The Case Against Saakashvili

It’s temping to see Georgia’s crusading former president as the solution to all of Ukraine’s problems. Here’s why caution is in order.

By Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the founder of Myrmidon Group.
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Mikheil Saakashvili is back. Having left his native Georgia after voters repudiated his party and his term as president expired, Saakashvili has revived his political fortunes on a much larger playing field — Ukraine. The former Georgian president has taken Ukrainian citizenship and rapidly emerged as one of the country’s most popular political figures. And with good reason: he has bravado; he is a vast storehouse of energy; and he is tempting Ukrainians with an easy solution to poverty and corruption — namely, him.

Saakashvili’s Ukrainian career began in May 2015, when the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko, appointed him governor of the Odessa region, which is renowned for its corruption and organized crime. A master of public relations, Saakashvili threw himself into this role, promising to clean up Odessa and, in particular, its notoriously corrupt port. As part of that effort, he fired a number of top- and mid-level officials and replaced them with young, Western-educated Ukrainians, inexperienced but telegenic young activists, and a small coterie of political loyalists from Georgia.

Soon, however, Saakashvili began to test the limits of what could be attained in Odessa, and started to argue that his battle against corruption was being stymied by the central government in Kiev. He also began to spend less time in his region and more in the capital, where his infectious spirit and charisma added a new vigor to Ukraine’s popular and boisterous political talk shows. Even as he vociferously denied having any higher political ambitions, Saakashvili was clearly setting his sights on Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk and entering the arena of national politics.

With graft in Ukraine endemic, Saakashvili quickly became a rallying point for anti-corruption activists. On December 6, he held a large anti-corruption forum in Odessa where he made sweeping charges of massive corruption at the highest levels of the Ukrainian government. He asserted that the corruption he had unearthed had cost the state $5 billion per year — dramatic, if true. But a closer look reveals some holes in Saakashvili’s arithmetic.

Saakhashvili claimed that corruption in the Ukrainian Railways, a state company, accounted for about 40 percent of that $5 billion. But that claim was made without the benefit of an audit and without any detailed analysis. The assertion was quickly rebutted by Andriy Pivovarsky, the minister of infrastructure, who described Saakashvili’s allegations as “utterly groundless.” Pivovarsky, whose ministry supervises the rail company, came to government from the world of investment banking and is highly regarded for his integrity by anti-corruption campaigners. He noted that Ukrainian Railways “is a company which is audited, which works with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and with the European Investment Bank.” In short, argued Pivovarsky, there was no way such massive malfeasance would have been overlooked by the due diligence efforts of these reputable institutions. Instead, Pivovarsky pointed to the reputational damage Saakhashvili’s ad hoc claim had caused even as the Ukrainian government was working to secure several hundred million dollars in Western investments for the railway.

But Saakashvili was not simply after the scalp of a sitting minister. In the weeks that followed, he made further sweeping charges of corruption in the highest reaches of government. In this vitriolic campaign, which has often been scant on specifics, Saakashvili has been aided by a network of political associates from his years as Georgia’s president, by rich Odessa businessmen, and by the support of an influential Russian businessman, Konstantin Grigorishin. Indeed, according to journalists and civil society activists, Saakashvili has appropriated some of Grigorishin’s own PowerPoint presentations about alleged corrupt schemes — albeit with slight modifications to avoid directly attacking President Poroshenko’s allies.

At a high-level government meeting on December 15, Saakashvili continued his drumbeat of allegations. “I’ll prove that the Cabinet of Ministers is at the apex of corruption,” Saakashvili declared, echoing comments he has made regularly in public. His brazen accusation lit a fuse.

In response, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov hurled a glass of mineral water at Saakhasvili and, amid a tirade of escalating invective on both sides, shouted, “Get out of my country.” Prime Minister Yatseniuk joined in the counterattack. “You’re a traveling showman and a blabbermouth,” he said. “You were invited into the country to promote reform, not to engage in politicking.” The meeting broke up on a sour note, and the political theater, which did little to enhance the image of Ukraine’s leaders, was shown widely on Ukrainian television and reported around the world.

