Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv -
The surprising decision by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to appoint former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili to the position of governor of Odesa region will inevitably be a new irritant in relations between the government in Kyiv and the Kremlin. Even more importantly, Saakashvili’s passion for tough measures could bring destabilisation to the region instead of the urgently needed reforms. However, this appointment seems to part of a long, complicated game being played by Poroshenko.
Visiting Odesa on May 30 with the aim of introducing Saakashvili, Poroshenko called the city “a pearl of Ukraine” with enormous untapped potential. “That is why Odesa is a special target for the [Russian] aggressor. Odesa must unite as Ukraine did. And the right words must be found for everybody [in this multicultural region],” he said.
This speech clearly indicates the main problem that the 47-year-old Saakashvili will face in the course of the next weeks and months. The Black Sea region, where 20% of the population identifies as Russian and up to 18% as non-Ukrainian, harbours strong anti-Kyiv sentiments.
Last year, on May 2, more than 40 pro-Russian protesters died as a result of being trapped in a trade union building in Odesa that caught fire. It is still unclear who was responsible for these events, and both sides blame each other. This year, on the anniversary of the tragedy, the government significantly boosted the law enforcement and military presence in Odesa in order to try to prevent possible riots.
However, the separatist mood is declining in the region, according to Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based think-tank Penta Political Centre. “Lots of people are dissatisfied with the central authorities, but most Odesa residents have no desire to take to the streets and provoke a similar war to that in the Donbas,” Fesenko tells bne IntelliNews.
On the other hand, the big question is how effective Saakashvili’s reforms will actually be given that he has limited power, whereas in Georgia he solved many problems through imprisonments. “For Mr Saakashvilli, institutional resistance there may very well be far greater than the powers invested in him as Governor can address," prominent Odesa blogger Nikolai Holmov writes.
Poroshenko has expressed a desire to see in Ukraine a war against corruption and injustice, economic reforms, as well as the introduction of more decentralisation. “Challenging times require strong and decisive actions. Every citizen expects that the government will be able to overcome the problems that have for years prevented Ukraine, including Odesa region, from achieving its potential,” Poroshenko said on May 30.
Chasing the Kremlin
Fesenko, like some others, is optimistic about the appointment. He believes that the new governor needs to show “decisiveness and toughness” rather than “flexibility”. “That's why [Saakashvili] was appointed. In Ukraine, especially in complicated areas, decisiveness and toughness are more efficient than flexibility and dogovorniak [a Russian and Ukrainian word for an informal agreement made between parties through negotiation],” Fesenko says.
One party that is definitely disappointed by the appointment of a well-known rival of the Kremlin is the Moscow political elite. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, already published this caustic comment on Twitter on May 30: “When the circus comes to town... Poor Ukraine.”
The second part of this message was posted on Medvedev’s Russian account in Ukrainian, and swiftly triggered a sarcastic reaction in Kyiv. “Who else should be appointed in Ukraine in order for [Russia’s] prime minister to tweet exclusively in Ukrainian?” Dmytro Kuleba, a special envoy of Ukraine's foreign ministry, wrote on his personal Twitter account.
In 2008, Saakashvili, who was the Georgian president at the time, clashed with the Kremlin in a brief military conflict after Tbilisi had attempted to reestablish its rule over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions. After the conflict, Russia recognised the independence of these territories, triggering a tough political reaction in Tbilisi as well as in Western capitals. Currently, South Ossetia and Abkhazia rely on Russia’s financial support.
The appointment of Saakashvili has also provoked a nervous reaction from Ukraine’s oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. The appointment is a painful blow to his interests as the previous governor of Odesa region, Ihor Palytsia, was considered close to Kolomoisky.
The pro-Kyiv Palytsia was appointed in May 2014 by then-interim-president Oleksandr Turchynov, shortly after the incident in which the protesters were killed in Odesa. The move was an attempt by the Kyiv authorities to end the pro-Russian uprising in the region. Indeed, Palytsia contributed to a stabilisation of the situation in Odesa. “It made it possible for Kolomoisky to act as a stabiliser during the specific period. But his ambitions seriously increased and, as a result, the government decided to reduce his impact by dismissing him from his post as governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region,” Fesenko says, referring to Poroshenko's firing of Kolomoisky in March during an escalating conflict over the oligarch’s business interests in Ukraine’s oil and gas companies Ukrnafta and Ukrtransnafta.
Kolomoisky hasn't tried to hide his disappointment at Poroshenko’s decision to hire Saakashvili. “I’m surprised. I think he will be a temporary figure,” the oligarch told Ukrainian website LB.ua on May 29, adding emotionally that Saakashvili “will hand over Odesa to the Russians, and [Ukraine] will be forced to fight to get it back.”
“By the way, what is his citizenship? American, Georgian, Dutch, and he now also needs to take up Ukrainian citizenship,” added Kolomoisky, who previously told journalists that he held Ukrainian, Israeli and Cypriot passports. “He [Saakashvili] probably surpasses me.”
Poroshenko granted Ukrainian citizenship to Saakashvili on the eve of his appointment as a governor, and this move has already triggered a wave of speculation in Tbilisi regarding Saakashvili’s political future in Georgia. “Ukrainian citizenship may act as a reason for depriving Saakashvili of Georgian citizenship. Lawyers say that losing Georgian citizenship will prohibit Saakashvili from undertaking political activities in Georgia,” Georgian TV Channel One reports.
Previously, in 2014, a court in Georgia issued an arrest warrant for Saakashvili in relation to a charge of abuse of power. The former president claimed this act was politically motivated.
Kolomoisky’s belief that Saakashvili’s post in will be temporary appears to be shared by many experts in Kyiv. However, they clarify that the post of governor could become a platform for Saakashvili’s triumphant appearance in Kyiv either as prime minister or as a key figure of a government that would be more favourable to Poroshenko. “If Saakashvili's activities in Odesa are successful enough, he may be needed in Kyiv. Today, there is a vacancy for a main reformer, a driver of reforms in Ukraine. Ukraine’s politics lacks strong energy,” Fesenko believes.
Some believe that the Ukrainian government will be reshuffled in the autumn, and Saakashvili could theoretically take up the post of prime minister. However, the fact that Saakashvili would be another foreigner in the cabinet – the finance minister is American and the economy minister Lithuanian – could pose difficulties; too many might provoke a negative reaction from society, Fesenko says.
On the other hand, politicians and experts in Kyiv are actively discussing some other possible figures for the position of prime minister. The US-born financial chief Natalie Jaresko is one of the leading candidates.
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