The former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s sudden appointment to the governorship of the Odessa region in Ukraine is primarily a domestic reshuffling of cadres in anticipation of further infighting among the various clans in Ukraine, rather than a policy decision aimed at Russia.

Citizens greet Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, and Mikhail Saakashvili, second left, a newly appointed governor of Odessa region, in Odessa, Ukraine, Saturday, May 30, 2015. Photo: AP

In early June Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko made a very controversial decision: He appointed former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili as the governor of the Odessa Region in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, reactions to this sudden appointment  tend to mirror one’s overall assessment of the Ukrainian Maidan.

Those who support the Maidan and the current government deem his appointment a stroke of genius. They point to Saakashvili’s reputation in the West as a person who successfully curtailed Georgia’s rampant corruption and streamlined the bureaucracy. They cite the country’s dramatic rise in the World Bank’s rating of countries where it is easiest to do business to suggest that Saakashvili has both the determination and skill to do the same for the Odessa region.   

Skeptics of the Ukrainian revolution, however, are often equally skeptical of the “Georgian Miracle.” Low-level corruption shrank, they say, because it was pushed up into the upper echelons of power, where it festered and eventually became the basis for the indictments against Saakashvili and several of his associates for embezzlement and abuse of power.

They point out that while Georgia soared in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of those who reported actually paying a bribe in the past year scarcely budged. At the same time, Georgia does only slightly better than Russia, which is often portrayed as its antithesis, on the Global Integrity Report, and the Polity IV rankings of democratic indicators, and worse in the Open Budget Index assessment of transparency of state accounts.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s economic growth rate under Saakashvili, while robust, eventually fell behind that of not just Russia, but also Belarus, Azerbaijan, and even Armenia, and was accompanied by record levels of unemployment, poverty, incarceration, and mortality. His critics, moreover, worry that his methods cannot be replicated in Odessa, where Saakashvili has no local political allies in the regional parliament or the city council.

His supporters, on the other hand, do not see these as disadvantages at all.  Not being beholden to any financial or political group in the region, they say, will make him a reliable conduit for imposing the reforms Kiev wants. In short, the old, entrenched elites won’t be able to get in the way.

To this, his critics have their own counter argument, namely, that this merely proves that Saakashvili’s appointment is not really about economic revitalization, decentralization, and combatting corruption, but rather about getting rid of his predecessor Igor Palytsia, a key ally of the now disgraced oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, who is now in open economic conflict with the current government.

Whatever one may think of these various scenarios, it is clear that Saakashvili’s appointment has potential advantages and disadvantages for the region.

The most notable advantage is its PR value. According to Sergei Leshchenko, a member of parliament from the Poroshenko Bloc, all other Odessan politicians are mere “pygmies” compared to Saakashvili, who can “get Western investment based on his name alone.”

On the other hand, his greatest disadvantage might be the secretive - one might almost say “traditional” - manner in which he was foisted upon the region. So sudden was his appointment that the president’s own deputy chief of staff apparently did not even know he was being considered. Ukrainian politicians of all stripes, including some in the president’s own party, have begun to express concern that this new phenomenon of “outsourcing of political power” might be getting out of hand.

In any case, Saakashvili has hit the ground running, making a number of bold promises. They include reconstruction of international highway M15 connecting Odessa to Reni on the Moldovan border, reducing paperwork so that government permits can be issued in a day, while at the same time reducing the size of the regional administration from eight hundred workers to “a maximum of fifty” and appointing new heads for all regional districts, and freeing all Odessans from crime, corruption and the “heartlessness” of the current bureaucracy by the end of the year.

If he does not succeed, it will not be the first time that he has raised expectations beyond his reach.  One example from his last year as president of Georgia is “Lazika,” a ten-year project to create, from scratch, a Black Sea port to become the country’s second largest city. To prevent it from being mired in “Soviet patterns,” Lazika was given a special legal status based on English commercial law, rather than the codified civil law used in the rest of Georgia. The project was shelved a month after his electoral defeat by the new prime minster who considered it unfeasible. Given his rhetoric on Odessa, one can only wonder whether he is envisioning something equally grandiose for the city.

But of all the questions currently being asked, perhaps the most intriguing is this: What does Saakashvili actually gain from what he himself envisions as a relatively brief term in office? Such brevity is suggested by his interpretation of his recently granted Ukrainian citizenship as a two-year “transitory period” that allows him to keep his Georgian citizenship (ignoring the fact that dual citizenship is prohibited by the Georgian constitution), as well as recent comments to the Georgian media that he is ready to return to Georgia “the very minute the country needs me.” 

Many observers in Ukraine believe that he is aiming to rise higher even in Ukrainian politics. Most likely, he fully intends to someday re-enter Georgian politics. To do this, however, he needs to demonstrate a recent political success.

His current appointment coincided with the de facto disintegration of the United National Movement (UNM), the Georgian political party that he founded and nominally still leads. Just three days before his appointment, four senior party leaders simultaneously abandoned the party, citing its failure “to fully renew itself after its 2012 defeat.” As a result, Saakashvili has almost no parliamentary political base to return to.

But were Saakashvili to be successful in turning around Odessa, a region that, despite being only half as large, shares many similarities with Georgia, it could serve as a rallying point for his now demoralized supporters. Therefore, his ambitions in Odessa are best understood in the context of Georgian rather than Ukrainian politics.

Finally, there are also those who believe that Saakashvili’s success or failure in Odessa will have political implications for all of Eurasia. Yuri Tkachyov, a writer for the Odessa news website Timer, argues that Saakashvili reputation as a reformer bolsters the populist notion that if you don’t like what is happening, the solution lies not in tedious political compromises and time consuming legal procedure, but in forcing out the old to make way for the new.

Saakashvili’s whole political career has been a metaphor for this approach to politics, and his singular importance today lies in the fact that he is the last participant of the decade of “color revolutions” whose liberal reputation has remained more or less intact.

Odessa is therefore not just a test of Saakashvili, but of the very concept of social transformations through revolution. If it were to fail, Tkachyov suggests, the revolutionary approach to politics within the former Soviet Union would be left without a single positive example to its credit.

Saakashvili's appointment: The Kremlin's response

The Kremlin's response has been dismissive, but this is an internal matter of Ukrainian politics that is unlikely to have international repercussions unless Saakashvili is given some international responsibility. As governor, his impact on military policy and border issues (for example, in Transnistria) is negligible.

Saakashvili was known for months to have been Poroshenko's confidante. One of the possible interpretations of this appointment is that it puts a reliable ally of Poroshenko at the head of a key region. Again, however, this appointment is primarily a domestic reshuffling of cadres in anticipation of further infighting among the various clans in Ukraine, rather than a policy decision aimed at Russia.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.