On 29 May 2015, the current Ukrainian government made a jaw-dropping move. As if Kiev’s controversial de-communization laws were not enough, the new government decided to appoint Georgia’s provocative ex-president Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili to the post of governor of the Odessa Oblast. Immediately prior to this (literally within hours), Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship, thus making him eligible for the governorship. On Twitter and Facebook, future governor Saakashvili expressed his love for Odessa.
Needless to say, Saakashvili is no Prince Vorontsov. Unabashedly pro-Western and hawkishly anti-Russian, Saakashvili is regarded by many as one of the most unstable politicians in the entire former Soviet Union. It was he who recklessly launched the disastrous South Ossetian war in 2008. Currently, he is a wanted man in his native Georgia, charged with abuse of office. In fact, Prosecutors in Tbilisi are seeking an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. Further, Russia, acting on behalf of Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia, is also seeking the arrest of Saakashvili in connection with war crimes from the 2008 war. This has not prevented Saakashvili from periodically threatening to return to Georgia via revolutionary means, despite the fact that he is widely unpopular in Georgia.
However, Saakashvili is very popular among officials in Kiev, where he retains many ties from his university days. As a supporter of the Maidan from the very beginning, Saakashvili became an advisor to the Ukrainian government. Many officials from his former administration in Georgia, including some also wanted in Tbilisi, have joined him. This has sparked protest, outrage, and indignation from Georgia, its breakaway province of Abkhazia, and Russia.
None of this seems to have fazed Kiev, which appears to dismiss and act in defiance of these protests, especially those from Tbilisi. In fact, not only has Kiev refused to extradite Saakashvili back to Georgia, but it is also widely believed to be obstructing the Interpol Red Notice arrest issued against Zurab Adeishvili, Georgia’s controversial former Justice Minister under Saakashvili.
There is also the question of Saakashvili’s Georgian citizenship. According to Georgian law, Saakashvili cannot be both a citizen of Georgia and a citizen of Ukraine simultaneously. As such, Saakashvili will have to be excluded from the Georgian political process because under Georgian law, foreigners cannot participate in Georgian politics.
This will also mean that Saakashvili will have to resign as chairman of the pro-Western United National Movement (UNM) opposition party in Georgia. That party has already seen a string of resignations this past week and declining popularity in Georgia in general. If Saakashvili resigns as the UNM’s chairman, it may further diminish its presence in Georgian politics.
Saakashvili’s appointment by Kiev as the governor of the Odessa Oblast has already prompted strong reactions from Tbilisi. Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili was at a loss for words regarding Saakashvili’s acceptance of Ukrainian citizenship. “I want to express my strongly negative stance” on the issue, he told reporters. By relinquishing his Georgian citizenship, he added, Saakashvili “humiliated the country and the presidential institution. From my point of view, values are more significant than a career… Georgia’s citizenship represents such a value.” To President Margvelashvili, such a step was “incomprehensible.”
Davit Saganelidze, the leader of Georgia’s parliamentary majority, told reporters that the decision to appoint such a “deranged person” to the post of governor of Odessa was a “very serious mistake on the part of Ukrainian authorities.” He also stated that he sympathized with the Ukrainian people.
Even overtly pro-Western political figures in Georgia were critical of Saakashvili’s new governorship. Georgia’s Defense Minister, Tina Khidasheli, the wife of the Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, said that Saakashvili “showed everyone his so-called devotion to Georgia” and that “now everyone can see he doesn’t care about the citizenship of his own country.”
Russia too also reacted to Saakashvili’s appointment. On Twitter, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev tweeted that “the circus comes to town… Poor Ukraine.”
As if this were not enough, the oblast to which Saakashvili has been appointed to govern is a hotbed of anti-Kiev activity and resentment. The memory of the terrible Odessa Massacre of May 2014 is still very fresh in the minds of many Odessans. In that massacre, 48 people were killed, largely anti-Kiev activists. Most were burned to death in the Odessa House of Trade Unions. Independent research confirms that Right Sector (Praviy Sektor), together with far-right football hooligans known as the Ultras, were responsible for what had happened. However, official Kiev, which is allied with these nefarious groups, has tried to downplay the tragedy and instead blame it on the anti-Kiev activists, contrary to the evidence.
As such, opposition to the Kiev government is seething among many in this multicultural port city, a Black Sea cultural center renowned for its sense of humor and its mixed Russian, Jewish, and Ukrainian heritage. The recent Trade Unions massacre re-awakened bad memories of World War II. This is due especially to the presence of far-right groups, like Right Sector, within the Ukrainian government. Kiev relies on these extremists to clamp down on free expression and political dissent in Odessa. This has created much anger that is barely contained by the Odessan public.
It is this city and its surrounding area that the overtly pro-Western Saakashvili will be governing. The situation brings together one of the most volatile personalities in the former Soviet space with one of the most high tension regions of Ukraine. The potential for instability is high. “Governor of Odessa? What a great idea,” sarcastically remarked Fred Weir, Moscow correspondent at the Christian Science Monitor. “Take a divided city, in the midst of an existential crisis, and send in Mikheil Saakashvili to run things.”
As for President Poroshenko, his move has certainly “left a large number of political observers at a loss for explanation,” remarked the BBC. “Many are struggling to see the strategy behind naming a former leader of another country to run a provincial government… The move could be a stroke of genius on Mr. Poroshenko’s part — or a blunder of breathtaking magnitude.” Many Georgians who know Saakashvili all too well would most certainly agree with the BBC’s latter assessment.
“In Russian folklore,” quipped Vladimir Golstein, a professor of Russian literature at Brown University, “there are tons of Odessa jokes and there are equal amount of Georgian jokes. But only one person managed to combine the two. And it ain’t funny.”
There have been different possible explanations as to why Poroshenko decided to appoint Saakashvili to be the governor of the Odessa Oblast. Some have speculated that the “chocolate king” (as Poroshenko is known) sought to simultaneously annoy Moscow and send a message to controversial oligarch and former Dnepropetrovsk governor Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who finances many of Ukraine’s notorious volunteer battalions. Others regard it as a desperate move by Kiev, amid a growing thaw between Washington and Moscow, to regain full but diminishing Western support in a belief that Saakashvili still commands a “hero” status in the West.
Others believe that the appointment of Saakashvili to the Odessa governorship may signal a sort of “demotion” for Saakashvili’s status in Kiev and that Poroshenko’s ulterior motive was to get him out of the capital. In a press conference with reporters, Georgian Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, who had just returned from a working visit to Kiev, seemed to favor this latter explanation. After telling reporters that legal efforts to extradite Saakashvili back to Georgia had been exhausted, given his new Ukrainian citizenship, she added:
I saw that Saakashvili’s team has failed to succeed there [in Kiev]. Reforms are on hold; the Ukrainian people and the media have serious questions about these so-called experts. He was sent away from Kiev because he was unable to carry out reforms. I have no doubt that he will not do any better in Odessa. It’s a message of warning for the Ukrainian people and media.
Overall, whatever the motives for Kiev’s move, the appointment of Saakashvili has certainly raised eyebrows among serious observers of the region. Yet, whether it raises eyebrows for Kiev’s Western backers and supporters will remain to be seen.