Amid tenuous ceasefires and sporadic shelling, the crisis in Ukraine witnessed a remarkable development on May 30 when Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko announced the appointment of former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili as the governor of Ukraine’s province of Odessa. Saakashvili has been a special policy advisory for Mr. Poroshenko for some time. A vocal supporter of the government of Ukraine’s pro-western orientation, anti-Russian (and anti-Putin) spokesman across global media, Saakashvili’s appointment has raised hackles in Moscow and questions throughout the world. There is a lot at play in this decision.
It is remarkable that Mr. Poroshenko would choose the former president from another country to serve as the governor of one of his most important regions during a period of conflict. By taking the position, Saakashvili has forfeited his Georgian citizenship and accepted Ukrainian citizenship. In spite of his close relationship with Poroshenko, Saakashvili has resisted such a move in the past; Poroshenko had previously asked him to serve as deputy prime minister (a position which would have required a similar citizenship swap) and Saakashvili refused. In a move which is guaranteed to generate criticism at home in Georgia, Saakashvili has now taken the plunge.
What changed Mr. Saakashvili’s mind? And why was he Poroshenko’s choice for this key position? First and foremost, Saakashvili is a politician. He despises Putin, courts controversy, and loves the smell of cordite. The governorship of Odessa provides him an opportunity to again take a role on the global political stage. Georgian politics, and indeed Georgia itself, are presently closed to him. The current Georgian government, backed by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, displaced Saakashvili’s party in 2013. In July 2014, the government launched a criminal investigation into Saakashvili’s handling of the 2007 anti-government protests.
If the choice to become governor of Odessa was difficult for Saakashvili, it was also challenging for Poroshenko. Saakashvili, an outsider and a former president with an international profile in his own right, will not be a conventional governor. But Poroshenko does not want or need a conventional governor in Odessa. Saakashvili’s primary role will be to build institutions and to fight corruption. He demonstrated great skill in these areas while serving as Georgia’s president. Poroshenko hopes that he will bring the same determination, integrity, and fearlessness to combating oligarchs, corruption, and Soviet-style institutions in Odessa that defined his time as president of Georgia. Saakashvili is many things, but his commitment to fighting corruption is genuine; he is highly unlikely to manipulate his new position for personal financial gain or to make deals with oligarchs.
At the same time, Saakashvili will be responsible for resisting new Russian pressures against one of Ukraine’s most populous regions. The city of Odessa itself is the fourth largest in Ukraine. It is a major port providing access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean beyond. It borders Moldova, a country dealing with its own Russian-backed separatist challenges in the breakaway region of Transnistria (which also borders the Odessa oblast). Saakashvili’s appointment is critical in terms of both timing and location.
Poroshenko is putting great faith in the former Georgian president. Faith that can be rewarded if Saakashvili can bring genuine and lasting reforms to the Odessa region. Neither Saakasvhili nor Poroshenko expect Russia to launch a massive military incursion into Ukraine. The conflict with Russia and its neighbors will continue militarily only at a low level. The real fight will take place over institutions and the fabric of society itself. It is a fight against Soviet institutions, corruption, and oligarchic control of politics. Saakashvili attempted to fight this fight in Georgia for nine years and had numerous successes, as well as several public controversies.
Saakashvili is a polarizing figure. Intense, articulate, outspoken, notoriously difficult to work for, he has a keen political sense and impeccable anti-Russian credentials. American-educated, he has been an effective and active advocate for Ukraine to the West. Now, President Poroshenko hopes he can translate words into actions and bring progress to Ukraine. Despite continued Russian provocations and Poroshenko’s pro-western rhetoric, America has not provided the Ukraine with robust material support. Corruption in Ukraine remains one of the primary obstacles to increased Western aid. If Saakashvili succeeds, he can put down an important marker for the rest of the country. Odessa can serve as an example for the rest of the country that Soviet-style institutions, Russian pressure, and oligarchic politics can be overcome. Saakashvili can potentially bring genuine change to a country in desperate need of reform, Western assistance, and positive developments. President Saakashvili, the formerly Georgian, now Ukrainian governor of Odessa, is now the best hope for Petro Poroshenko and the people of Ukraine. And that is just the way Mr. Saakashvili likes it.