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Saakashvili’s resignation and the failed expectations of a miracle

The decision of President Poroshenko to appoint the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as the governor of Odesa region in 2015 came as a surprise. He needed a pro-Ukrainian, pro-President outsider who could break a chain of corruptive connections in the region, but also a bright personality, a man of courage, who would not be afraid to initiate a radical change. It was an “all-in” decision – either a miracle would happen in Odesa or the situation would stay the same. Moreover, for Odesans it was a move to boost their local pride – a president becoming a governor of their region. The question of his foreign origin was the last thing Odesa cared about as, in its history, there have been many foreigners in charge.

November 28, 2016 - Hanna Shelest - Articles and Commentary


However, Odesa hoped for the Saakashvili of 2004 – a bright inspirer and enthusiastic personality capable of changing the environment and attracting investments. The one who inspired everyone when he promised to build in Ukraine a second Batumi – a famous reconstruction and revitalising project of the seaside resort in Georgia. But Odesa received the Saakashvili of 2010 – an uncompromised person who did not tolerate criticism, who was addicted to media attention, still full of ideas, but more interested in high politics than in everyday work.

From the very beginning two views dominated. First, that for Saakashvili it was a temporary appointment, which he needed in order to show Georgians that they made a mistake by getting rid of him. In a way, it could have been seen as a stepping stone for a triumphal return to Georgia, or at least for a higher position in Kyiv, which would precede his return. The second impression was that Saakashvili did not understand the role of the governor. His early statements and actions indicated the will to introduce changes in the city of Odesa (which was not directly under his jurisdiction), or on the national level. The Odesa Package of Reforms, presented in September 2015, in about 80 per cent addressed national reforms rather than regional development. Moreover, Saakashvili organised anti-corruption forums all over the country and spent more time on national TV and talking to international journalists than in the region.

The initial euphoria of the local activists who were eager to join Saakashvili’s team, soon faded, as they became frustrated with the governor’s obsession with the media, unsystematic work and unfulfilled promises. For many of them it appeared easier to continue to work without the governor’s support rather than waiting for hours for a short meeting. In fact, Saakashvili turned out to be a man of deconstruction rather than creation. He was quick in destroying the mechanisms and structures of regional governance, but was unable to provide an alternative, create a sustainable, stable and productive administration. While this is not to underestimate and undermine the role of the individuals who joined the governor’s or regional administration and dedicated their energy to reform, the role of Saakashvili was more of an inspirer rather than a team leader.

In the classical theory of elites, we have traditional (inherited), charismatic, and legal rulers. While the charismatic ones are good for revolutions and rapid radical transformations, for the stable daily work of state management, legal rulers are needed. Saakashvili is a classic charismatic leader, who unfortunately is in a constant revolutionary mood. With such a manner of leadership, the leader can be a good inspirer, but needs a team who would take on the daily managerial roles to guarantee implementation and sustainability of ideas. The situation was aptly described by the Ukrainian journalist, Maxim Eristavi, who wrote: “Saakashvili’s resignation says more about his failure to work within long-term non-populist framework, rather than about Ukraine’s reforms”.

Ukrainian journalists compiled a list of nine to 30 big promises of governor Saakashvili. Among them was the creation of administrative services centre (similar to the Georgian houses of justice), reconstruction of Odesa-Reni international road (crucial for the southern districts’ existence) and moving his office to a tent on a construction site until the central government issues the necessary financing to complete the investment. He also promised the construction of a new airport terminal, open competition for the posts of the head of Odesa region and Odesa Customs, initiating electronic customs procedures, support for the Odesa “Storm” battalion in Mariupol, attracting investments and fighting corruption, cutting down the number of civil servants in the Odesa Region State Administration, new police attire, etc. However, just a few promises from the list were fulfilled, including the beginning of the Odesa-Reni road reconstruction, partial administration cuts and the opening of the Administrative Services Center, which had been closed down just a few days before the governor’s resignation.

The lack of financing, the opposition of the local old-fashioned elites, high level of corruption and the inability to control the judicial sphere have been among the objective obstacles for the introduction of reforms in Odesa and Ukraine. At the same time,Saakashvili had underestimated the limits to his power in comparison with his Georgian days. He also did not live up to the standards he set himself; soon after declaring the fight against corruption as his top priority, the governor negotiated a compromise on the continuation of the airport construction – one of the biggest corruption scandals in Odesa, where the prosecutor’s office held a serious investigation and the local authorities worked with investors of dubious reputation. The unexpected move of the governor in December 2015 was explained with the urgent necessity to have a new airport in the city to boost tourism and investments. The promises to open a new airport by summer 2016 have never been fulfilled and are currently postponed by another year.

The first rumours about the possible dismissal of Saakashvili by the president appeared in March 2016. According to sources, the two had had a tough conversation which ended with mutual promises about reforms and development projects in the Odesa region.

In October 2016, experts and journalists actively discussed the possibility of Saakashvili’s return to Georgia if his party were to win the election – an option, which appeared more possible if one listened to the political statements made during the election campaign in Georgia. Saakashvili and his team were actively involved in the political campaign in the country, as a result of which the Ukrainian embassy in Tbilisi was often called on the carpet by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia. In November 2016, there were no more rumours when the announcements came as a snowball – the head of the Odesa region’s police Giorgi Lortkipanidze stepped down and a few hours later, Saakashvili himself announced his resignation. Within a few days, a number of other members of Saakashvili’s team resigned and a few heads of local districts announced that they were only going to continue working until the appointment of the new governor.

Many activists and journalists began to present Saakashvili’s resignation as the biggest tragedy, a betrayal to the EuroMaidan principles and a victory of the corrupt elite, blaming the president and the central government. At the same time, Anatoliy Boyko, the head of the committee of voters in the Odesa region wrote: “we should stop deluding ourselves about Saakashvili, because his misfortune is not an automatic failure for all of us, or depreciation of all the work done by volunteers and himself. Firstofall, itis a lesson. Idolisation, unwillingness to look sober at him and the things around, to make reasonable estimates – is a guarantee that we will trigger the backlash of populism and will not reach anything”.

The main question is what is next to come? Will Saakashvili be able to capitalise on his political influence and enter Ukrainian politics with a strong political party? Or maybe his personal ambitions and desire to fight against everybody will prevent any constructive changes? In July 2016, Saakashvili’s fellows announced the creation of the new political party – Hvylya. However, for the moment it is only an initiative and Saakashvili’s leadership is not guaranteed. Especially given the fact that right after his resignation the governor announced the creation of the Platform of New Forces political movement. While initially there were rumours that Saakashvili would join forces with the young reformers, such as Mustafa Nayem, Sergey Leschenko and Vasyl Gatsko, they turned out to be false when in July 2016 the new DemAlliance party was founded without the former governor. The reason for his absence in the new movement might have been his prolonged bargaining with president Poroshenko’s administration. Thus, only time will tell what is next for both Ukraine and Mikheil Saakashvili.  

Hanna Shelest, PhD, is the editor-in-chief of Ukraine Analytica, board member at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” and the head of the board of the NGO “Promotion of Intercultural Cooperation”. 

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