American Interest

Saakashvili Washes Hands of Odessa

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship

Mikheil Saakashvili is calling it quits as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. In announcing his resignation, the former Georgian president turned on his patron, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, accusing Ukraine’s leadership of endemic corruption. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a video posted to his official Facebook page, Mr. Saakashvili criticized the Ukrainian elite as “corrupt filth,” and said efforts to implement reform in the Black Sea region had been stifled by unscrupulous politicians.

Mr. Saakashvili, known in his native Georgia for his anticorruption drive as well as a disastrous 2008 war with Russia, was appointed governor in Odessa last year. He was one of several high-profile foreigners appointed to head reform efforts after a pro-democratic revolution in 2014 swept a pro-Russian president from power. […]

Mr. Saakashvili said he had been held back by individuals “who capitalize on the deaths of our soldiers… who betrayed the idea of the Ukrainian revolution, and whose only motivation in life is to fill their pockets and strengthen their clans, and to rob Ukraine to the end.”

He may well be right. The shady oligarchs who control Ukraine have never really changed their position: They don’t want Putin to take over the country since his power would threaten their privilege and wealth. But they also don’t want Ukraine to become a true Western country, with a bunch of irritating accountants and lawyers picking over their books, taxing their profits, and generally impeding their ability to loot.

So far, the oligarchs seem to be getting what they want: a Ukraine that resists real reform, but that doesn’t slither into Putin’s grasp. Neither Moscow nor the West is completely happy with the resulting status quo—and it has created terrible economic conditions for much of the Ukrainian population—but since neither east nor west seems to have the resources or the will to impose a clear pattern on Ukraine, the oligarchs have so far had things their own way.

Saakashvili is leaving Odessa, but his Ukrainian adventure may not be over. Rumors abound that Saakashvili will move to Kyiv to start a reformist party to challenge Poroshenko, and polling suggests that he has some hope of success. An International Republican Institute poll from July found that among politicians in Ukraine, Saakashvili’s favorability lagged only that of Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy and war hero Nadiya Savchenko. Although his favorability has declined in recent polls, Saakashvili has a national presence and populist message that carry great appeal.

With Saakashvili barred from returning to Georgia, where his party suffered a resounding defeat in the recent elections, Ukraine may be his best shot at a political future. Regardless of what happens, however, he will have his work cut out for him in trying to change Ukraine’s political culture.