Unlike Russia’s leaders, who loathe him, and unlike some of his western friends, who once treated him as if he were Georgia’s greatest hero since King Davit the Builder (1089-1125), I don’t hold strong views for or against Mikheil Saakashvili.
If pressed, I would say that, during his 2004-13 spell as president of Georgia, he displayed an impressive, but slightly frantic reformist energy in pursuing what he believed to be his country’s pro-western destiny. His modernising fervour combined indomitable self-confidence and business school English with an unpredictability and a capacity for misjudgment that at times bordered on recklessness.
I interviewed Saakashvili in Brussels in October 2008, two months after a short war in which Russia in effect partitioned Georgia by invading it and recognising the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He was more subdued than usual, possibly because it had dawned on him that in the build-up to that conflict he had fallen into a well-laid Russian trap.
Now, in the strangest of career twists, Saakashvili has been appointed governor of Ukraine’s southern region of Odessa by President Petro Poroshenko. The Ukrainian president has speeded up this move by granting Saakashvili instant Ukrainian citizenship.
Saakashvili is by no means the first foreigner tapped by Poroshenko to serve Ukraine as it conducts its three-front battle against economic collapse, institutional corruption and Russian-backed separatism in the Donbass region. He isn’t even the first Georgian to join the Poroshenko team since the February 2014 revolution that overthrew Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed Ukraine president.
However, he is the first foreigner to be picked to govern a Ukrainian region, and this, in my view, is where the problems start.
As one reader of the Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper, commented online: “It’s a great idea that Saakashvili is an adviser for reform, but the governor of a region with a strong Russian population? No. This will probably just stir things up; there must be a qualified Ukrainian who can do this job.”
For sure, Saakashvili’s appointment needs to be placed in the context of Poroshenko’s effort to assert control over various Ukrainian regions and economic sectors where rival oligarchs have ruled the roost, corruption has flourished and local people are seeing few benefits from last year’s revolution in Kiev.
One should also keep in mind the strategic importance of the Odessa region, located between Crimea –annexed last year by Russia – and the Russian-supported region of Transnistria in Moldova. The potential for trouble was on display in May 2014, when more than 40 people died in the city of Odessa in a fire after violence involving mobs of pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian demonstrators.
But, in my view, that incident was an anomaly. The various nationalities of Odessa – Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians, Moldovans, Jews and others – actually rub along pretty well together. The Black Sea port has a special civic spirit of its own, vibrant and usually tolerant.
This was the impression I brought back from my first visit to Odessa in November 1985, when the city was part of the Soviet Union. I was there to cover a European football tie: Chernomorets Odessa versus Real Madrid. It was an uneventful game that ended 0-0.
As a city, though, Odessa was unforgettable – it had a beauty and atmosphere quite unlike the drabness of other Soviet cities. It also had a farmers’ market, full of huge carcasses of meat and other private produce, that was better than similar markets in Moscow.
In other words, Odessa has always been a special kind of place. I find it difficult to believe there is no local figure qualified to serve as the region’s governor. Poroshenko obviously admires Saakashvili and values his experience and talents. But to make him governor at the stroke of a pen risks offending the people of Odessa and raising questions about Poroshenko’s judgement.