The Unlikely Political Return of Putin’s Nemesis

After standing up to the Russian leader as Georgia’s mercurial president, Mikhail Saakashvili is back in the region as governor of Odessa – once more confronting his old enemy, and citing an Israeli role model.

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Mikhail Saakashvili (second from left) with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko (left) in Odessa, May 30, 2015.
Mikhail Saakashvili (second from left) with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko (left) in Odessa, May 30, 2015.Credit: AP

Mikhail Saakashvili rushes through Odessa like a triathlete. One moment he’s by the Black Sea, promising to end corruption in the port that has been controlled by organized crime groups since the days of the Russian Czar. Next he’s riding a bicycle to a country-style restaurant, where he holds court for visiting businessmen. Later, as he relaxes with a cup of tea in his new governor’s office, he’s changed into a slightly soiled T-shirt which strains over the pounds he put on over the last two years of exile in the United States. At 47, the former president of Georgia is enjoying his bizarre comeback to the political scene of another country.

Two months after his surprise appointment by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, he’s acting like he has little time to rebuild the pugnacious and mercurial, sleaze-busting and reforming image he once had, back in the days of Georgia’s Rose Revolution which brought him to power in January 2004.

He waves at the drab, Soviet-style decor of the governor’s office, declaiming in his swift, fluent but heavily accented English. “In this building, we have 800 people working. But we don’t need more than a third of them – and even they should be replaced by new people, because these walls by themselves turn new people into useless bureaucrats,” he declares.

Saakashvili quickly rattles off a list of planned reforms, all of which include the immediate removal of hundreds of entrenched officials and their replacement by people “without prior government experience, most of them Western-educated.” Asked whether he’s not concerned with the resentment of those he plans to fire, Saakashvili fires back “I don’t care what they think because I’m not looking for popularity; I’m not running for office in Ukraine.” But what does Saakashvili want? Did he just tire quickly of life as an academic in the United States and, yearning for politics, accept a regional governorship? Is this, as some Ukrainians believe, the first step in a wider plan by President Poroshenko to replace his government with a team of superstars from abroad, none of whom are beholden to the oligarchs still clinging to power? And perhaps Saakashvili, who was once Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent enemy, couldn’t resist the urge to come back for another fight in, of all places, Odessa – the most Russian of Ukrainian cities and the strategic port where many have expected Putin’s next hammerblow to fall.

“Crazy things happen in Ukraine,” laughs one local resident, who can’t explain what Saakashvili is doing in town but is enjoying the ride.

The last time I met Saakashvili was almost exactly seven years ago, at a midnight press conference in Tbilisi at the height of the Russia-Georgian war. The embattled president had summoned the Israeli correspondents covering the war in an effort to show that, despite the invasion and the suspension of Israeli military assistance (after Russian pressure), his government was holding on. At that point, his own personal survival – let alone that of his administration – seemed tenuous, to say the least. Russia had responded ferociously to the Georgian army’s attempt to recapture part of the breakaway region of South Ossetia from pro-Russian separatists, invading Georgia with large forces, pushing deep inland. At that point, the Russian armored column was just 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Tbilisi and Saakashvili’s days looked numbered.

But he held on. While the Russians tore away a chunk of Georgian territory, Saakashvili remained in power for five more years. However, some of the shine of the dashing young politician, president at age 36, had dimmed. Despite periodic demonstrations over his increasingly authoritarian style of governance and the defeat of his party in parliamentary elections in 2012, he saw out his second term before leaving Georgia in 2013. He is on trial now, in absentia, for abuse of power but insists, “No one can touch me with a finger, because I have a huge party and lots of followers who will make sure I’m safe. But I don’t want to make trouble in Georgia.”

Poroshenko, who knows Saakashvili from their student days in Kiev in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, offered him a number of posts in the past, including first deputy prime minister. So why become governor? “Odessa is the most important region now for Ukraine in terms of challenges and danger, but also with huge potential,” he says. “I like big risks, but I also like opportunities.” And yes, it’s also about the man leading the neighboring country which has annexed Crimea from Ukraine and invaded the Donbass region in the east.

“Putin is very nervous,” claims Saakashvili, “because Odessa is the biggest Russian-speaking region and all his myths about me being the number one Russia-hater have totally collapsed. I not only don’t have any problem with Russian language or culture, but I think this is a very important heritage. There are three big heritages here – Russian, Jewish and Ukrainian – and they are all intertwined here. This kind of multiethnic culture is very comfortable for me, and this kills all Putin’s myths about the fact that Ukrainians are Russia-haters and that I am the number one Russia-hater imported by Ukraine to hate Russians even more.”

Saakashvili intends to make Odessa the first step in Westernizing Ukraine. Just as he claims to have already done in his homeland. “Georgia was the first country to emerge from post-Soviet chaos as a successful nation after the Baltic states, which were already European. Georgia was the most modernized, with the most open economy, and that’s what made Putin very nervous. That Georgia – which was considered the most hopeless, most corrupt, most criminal, most chaotic place – could be become a proper place, then imagine what Ukraine could become with proper reforms. For Putin, it’s an ideological fight. It’s not about territory, it’s an ideological way of life – if someone succeeds and is no longer Soviet.”

