The Education of Mikheil Saakashvili

The governor of Ukraine’s bucolic Odessa region wanted to take on the corrupt system. Now he’s realized he has to work with it.


Just last week, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was confidently predicting his imminent return to his home country. Anticipating that his old political party would triumph in the Oct. 8 parliamentary elections — and that corruption charges the current government instigated against him would be dropped — he seemed all but to have packed his bags. Instead, his party suffered a major defeat. It looks like, at least for now, he will remain where he is — as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. But governing Odessa isn’t what he once hoped it would be.

When Saakashvili called a press conference one day this August, no one could have guessed who would be standing next to him. For months, he had lambasted Odessa’s mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, as a corrupt mafioso who was draining the city dry. But suddenly, the hulking governor and the lean, Thai-boxing Trukhanov were standing shoulder-to-shoulder as if nothing had happened.

For Saakashvili, the event was part pragmatic politics and part admission of defeat. He had called the press conference to show Ukraine’s leaders that the region’s two leading politicians could work together, and that Odessa deserved to host the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest. But it was also an acknowledgement that, after more than fifteen months as governor, he is unable to enact any major projects without Mayor Trukhanov, who has his roots in the criminality that ravaged Odessa in the ‘90s. In that way, Saakashvili’s troubles in Odessa represent the painful compromises of trying to advance reform in a country where some things have changed — but where most of the old system’s apparatchiks haven’t really gone anywhere.

When Saakashvili was first appointed governor in May 2015, the Odessa region, which hugs the coast of the Black Sea, appeared to be a leading front in Ukraine’s war on corruption. Saakashvili brought an international media spotlight and new team of young reformers. Locals hoped that he would soon begin enacting the decisive reforms that had made him famous in his native Georgia (and that their own leaders had been unable to deliver). But more than a year later, Saakashvili has few accomplishments to boast of. His time in Odessa has been a humbling experience for the young and tremendously energetic former Georgian president.

Saakashvili had come to Ukraine looking for a new career after facing politically motivated charges of abuse of power and corruption in Tbilisi. But he soon found that replicating the fast-track reforms he had pushed at home was impossible. “In Georgia, Saakashvili was a kind of tsar, able to make what he wanted happen,” said Ghia Nodia, his former education minister in Georgia. “But in Ukraine he’s only a governor. He’s much weaker and he’s forced to make compromises he would rather not.”

Initially, the ex-president was reluctant to learn that lesson, hoping he would be able to thrust aside any members of the local elite who stood in his way. For months after arriving in Odessa, Saakashvili waged a furious PR war with Trukhanov. Social media became a key front, with each politician attending an extraordinary number of events and publicizing them online. Trukhanov’s Facebook page, written in the third person and exclusively in Russian, showed him opening a never-ending procession of sports facilities, overseeing children building a giant paper boat, and wishing athletes from his network of Thai boxing gyms luck in their international competitions. Saakashvili’s Facebook page, written in the first person in both Ukrainian and Russian, showed him in a traditional embroidered shirt dancing with older Ukrainian women, moving his office to a tent at a stalled construction site, and celebrating with newlyweds at a new twenty-four-hour wedding center.

The two men seemed to represent two parallel Odessas. Saakashvili looked to the future, to a post-Euromaidan Odessa that would finally root out the corruption of the past and build a modern city. Trukhanov, on the other hand, is the master of an Odessa where Ukraine’s 2011 revolution never happened, and where cronies of the deposed President Viktor Yanukovych would be free to continue business as usual.

They even observed different holidays. Saakashvili marked the end of World War II on May 8, the European day of remembrance, while Trukhanov celebrated it on May 9, the Soviet Victory Day. But the clash wasn’t just about corruption or ideology — it was also about who would be the real head in the region and have the right to imprint his vision on it.

With control over the legislature in Odessa, Trukhanov was often in the position to deny Saakashvili his vision. One of the early reforms, a sleek new citizens’ service center, floundered as funds ran dry. Technically it was under the authority of the city — and Trukhanov refused to fund the project.

Over time, however, the conflict became less pronounced. According to Saakashvili’s advisor Maria Gaidar, things began to change after the October 2015 local elections, when Trukhanov defeated Sasha Borovik, Saakashvili’s close ally, in the race for mayor. Saakashvili also failed to win a supportive majority in Odessa’s Regional Assembly. The episode made Saakashvili realize that he wouldn’t be able to crush Trukhanov and his friends.

“Now he knows that even to build a library in Odessa he needs to talk to these guys,” Borovik says. A Harvard-educated former Microsoft executive, Borovik had been a member of Saakashvili’s team of reformers, but made a quiet exit in June and now lives between New York and Munich, working for a technology start-up.

Before leaving, Borovik says, he read about how the United States cooperated with the Italian mafia during World War II to advance the war effort against Mussolini. He was trying to understand when it could be morally acceptable to collaborate with criminal elements. In the end, he says, it was more of a compromise than he could make.

But, according to Borovik, Saakashvili has no problem cutting the sort of unsavory deals needed to get things done. “Misha is being a Lyndon Johnson,” he said, referring to Johnson’s ability to play dirty politics and push through progressive legislation where the idealist John F. Kennedy could not.

One of the bigger projects Saakashvili has pushed is the Odessa-Reni highway, which is meant to replace the current dismal road between Odessa and Romania with a modern four-lane road at a cost of $4.6 billion.

But all of the early tenders for building the highway have gone to the city construction empire dominated by Trukhanov, according to Arkadiy Topov of a local anti-corruption watchdog. The companies linked to the mayor are known to build roads at up to four times the comparable rate in other parts of the country.

When asked by Foreign Policy, Saakashvili insisted that the tender process had been transparent, but had no direct response to concerns that the costs of building the highway would likely be inflated to maximize graft, creating new fortunes and perpetuating Odessa’s reputation as a hotbed of corruption.

Moments before, Saakashvili had addressed the audience at a major conference, blasting former President Leonid Kuchma, who was seated in front of him, for creating today’s corrupt elite. But even as Saakashvili has made a career of calling out the failings of Ukraine’s leaders and their propensity to collaborate with the old system, he conveniently sidesteps the fact that he has done the same thing.

But Saakashvili’s tactics only point to the larger problem. Nearly three years since the Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine’s reformers have failed to break the back of the corrupt structures that still grip the country. As a result, providing tangible signs of change — even something as simple as new roads — means collaborating with the very system the revolution was supposed to uproot.

In the photo, Mikheil Saakashvili speaks during a rally in Odessa on October 28, 2015.

Photo credit: ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images

Ian Bateson is a foreign correspondent based in Ukraine. He is working on a book about Ukrainian identity after the Maidan revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @ianbateson