Saakashvili bids Odesa farewell
The resignation of Mikheil Saakashvili from his position as the governor of the Odesa region was long expected. In many ways it was a natural development that would have come sooner or later. The question of “why now?” remains a good one and, perhaps, we will be able to better answer it as the time passes. We should therefore watch Saakashvili’s next steps, as well as the moves of other political actors.
When Mikheil Saakashvili was appointed as governor of the Odesa region back in May 2015, it took many by surprise. This bold and unconventional move by president Petro Poroshenko stunned many observers, who wondered what it could mean. However, at the time nothing that happened in and around Ukraine could be considered, so unusual times and colossal challenges called for some courageous steps.
The reactions to Saakashvili’s appointment ranged from total disapproval to absolute praise. Surprisingly, perhaps, as time passed and his ratings fluctuated back and forth, the polarisation of opinions on his performance remained rather broad. The situation has not changed since his resignation. The commentators’ feedback has varied from “good riddance” and “the clown has finally departed”, to sombre proclamations that Ukrainian reforms will now totally stall and outcries that his resignation is a symbol of old regime’s return. However, these extreme positions were hardly correct originally and neither are they today. There are clearly no reasons to celebrate his departure, but the premature burial of reforms’ prospects in Ukraine would be also inadequate.
One obvious problem with Mikheil Saakashvili’s appointment was that there were clear limits to what he could achieve. He did not receive carte blanche, as he had in the early years of his presidency in Georgia. While he was a noticeable figure in Ukraine’s political life, he was just one of many. Up to a certain point, he enjoyed unusually direct access to the president, something other governors never experienced, which was a major advantage. However, in the end he was just a governor, one of 24, an element in a bigger system of governance. And he was at the full mercy of the president. While enabling Ukrainians to elect their governors directly could potentially improve governance in the regions, this is not the case today. Therefore, Saakashvili was unable to introduce any major changes in the limited time he had and just by the power of his office. The unexpectedly high expectations he faced from the start were unrealistic.
Another problem with Saakashvili, that many had frequently voiced, was that style prevailed over substance, the elements of a show trumped the daily hard work. And there is some truth to this suggestion. Initially, Saakashvili was very popular in Odesa and his flamboyant and outspoken style fit well with the city’s character. People liked the fact that he was an accessible leader and appreciated the easiness with which they were now able to meet the governor. He spent less time in the office and more in the field. But Saakashvili is also well-known for his oratorical skills, which he showed on numerous occasions. He emphasised the need to get active, fight corruption and introduce reforms, which helped him to re-energise the civil society of Odesa. People were coming up with all sort of ideas as to how to move forward and respond to the governor’s call.
As the time passed, however, he antagonised a number of activists and disappointed others. Although he kept some diehard followers in the city and the region, people undeniably started getting tired of promises and the lack of real action. Most of the reports, which were meant to address what had already been done, were in fact full of statements written in the future tense. Saakashvili enjoyed a high level of trust and there was a strong readiness among society to give him time to prove himself. But with time this readiness shrunk noticeably.
The governor did have some achievements, but not one of them was a complete success. Popular were stories of various influential players trying to prevent the governor’s success and undermine his work. While they were often true, is it possible for a public official to run totally unopposed? Is not the ability to overcome such resistance part of being a successful politician?
Unfortunately, Saakashvili was not able to build a coherent and efficient team to support his work as governor. His closest circle was diverse and did not develop many connections with other players in the region. But the biggest issue was that the team was fully anchored on Mikheil Saakashvili himself and totally depended on his personal charisma. The moment his position started to shatter, the team was doomed.
Moreover, Saakashvili has never been fond of daily routines and micro-management. Instead, he is prone to grand-standing, seeing his main role as shaping a strategic vision. While there is nothing wrong with that, taking care of a myriad of issues on the daily basis which required the governor’s attention was an essential part of his role. His team was too centralised and focused on its leader to be taking care of the little things.
Initially, Saakashvili was praised as someone who did not have any connections to Ukraine’s various shadowy interest groups and oligarchs. That, perhaps, was the main reason behind Poroshenko’s decisions to appoint him. While this was an obvious advantage in a country where many others are beholden to someone else, there was a downside to it; Saakashvili clearly lacked support on the local level and his only, yet significant, ally in Ukraine was president Poroshenko himself.
However, the support coming from the president was not limitless and unconditional either. The case in point was Saakashvili’s endorsement of Sasha Borovyk in his run for the position of Odesa’s mayor. Formally, Borovyk had the Poroshenko Bloc’s ticket, but he had received no official support either from Kyiv, or from Poroshenko’s people in the region. This shed light on the limits of Saakashvili’s rapport with the president. While this could have caused a conflict between the two, it did not happen at that point.
With time, Saakashvili grew tired of being locked down in Odesa, with little support from the president. Saakashvili’s infamous clash with the former prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk and other cabinet members, in particular the interior minister, made it clear that this impulsive and ambitious governor was not satisfied with his position or the nature of his relationship with the political leadership in Kyiv.
At some point, it seems, Saakashvili concluded that his future might be in building and leading a new, reform-oriented political movement in Ukraine. He stopped paying attention to regional affairs and began touring the country, exploring the potential for such a movement and looking for allies. He searched for donors with funds and the will to support a new political project. As this may include cooperating with wealthy sponsors who do not have a clean slate in their portfolios, Saakashvili’s reputation in Ukraine will likely suffer. But so is the nature of the political process there.
One might speculate that the ultimate dream of Saakashvili is to return to big politics in Georgia. If that is the case, the heavy defeat that his party suffered in the recent election might have been a clear sign for him that a return is not possible in the foreseeable future. In the end, it might have pushed the former governor to place his bets on a new political movement in Ukraine, instead.
It remains to be seen whether Saakashvili’s new political project will be a success, and what sort of relationship he will have with president Poroshenko and the other major players in Ukrainian politics. For the moment one thing is clear: Mikheil Saakashvili has just turned the page in his political career.
Volodymyr Dubovyk is Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International Studies, Odessa I. I. Mechnikov National University, Ukraine. He is a co-author of Ukraine and European Security (Macmillan, 1999).