Saakashvili’s 10 years as Georgian leader was a mixed record. He undoubtedly succeeded in reforming the country’s governance and bringing it into the Western world’s orbit, though he failed to realize his ambition of having it accepted to the European Union and NATO. There are those who say he didn’t go far enough with reforms and needlessly provoked Russia. Today, Georgia is ruled by a coalition backed by its own Russia-connected oligarch, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. But Saakashvili insists Georgia “is the most modern success case – not just in the region but in the world, by all the benchmarks. Everyone recognizes it.”

He disagrees with the verdict that he lost the war to Russia. “What’s the military result? Controlling 20 more villages than they controlled before? They are a superpower that bombs us with planes. I think what is important is that Georgia stayed true to its democracy. Of course, in democracy you also get rid of your government, but that’s another way how Georgia proves itself.”

‘Accessible to the people’

Saakashvili is the kind of politician who can turn losing an election into a virtue. “I’m the only post-Soviet leader who served two full terms and then had a peaceful transition of power. Nobody else in the post-Soviet world did that.” And now he’s back in the driving seat as governor, he rushes around Odessa with only a couple of bodyguards, oblivious to the threat of Russian assassins and the local crime gangs. “My main strength is that I’m accessible for the people – if I lose that, then I lose everything. I take rides quite often on buses, I go on foot – I just biked for 45 minutes alone. If people want to harm me, they’ll do it anyway.”

The scale of Saakashvili’s task in Odessa is evident to any casual visitor. Elegant buildings in the old center of the city, in the quarters built in the 19th century by Italian, French and Greek merchants, are crumbling. Corrupt landowners prefer to wait for them to topple down and build a “business center,” instead of renovating them. On the waterfront, opposite the iconic Potemkin Steps, the new Odessa Hotel stands empty – a symbol to the rapaciousness of developers who defied city regulations of building high but were foiled when the structure, built on unsteady foundations, cracked under its own weight. The port nearby, once the source of Odessa’s riches, is half-empty, a result of the crippling corruption and ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.

With its history, architecture, hospitable climate and beaches, Odessa could have been both a top commercial and tourist destination. Instead, one of the main sources of income are its beautiful women, with local businessmen ruefully admitting, “We are the sex capital of the world.” Little has changed since the days of Isaac Babel, one of the city’s most celebrated literary sons, who in his “Odessa Tales” wrote of the Jewish gangsters who dominated life there in the early 20th century. The gangs haven’t gone away, some of them even still Jewish, and they run most of the city’s lucrative businesses, plus smuggling, narcotics and prostitution.

Earlier this week, Saakashvili unveiled an ambitious plan to totally replace both the customs authority at the port and the leadership of the city’s police force. Expectations are high, but so is skepticism. “Saakashvili is like a breath of fresh air in the corrupt climate,” says Alex Kuleshov, a local businessman and social entrepreneur. “Maybe he’ll [lead] a revolution here like he did in Georgia. We have a group of crooks here who won’t change. The worry is that he will make a change, then leave and the old group will get back in with a vengeance.”

“Saakashvili brought in concepts that are unimaginable,” says Vladislav Davidzon, a Russian-American journalist based in Odessa. “Ideas out of the realm of possibility – like having a clean port and police without corruption. It may not happen, but at least we’re speaking about it.” Mykhailo Shmushykovych, chairman of the Odessa Regional Council, admits the region was always “very tolerant of corruption, even more than the rest of Ukraine. It’s accepted that people can make money from politics. The corruption and the money coming from Russia stops development. All the previous governors from Kiev adapted to the situation. Saakashvili is the first governor who can say no to Kiev and do something about the corruption.”

The governor says it’s not only up to him. “The main problem in Ukraine is that all the leaders haven’t changed in 25 years. Foreigners like me coming in is just a transitional period to make an opening for new Ukrainians – and lots are coming back from abroad. Now we’re recruiting lots of young people with a Western education. What unites them is they haven’t been in government service in the past, and that’s the kind of person we need to bring to a new Ukrainian government. You cannot put fresh cucumbers in a box with salted cucumbers; they will become salted themselves.”

But those adding the salt, Ukraine’s oligarchs, are the real threat to any stable government. Saakashvili sees the hand of Putin here as well. “Putin and the oligarchs are very connected. All the corrupt officials tend to be quite pro-Russian – ‘Russian world’ also means organized crime, of course. I don’t mean all Russians – if they emerged from that it would be a different Russia – but this scale of institutionalized corruption exists just in the post-Soviet world.”

The other threat in the east

Not all Ukrainian oligarchs are pro-Putin, however. The oligarch most troubling President Poroshenko right now is Igor Kolomoisky, the man he appointed last year as governor to another troublesome region – Dnipropetrovsk, the main industrial city in the east. Kolomoisky, the third-richest man in Ukraine, owns extensive mining, industrial and banking interests, as well as the national airline and a popular television channel. He has poured millions into building up the security forces in his region, ruthlessly beating back the pro-Russian separatists with bounties and bloodcurdling threats. But while his operations in the east have won him admirers, he has also emerged as one of the country’s main power brokers, wielding his own armed battalions that don’t accept orders from the government.

