- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Mikheil Saakashvili is many former things. He is the former president of Georgia, where he is a wanted man by the ruling party for charges connected to the “forceful dispersal” of a 2007 protest. He is the former leader of the United National Movement, the political formation that lost to the ruling Georgian Dream party in elections last month. He is a former resident of Williamsburg, New York. And today, he became the former governor of Odessa in Ukraine. On Nov. 7, Saakashvili—a man who, by some accounts, wanted to use the governorship either as a catapult to greater prominence in Ukraine or to prepare a triumphant return to Georgia—resigned from his position, citing rampant and uncorrected corruption throughout the Ukrainian body politic.
Saakashvili, who came to Odessa pledging to put in place the same kind of anti-corruption measures as he did in Georgia, said that he made his decision because Ukraine’s leaders have failed to rein in runaway corruption — and in fact seem to have condoned it. He also let it be known that he was disgusted by the wealth Ukraine’s politicians admitted to having accumulated last week. He also hinted that he would start a new political party in Ukraine.
It’s not surprising that Saakashvili, or “Misha,” was frustrated by what he could and could not accomplish. The governor of Odessa is not bestowed with the same powers as the president of a country (one who had just taken over by coup, no less — Saakashvili became president by way of the 2003 Rose Revolution). Further, Ukraine is roughly fifteen times as populated as Georgia, which necessarily means that there are more oligarchs to unseat, more political players to appease, and more corruption to root out.
A cynic might suggest Saakashvili was frustrated less by the lack of reforms than by his own lack of power, and that Saakashvili could have done what he said he wanted to if he had done the slow, steady, cooperative work of societal reform. Maxim Eristavi, co-founder of Hromadske Int., a new media platform focused on Eastern Europe, tweeted after he stepped down: “Saakashvili’s resignation says more about his failure to work within long-term non-populist framework, rather than about Ukraine’s reforms.” He continued, “Reforming Ukraine demands long-term strategy & smart waiting game, something that impulsive Saakashvili has never managed to master.”
Indeed, some believe that, in Georgia, Saakashvili did not eliminate corruption as much as he nationalized it. And even those who credit “Misha” with clearing out corruption in Georgia concede that those he jailed were subjected to physical and verbal abuse. Few would deny that he lost office in Tbilisi in part because of his own failure to reform the judiciary — the very broom with which he hoped to sweep out the country’s rot and one which eventually came back to whack him and his party. Cutting down corruption, in other words, is a necessary — but insufficient — condition for making society freer and fairer.
Western watchers and Georgians and Ukrainians alike will have to wait to see if Saakashvili learned that particular lesson. In the meantime, we can fondly remember that time in July 2015 that he summoned the California highway patrol to try and teach cops in Odessa to stop taking bribes and start serving and protecting for a change.
Photo credit: ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images