Initially, Saakhashvili’s attacks on the government seemed to be part of President Poroshenko’s effort to secure his own position by eroding support for Prime Minister Yatseniuk, who is both his major coalition partner and political rival. But now Saakhashvili’s actions seem to be driven primarily by his own considerable ambitions. Indeed, he is making common cause with some of the president’s harshest critics.

Unfortunately, Saakhashvili’s appetite for political showmanship and what many believe are his grand political ambitions are doing far more than destabilizing Ukraine’s government. They are also tempting important and credible leaders of Ukraine’s civil society, many of whom are frustrated by the slow pace of anti-corruption efforts, to join Saakhashvili’s more overtly political campaign.

Many of these activists recognize Saakhasvili’s flaws, but some see in him a charismatic figure who is their best vehicle to press the government on its lagging fight against corruption. The most politically ambitious of the activists who have linked hands with Saakashvili are hoping to join him in a new political movement.

At an anti-corruption forum held in Kiev on December 23, all the confusions and contradictions of a Saakhashvili-led enterprise were on full display. The meetings were assembled quickly and haphazardly, with little thought given to the preparation of basic documents or even a program. Mostly, the conference was akin to a lackluster Quaker meeting, featuring a range of nerdy activists focusing on the arcana of specific corrupt practices. But when it was Saakhashvili’s turn to speak, the meeting turned into a fire-and-brimstone Baptist revival. The energy in the room was palpable. Saakashvili inspired genuine hope that things could change.

But notwithstanding the temptations that Saakashvili offers to the anti-corruption set, there is good reason for caution. A closer look at his record reveals both the plusses and minuses of his complex personality. Saakashvili deserves praise for his early, decisive steps to destroy corrupt and criminal networks in his native Georgia. And he gets strong marks for pushing through significant deregulation and implementing successful free market reforms.

But the accomplishments of his early years as President of Georgia are coupled with evidence of an authoritarian streak. This is dangerous in Ukraine, which has long oscillated between tyranny and democracy. After coming to power in Tbilisi, Saakashvilli amassed vast presidential power through constitutional reforms. And while carrying out his admittedly impressive anti-corruption campaign, he caused significant damage to Georgia’s democracy by short-circuiting due process, violently suppressing opposition protests, and clamping down on opposition media outlets. This should all raise serious alarm bells.

Then there is the question of his international reputation. In off-the-record conversations, high-ranking European leaders describe Saakashvili as an erratic, unbalanced leader, whose impulsiveness led him and his former homeland, Georgia, into unnecessary peril. As a result, his growing role in Ukrainian politics is met with skepticism in Brussels and other European capitals.

Most worrying is Saakashvili’s eagerness to go after his political opponents primarily by accusing them of criminal activity rather than by challenging their ideas through normal democratic politics.

Ukraine’s society is deeply suspicious of its business elite and its political leadership. That suspicion is, in many ways, justified. But corruption must be countered not through blanket accusations, but through the deliberate, well-documented exposure of specific misdeeds. For this reason, Ukraine’s anti-corruption fighters would do well to keep Mikheil Saakashvili at arms’ length. Instead, they should continue on a path which already has brought significant progress: detailed investigations and public airing of corrupt schemes and relentless pressure on state institutions to act.

Such circumspection may well be too much to ask of Ukraine’s citizens. After weathering two difficult years of revolution, economic crisis, and war, the country is tired. Its patience with the glacial pace at which corruption is being addressed is fast running out. That is why the temptation offered by the political ascent of an impatient Saakashvili who offers the illusion of quick and easy solutions may prove too strong to resist. This would result in a convulsive future for Ukraine — exactly the environment in which Mikheil Saakashvili thrives.

In the photo, Odessa region governor and former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili speaks during an anti-corruption forum in Kiev on December 23, 2015.

Photo credit: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the founder of Myrmidon Group.