Poroshenko has tried, without success, to remove him from the governorship and many are now referring to Kolomoisky as a major threat to the president. Kolomoisky is also one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in Ukraine, having built the largest Jewish Community Center (JCC) in the world in Dnipropetrovsk and at the same time forged alliances with the nationalist far-right movements – which, at least until very recently, were tainted by anti-Semitism.

Saakashvili’s appointment is widely seen as a move by Poroshenko to counter Kolomoisky’s influence. He replaced the former governor, Igor Palytsia, another oligarch and an ally of Kolomoisky’s. “The problem in this country is oligarchs of all kinds of origin,” says Saakashvili. “Some of them are Jewish, but most of them are not Jewish. The problem is, they think they’re above the law. It’s a problem from the post-Soviet past – weak state, weak institutions and officials paid by the oligarchs, and the government can’t perform its basic functions because the oligarchs bribe them to not pay their taxes and they control the engines of the economy.

“I don’t think Kolomoisky’s Jewishness is any defense for what he is doing,” he continues. “Obviously, there are a lot of prominent Jews in Ukraine still, and I’ve seen the Jewish center he’s built in Dnipropetrovsk and it’s very impressive. I give him credit for that. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t pay taxes. Not only Jews are grateful to Kolomoisky for putting Dnipro on the map, but it’s not about being Jews or not Jews – it’s about being law-abiding.”

Odessa, of course, was one of the main Jewish hubs of Europe. In the early 20th century, nearly half its population was Jewish. At one stage, nearly 250,000 Jews are estimated to have lived there, and they were an integral part of the city’s cultural and commercial life. It was also the birthplace of some of the early Zionist pioneers, including Ze’ev Jabotinsky, while Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, spent his early adulthood there. Today, an estimated 30,000 people of Jewish origin live in Odessa, but only around 10 percent of them are affiliated with the local community.

Saakashvili, who enjoyed close ties with the Jewish community back in Georgia, believes Odessa’s Jewish past also offers hope for its future. “Odessa is one of the places where Zionism was born, and it’s a real pity not many Jews are left here these days – but their spirit is here. The amazing thing is that even when the Jews leave, their spirit remains. We are close to Israel for all the historical reasons, this Jewish experience in literature, culture and music – it’s in every café in Odessa.”

Golda and Ben-Gurion

In August he will visit Israel, where he'll participate in an investors’ conference. He hopes to attract Israeli businesspeople – particularly those with roots in Odessa – to come back and invest, and help build both a high-tech industry and advanced agricultural ventures. “Lots of Israeli high-tech people came from this part of the world, and some of them want to come back to drink the beautiful wine and enjoy the wonderful climate and outsource to here. We will create conditions for startups.” Saakashvili claims not to be annoyed at the way Israel bowed to Putin’s demand in 2008 and withdrew all its military advisers at the start of the war. “Israel is a small country fighting for its survival and it has big issues,” he notes. “When you’re a small country fighting for existential issues, no one has a right to reprimand you for being flexible. It’s not the United States of America or another large power.” He also doesn’t think Israel should take sides in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. “You have big problems – you have Iranians and other issues to worry about. I don’t think Ukraine is waiting to get anything from Israel. I can tell you that on the front [in Donbass], there are some individual Israelis who fight and are very brave. Their fighting spirit is here, and I feel very proud for that.”

Saakashvili credits himself as being one of the “very few people who has had the privilege of being part of the process of creating new nation-states. What Golda Meir and Ben-Gurion did, we did in Georgia – and I always took Ben-Gurion as my role model. Now we are doing with my friends in Ukraine what we did in Georgia 15 years ago.”

Both these nation states are overshadowed by Putin’s Russia, but Saakashvili is certain he’ll see his rival’s downfall in the not-too-distant future. “If Ukraine persists and we hold on for another year, which I think we will, then within the next two years Putin’s regime will start to disintegrate. He put too much stake on killing the Ukrainian state – he really went too far and he can’t retract his own promises. His promise is basically that Ukraine won’t exist. And because he can’t achieve it, after a while Russians will ask more and more questions. There will be major chaos – not because Putin will be gone from power, but because Russia has no political class. Russia doesn’t have a single point which you can rely on.

“Putin has killed every possible heir and you don’t have a dynastic system to follow him – absolute power without an heir is big trouble, and Russia doesn’t have system of choosing new leaders,” says Saakashvili. “He crossed every line, he said he doesn’t respect national borders. And when the Russian state will collapse, no one will respect Russia’s borders, either. He has internal separatists who are quite strong – separatists in the Caucasus that will for sure break away; separatists in Tatarstan; in the Far East; and in Kaliningrad. And there will be this issue with occupied territories: there is no way he can hold territories in Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova. He rolled here and they will be rolled back. I think the world should be prepared for this, because there will be an issue with what happens with the nuclear weapons and the general chaos. The problem is that people have always been reacting to Russia, they have not really learned the lesson.”

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