The world and those in Odesa Oblast in Ukraine are still in shock that President Petro Poroshenko appointed ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as governor of the region.
“Surely this is just another joke,” exclaimed one resident. “Tomorrow they’ll say it’s the end of the world. Do you seriously believe this?”
It is not a joke, but it is also not a surprise. Political watchers in Ukraine report the new government reached out to Saakashvili in late 2014 for high ranking jobs within the central government.
“The biggest mystery was that he turned down high-ranking posts,” explained Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko. “Then he unexpectedly chose an area in which he can show results relatively quickly.”
Poroshenko granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship on May 30. The next day he appointed him the governor of Odesa Oblast. He landed in Ukraine in 2012 after his term expired and the new Georgian government, run by Putin allies, charged him with corruption. After he was elected, Poroshenko made him an adviser and refused to extradite him to Georgia in February. Poroshenko believes the ex-president is the right person to lead the region.
“Own words should be found for everyone in multinational Odesa region,” he announced, adding:
This is the person who is able to materialize ideas and who changed his country [Georgia] in the transparency, efficiency, anticorruption areas, attracting new investors, establishing fair court, protecting rights of citizens and democracy and whom I want to see in Ukraine – this is Mikheil Saakashvili.
David Stern at the BBC said it is obvious why the move confused so many people since Saakashvili is an “outsider, with few political ties to the Odessa region.” However, he is “pro-Western, pro-reform and apparently very loyal to Mr. Poroshenko.” Euromaidan erupted after ex-President Viktor Yanukovych chose closer ties to Russia over Europe. The people desired to move away from their past and look towards Europe for their future. Unfortunately, east Ukraine, where the majority of the population speaks Russian, broke out in a civil war between pro-Russian rebels with help from Russian soldiers and the Ukrainian army.
“I thought he was a good president in Georgia. I liked his economic reforms,” said another Odessa resident. “I think he will bring positive things.”
Odessa is in west Ukraine but suffered a few battles at the beginning of the new government. Even though it is much calmer, reform is still needed since the oblast–or province–is “also home to Ukraine’s largest seaport, sitting between the recently-annexed territory of Crimea and the strategic, Russian-supported breakaway region of Trandnistria, in Moldova.”
Saakashvili has experience dealing with Russia and Putin, breaking into the international political scene in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia after Saakashvili attempted to solidify ties with Europe over Russia. The Georgian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia–like Crimea–were invaded and settled, and remain outside the purview of the government in Tbilisi.
In July 2014, the pro-Putin Georgian government filed charges of corruption and abuse of power against Saakashvili and former officials. The prosecutor’s office insists he spent “$11,000 of government funds on Botox injections and used “excessive force to dispel anti-government protests in 2007.” Saakashvili, and the State Department, lashed out at the charges and all agree it is politically motivated.
The Russian government and state-run publications wasted no time criticizing and lashing out at Ukraine.
Saakashvili is Head of the Odessa Region. When the circus comes to town… Poor Ukraine
— Dmitry Medvedev (@MedvedevRussiaE) May 30, 2015
Alexei Pushkov, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the State Duma, hints at Saakashvili’s fate if he ever returns home. Translation: Saakasvili has forgotten his promises to return to Tbilisi to lead Georgia. In Georgia, it is, at best, can lead the column or prisoners.
Саакашвили забыл свои обещания вернуться в Тбилиси,чтобы возглавить Грузию. В Грузии он в лучшем случае может возглавить колонну заключенных
— Алексей Пушков (@Alexey_Pushkov) May 30, 2015
Pravda published an odd article that appeared like a news article but was soaked in sarcasm:
Ukrainian President Poroshenko said that Saakashvili is the man who can change the Odessa region just like he changed Georgia once. In particular, Saakachvili will eradicate corruption, and foreign investors will flow in. He will establish a fair trial, protect people’s rights and build democracy.
Saakashvili appears to be so good he can make it to the office of the Ukrainian president. [T]his is an impression that one gets from Poroshenko’s statements. After all, Odessa without corruption and the rest of Ukraine deep into it will not look very nice.
In 2016, Saakachvili intends to return to Georgia to become its leader again. For the time being, Saakachvili will work in Odessa to turn the city and the region into another wonder of the world. To accomplish that, he even offered to leave all problems and conflicts in the past.
The news outlet attached a video of Saakashvili eating his tie on live television. Those critical of the new governor placed ties around the city, “alluding to the infamous tie-chewing incident.”
After he received citizenship, the Georgian government threatened to strip Saakashvili of his Georgian citizenship. President Giorgi Margvelashvili said the decision “insulted” Georgia. Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told the media only the president can decide to revoke the citizenship.
“Let this hang upon him as a sword of Damocles,” she said. “It will be a political decision and we will take it whenever we want.”
Despite the sour feelings, the Georgian Foreign Ministry promised Saakashvili’s appointment will not affect the relationship between Georgia and Ukraine.
I want to say once again, which we have mentioned before, that, despite the sovereign decision made by the Ukrainian administration, which we may like or not, will not negatively impact the relations between our countries over the appointment of Saakashvili.
He added, “We are guided by state interests and the traditional historical friendship and partnership.”
Both Stern at the BBC and Leonid Bershidsky acknowledge the move could make or break Poroshenko, but after a year in office, he needs to show something after a mediocre first year marred by over 6,000 deaths in east Ukraine.
“Yet Poroshenko knows he could waste an opportunity unless he goes all-in,” wrote Bershidsky. “Expect more unorthodox moves from him as he struggles to regain momentum and looks for battles to win.”