, Saakashvili failed to show up at a ball thrown in his honor by over 100 prominent Odessans — needlessly offending, at a stroke, a whole series of potential allies among the local elite. Earlier this week someone released a balloon with the inscription “Misha, go home!” in front of his office.

The government in Kiev has already fired some of Saakshvili’s critics. But that might not be enough to protect him. The reforms he’s pushing to achieve in the course of the next year — the time frame he’s given himself — would be hard enough even for a politician deeply rooted in local realities.

Saakashvili has made it clear that his success hinges on finding “quick win” projects to shore up support for reforms. Yet there’s a clear risk that, in the process, he might turn a deaf ear to the concerns of local people. Last spring, 39 people, most of them pro-Russian demonstrators, died in a fire at the Trade Union Building in central Odessa after a street clash with pro-Kiev protestors. The building has become something of a local shrine for pro-Moscow groups. Earlier this month, Saakashvili offered the building to the Ukrainian Navy as its new headquarters. The move may have endeared him to Kiev, but it seemed hardly calculated to win over his reluctant foes in Odessa.

Odessa — thoroughly multicultural, romantically disreputable — has always reveled in its ability to defy those in the far-away imperial capitals who claim to rule its fate. As governors have come and gone, as governments have fallen, as wars have begun and ended, Odessa has lived on, cracking a wry political joke or two along the way. Appointing Saakashvili was certainly a great way to draw the attention of the outside world to the city. But if Odessa’s history is any indication, it will do its best to shrug off the former Georgian president and go on with its business.

No one should dismiss Saakashvili, either, of course. A man of astounding energy and determination, he could yet pull off the miracle that Odessa, and Ukraine, so badly need. Yet he can only do so by remaining firmly rooted in the complicated realities of his new job. In this respect, it seems an ominous sign that he continues to talk of an eventual return to Georgia, perhaps even by sailing from Odessa across the Black Sea to his former residence in Batumi. To the gloriously cynical and practically minded Odessans, such talk is the sure sign of a dreamer — and they have little tolerance for dreamers. “It would be a disaster both for Odessa and Ukraine if he misses this opportunity to achieve real reforms,” Khodorkovsky, the local businessman, told me. “I hope he won’t let that happen.”

In the photo, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Odessa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili meet with citizens of Odessa on May 30, 2015.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Mykola Lazarenko

 Twitter: @annanemtsova

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