At first sight it seemed an improbable appointment: a man who had served twice as president of neighbouring Georgia, parachuted in as governor of a single region of Ukraine. But for the government in Kiev, beset in the east by pro-Russian rebels, and facing entrenched corruption and an array of powerful oligarchs elsewhere, it was an obvious choice.
Two months later, Mikheil Saakashvili, exiled from the country he once ran, is settling into his new role as governor of Odessa – not just the Black Sea port city with its population of one million, but the wider and strategically crucial region around it.
He has embarked on a string of dramatic reforms on whose success, he believes, the future of the region, with its large Russian speaking and perhaps Moscow leaning minority, depends. And he will be reminding anyone who will listen that among the greatest threats, not just to Ukraine but to a wide swathe of eastern Europe, is the Russian president, Vladmir Putin.
While the two presidents were initially on good terms when Saakashvili emerged victor of the Rose revolution of 2003, things turned sour quickly.
“Putin does not respect national borders and he will push everywhere,” he said, speaking with bitter experience of a man whose own country went to war with Russia in 2008, but was unable to prevent the seizure of two pro-Russian enclaves, now effectively lost from Georgia’s national territory.
“I predicted that Ukraine would be next in 2008, and that the Baltics would be next,” he said. He believes his prescience at that time means that people should pay attention to what he thinks now.
“There is no way that they will not go to the Baltics next. There is no way that they will not revisit Georgia or Azerbaijan. Putin is obsessed with the idea of testing Nato – this was clear in my long conversations with him.
“Putin said three major things. One, we will make Georgia like Northern Cyprus. The second was that Ukraine was not a country but a territory. And the third thing was that the Baltic countries were not defendable. He said all these things, until we were no longer on talking terms.”
Mr Saakashvili was speaking to The Independent in one of his first interviews with a western newspaper since he was appointed governor of Odessa by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko at the end of May – one day after he voluntarily gave up his Georgian citizenship and assumed Ukrainian nationality.
He made an immediate impression within days of his appointment. He was seen publicly haranguing local prosecutors for running “racketeering schemes” against local businessmen; the video of this performance was watched by millions. Later, he took aim at air regulators, declaring a new open skies policy above Odessa.
“Oligarchs can have their airlines, but they can’t expect me to let them have a monopoly,” he said. Few missed the thinly veiled reference to Igor Kolomoisky, rival and major shareholder in the national flag carrier, Ukraine International, and leading player in the Odessa port.
Sitting in his office on the fifth floor of the Odessa regional government administration building, on the edge of the city centre, he talked in detail about the challenge he faces to overcome the culture of corruption, mafia and powerful oligarchs that have become entrenched in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He says he is not afraid of threats against him personally. “I am the only person still walking who Putin has menaced to kill,” he said, speaking in English. But he does believe that the Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all of which, like Georgia and Ukraine, were once part of the Soviet Union – should increase their defences urgently.
“Putin asked whether Lithuanian president Adamkus really [thought] two or three scrap metal planes from Nato [could] defend him,” recalled Mr Saakashvili, then recounted the Russian president’s chilling next remarks: “We are laughing at this equipment. Does he really think Nato will fight for the Balts?”
Tensions in Odessa were running high after 42 mostly pro-Russian demonstrators were burned to death when a trades union building was set on fire in May last year – an incident that some feared might be used as a pretext by Russia to step in, much as it had when it seized Crimea. Saakashvili has promised further investigations into what happened, and to establish a permanent memorial to those who died.
But his main strategy for making Odessa more secure against any threat from Russia is his drive to eliminate corruption and Odessa’s pervasive mafia – much as he did in Gerogia. While he was president, the country rose to eighth place in ease of doing business indices and his economic achievements were coined the “Georgian miracle” by supporters.
He believes that Putin is nervous about the ideas presented by his Odessa experiment. “Changing the fundamental economics in a Russian-speaking region gives us a chance to kill corruption and undermine the whole of the Putin story,” he said. “Putin says only brutal force can hold post-Soviet countries together. A reformed, thriving, Odessa would challenge that.”
He has no doubt about who his enemies are. Who are Putin’s closest allies? “I would say corrupt officials. Corrupt officials in Ukraine are naturally anti-Western. Usually when you talk to corrupt policemen or customs officers, they are very angry about Americans and they are naturally soft on the Russians.
“And that has been my experience all the way through. On the other hand, if you look at the younger generation, they want cleaner governments and are very much pro-Western.”
The faded resort and port city of Odessa has certainly seen better days. But the energy and direction he and his team of sharp-suited advisers are bringing have led many to believe that the whole of Ukraine’s faltering reform programme might just be jump-started here.
And following initial bewilderment at the appointment, many Odessa residents and foreign investors have begun to hope in the new governor. “He’s over the top”, says American investor Theadeus Worlff. “But I think that’s what this place needs. It’s a clash of civilisations, and we need a larger than life character.”
Saakashvili seems happy to fulfil that role. “Putin doesn’t like me or people like me,” he said. “We defied Putin’s understanding of what the post-Soviet world was to be.” Under his watch in Georgia, he says, there were “many times less criminality than in Russia” and it was the least corrupt country in the region. “All these things make him nervous. And I think that’s he’s still very worried about Ukraine. Because if Ukraine makes it, everything built around him will collapse.”
South Ossetia: Cause for concern
In November last year, when residents of the disputed east of Ukraine voted in favour of a pro-Russian leader, the poll was widely denounced as a “farce”. There was, however, one region to recognise the result – breakaway South Ossetia, on the Russian border with Georgia.
Mikheil Saakashvili, enemy of Vladimir Putin who did much to implant democracy in Georgia, left the country in June, claiming he faced “guaranteed imprisonment”.
Mr Saakashvili, who has been accused of abuses of power, was given sanctuary by Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, who in turn appointed him governor of Odessa.
Georgia says Russian forces in South Ossetia have pushed the de facto border nearly half a mile into its territory. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said he is “concerned” about recent activity in South Ossetia.
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