The Georgian Who Would Be Governor: Saakashvili in Odessa

Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP-Getty / Jim Watson)

Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP-Getty / Jim Watson)

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.

Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko hands Mikheil Saakashvili his identification card, identifying him as the new governor of the Odessa Oblast. (Press office photo)

Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko hands Mikheil Saakashvili his identification card, identifying him as the new governor of the Odessa Oblast. (Press office photo)

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.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (Newsday.ge)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (Newsday.ge)

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.

Monument to Duke de Richelieu in Odessa (ua-travelling)

Monument to Duke de Richelieu in Odessa (ua-travelling)

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.

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Odessa: A Ukrainian Tragedy

Odessa's celebrated Potemkin Steps, once the scene of Sergei Eisenstein's famed 1925 Soviet classic, The Battleship Potemkin. (Palmyra.od.ua)

Odessa’s celebrated Potemkin Steps, once the scene of Sergei Eisenstein’s famed 1925 Soviet classic, The Battleship Potemkin. (Palmyra.od.ua)

Odessa is a beautiful, theatrical city, renown for its humor, wit, culture, and charm. Yet, at the same time, it is also a city that has experienced much pain and tragedy in its history. Since the horrors of World War II, who would have guessed that nearly 70 years later, the people of this celebrated “St. Petersburg of the south” would again have cause to mourn?

It is beyond doubt that the 2 May massacre in Odessa was a turning point for the crisis in Ukraine. Last Friday was a painful day of mourning for a country that is already on the brink of catastrophe. One might expect that such grief would lead toward greater unity within the country and perhaps pave the way for a rational, constructive dialogue toward peace.

Instead, the massacre has only hardened opinions in Ukraine. Throughout the southeast, including Odessa, popular anger and opposition to the Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government is currently on the rise. In Central Ukraine and Kiev, public opinion over the tragedy is divided. In Western Ukraine, while many have expressed sorrow for the deaths, the popular stance largely does not want to fully explore what happened in Odessa.  The involvement of the pro-Kiev activists is downplayed and “pro-Russian provocateurs” are blamed instead.  According to one observer in Western Ukraine, the reaction from some in the West on social media has been “less than compassionate” and “even hubristic.”  Further west, in the remote Rusyn-speaking oblast of Zakarpattia, popular reaction to the tragedy in Odessa is unclear.  Meanwhile, as tensions rise, Odessa’s historic Jewish community, which had been experiencing a cultural and religious revival in recent years (including a Yiddish language revival), is planning to evacuate the city en masse.

In the United States, mainstream media networks like ABC, CNN, and Fox have practically ignored the massacre. In the rare case that it is mentioned, the question of responsibility is always vague. Official Washington offered its condolences on Saturday in the same manner, without naming any perpetrators. Later, though the US Ambassador in Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt admitted in an interview with CNN that there was no evidence of a Russian role in the massacre.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Frank-walter-steinmeier.de)

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called for fresh talks to de-escalate the crisis.  (Frank-walter-steinmeier.de)

In Germany, opposition to the events in Ukraine as well as a desire for a resolution to the crisis are growing. One member of the ruling Christian Democrats stated that Germany “should stop being a servant of the Americans” and that confrontation with Russia over Ukraine was “blind to history and deaf to the other side.” Meanwhile, Germany’s Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for a new round of Geneva talks.  A veteran diplomat, Steinmeier has stated that the new talks will “send a ‘strong political signal’ that previous agreements will be implemented.” The plan now has the backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Russia’s response to Odessa has been remarkably reserved. Moscow condemned the massacre in very strong terms and the State Duma has demanded a probe into the tragedy. However, Russia has refrained from intervening directly in Ukraine, despite anger in Moscow and pressure by hardliners in the Kremlin to invade.

It is undeniably apparent that Right Sector and far-right football fans known as the “Ultras” were singularly responsible for what happened in Odessa. On YouTube, footage has emerged showing the nationalists starting the fire and later shooting anti-Kiev activists who attempted to leave the burning building.

The Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government has sought to downplay the massacre, instead expressing very general “sorrow” for the victims and emphasizing the clashes that preceded it between supporters and opponents of the government. In every case, they are quick to blame the initial clashes on “pro-Russian provocateurs.” During his visit to Odessa, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk reiterated the same script, though also blaming the security services for not stopping the violence.

Yatsenyuk also pledged a de-centralization of powers to the oblasti and to this end, a bill for a nationwide plebiscite on the issue has been registered at the Ukrainian Rada. Yet people living in Ukraine’s southeast are skeptical. The government has announced vaguely-worded “de-centralizations” in the past, but these were ultimately never realized. In a much less calculated move, the government has also dispatched a special all-volunteer battalion of Kiev’s National Guard to Odessa. It is doubtful that such a move will help de-escalate tensions and build confidence in this part of Ukraine. Opposition to the government runs high in Odessa.  Some have even gone so far as to refer to the massacre as an act of “genocide.” Meanwhile, the “anti-terrorist operation” continues in Eastern Ukraine, which is now effectively in a state of war with Kiev.

Overall, anxiety and apprehension remain high throughout Ukraine in the aftermath of the Odessa massacre. If social media is any indication, it demonstrates that people throughout the country have fundamentally different views and interpretations of the event. Dialogue is extremely important to restoring order and peace, but it is increasingly being supplemented by a discourse of “my interpretation is better than yours” and even worse “us vs. them.” In the backdrop of all this is a fast deteriorating socioeconomic situation and the near-bankruptcy of the country. Ukrainians together need to emerge with white flag in hand to set aside their differences and engage in a serious, meaningful dialogue to find solutions to their problems. War, no matter what, should never be an option.

The 2 May Odessa Massacre and Its Significance on the Ukraine Crisis

The Trade Union building of Odessa in flames (ITAR-TASS)

The Trade Union building of Odessa in flames (ITAR-TASS)

On Friday, at least 46 people, mostly anti-Kiev activists, were killed in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa.  At least 39 died after being trapped in the Odessa House of Trade Unions which was reported to have been lit on fire by far-right football hooligans and activists from the far-right Kiev-affiliated group Right Sector (Praviy Sektor). Some were burned alive while others suffocated to death or jumped out the windows to escape.  At least three were reportedly shot dead. Close to 200 were injured with at least 25 in critical condition.

The massacre was the bloody culmination of clashes between supporters and opponents of the controversial Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government in Kiev. The supporters were primarily Right Sector and its allies, including far-right football hooligans known as the Ultras, who are said to have instigated the violence.  “Glory to Ukraine,” “Death to enemies,” and “Knife the Moskali” they chanted.

The city of Odessa has declared a three-day period of mourning on 3 May.  Russian President Putin has expressed “deep condolences” to the families of those who died.

The significance of this massacre to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is threefold:

  1. It represents the worst violence of the Ukraine crisis since the events in February.
  2. It will likely further erode the credibility of the Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government throughout all regions of Ukraine.
  3. It has demonstrated that Russia, though harshly critical about the actions that took place in Odessa, has been nonetheless restrained in responding to this tragedy. This is very difficult for Moscow because of its anger over the overall situation as well as pressure from Russian hardliners who want Russia to invade Ukraine. Still, the Kremlin will likely continue to show restraint on the issue (at least for now) as the stakes of a direct intervention in Ukraine are too high. In the meantime, Kiev appears to be provoking Moscow to respond to events occurring in the Russophone regions. It is specifically using Right Sector to accomplish this.  Now headquartered in the southeastern town of Dnipropetrovsk, Right Sector activists have launched attacks on cities and towns in and throughout southeastern Ukraine.

The massacre is an especially tragic event for Odessa, a multicultural, cosmopolitan, and theatrical port city on the Black City. Renown for its humor, Odessa is blessed with a heritage of mixed Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Mediterranean influences. Its people speak their own colorful dialect of Russian with smatterings of Ukrainian and Yiddish.  Yet, the May massacre will likely go down as yet another tragedy in Odessan history, a history that also includes several anti-Jewish pogroms, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, famine, Stalin’s Terror, World War II, and the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet as in these tragedies, the people of Odessa will likely turn to their quick wit, irreverence, and celebrated sense of humor to deal with this latest painful episode in their collective history.