Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the former President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, governor of the region of Odessa in southern Ukraine on Saturday. The announcement came was made at a ceremony in the major Black Sea port of Odessa, in which President Poroshenko further made Saakashvili a Ukrainian citizen and described him as “a great friend of Ukraine”, according to Reuters.
Mikhail Saakashvili was President of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, rising to power at the head of a popular uprising. His presidency was notable for crackdowns on corruption and a gradual rapprochement with the West, AFP writes. This move deteriorated relations with Russia, which reached a low point in 2008 when the two countries fought a brief war over the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
After leaving office in 2013, Saakashvili had to flee Georgia, where he stands accused of abuse of power during his presidency. He himself rejects the accusations, claiming that they are politically motivated. Kiev supported him and rejected Georgian extradition demands in February, while also appointing Saakashvili to an advisory council on reform that same month, CNN reports.
A blow to oligarchs and to Moscow
The somewhat surprising appointment may have various explanations. Several analysts and agencies have suggested that this move is an attempt by Poroshenko’s government to curb clientelism and the power of local oligarchs in the country. Saakashvili’s predecessor, the millionaire Ihor Palytsia, was one of these oligarchs, according to AFP.
While the newly installed governor does speak Ukrainian, he only has limited connections to Ukraine, having studied at the National University in Kiev and briefly served as a Soviet soldier in the Ukrainian capital in the late 1980’s, CNN reports. As a political outsider, he might thus be better suited for the job of fighting local corruption.
Saakashvili’s appointment should further be understood within the broader perspective of Poroshenko’s pro-Western policies. Saakashvili is not the first foreign politician to receive a high position in Ukraine, but merely the most prominent.
The current government of Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk features US-born Natalie Jaresko as Minister of Finance, Lithuanian-born Aivaras Abromavičius as Minister of Economic Development and Trade and even Alexander Kvitashvili, former Georgian Minister of Health under Saakashvili, now heading the equivalent ministry in Ukraine, according to AFP.
These appointments were made by Kiev to cement their ties with Western Europe and further distance themselves from Russia, whom they accused of helping a rebellion in the Donetsk and Lugansk region in the east of the country. Russia has repeatedly denied the accusations, insisting any Russian fighting in Ukraine is a volunteer.
Russian reactions to the appointment of Saakashvili were consequently contemptuous. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called the event a “Chapiteau Show” on Twitter in reference to a circus routine, while Russia Today dubbed the move a “Napoleon attempt”. Foreign ministry official Konstantin Dolgov echoed this criticism on Twitter, pointing to the accusations pending against Saakashvili in Georgia and commenting that “this is deeply symbolic of Kiev’s style of democracy”.
An ungrateful task
Saakashvili is likely to face difficult times as a governor. While Odessa, situated in the southwest of Ukraine, has not been directly affected by the civil war in the east, the majority of the population of the region is ethnically Russian, and tensions between pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainians remain high.
After a major incident in May last year, when more than 40 people, mostly pro-Russians, died in a fire during clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators, the government successfully imposed control; yet a recent string of bombings targeting pro-Ukrainians has increased concern that Russia might be trying to cause unrest in Odessa, AFP reports.
Poroshenko, however, seems confident that his advisor is up to the task. "The people of Odessa should soon feel that their living standards have been raised," he said during the inauguration according to Reuters.