As widely expected in the past couple of months, Mikheil Saakashvili, former Georgian president turned Ukrainian district governor of Odessa, has resigned from his post. In a press conference on November 8, Saakashvili lashed out against his onetime patron, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, leveling some of his most direct criticism against the national government to date. “What difference for Ukrainians does it make who will treat them like dirt – Poroshenko or Yanukovych?” Saakashvili reportedly blasted. “What difference does it make who steals from them?”
Saakashvili’s indignation trained at Poroshenko is only the culmination of over a year and a half of metastasizing tensions between the Ukrainian chief executive and his handpicked Georgian proconsul. As Saakashvili became visibly frustrated with his inability to appreciably move the needle on corruption-busting and reforms in Odessa, he increasingly blamed the national government in Kyiv for failing to provide him with the resources or political capital to push his policy agenda in the cosmopolitan and corruption-riddled seaside metropolis. While a variety of interesting theories have been floated over the exact rationale for Saakashvili’s abrupt resignation, it is probably likeliest that the former Georgian president’s escalating feud with Kyiv meant that his days were almost certainly numbered.
Indeed, between “Misha’s” cratering relationship with Poroshenko and his promises ahead of October parliamentary elections in Georgia to return to the country of his birth following an “inevitable” victory of the United National Movement (UNM) party he founded, suggests the writing was already on the wall. More likely than not, Saakashvili’s resignation was not exactly voluntary, which would go some way to explaining the Odessa governor’s volte face from his happy warrior enthusiasm for Ukraine to aspirations to higher office in Kyiv back to mulling a prodigal return to Georgia. The idea of returning to Georgia on the back of a resounding UNM victory – whether through the election or an extra-constitutional struggle – may have seemed far more appealing to Saakashvili than the slog of Odessa’s uphill reform effort.
But things in Georgia did not go as planned. The UNM lost in Georgia’s parliamentary elections by a landslide to the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. Saakashvili and some of his closest allies in Georgia dubiously claimed to have been robbed of victory by fraud and violence, contra the generally positive assessments from nearly every independent local and international observation groups, and the UNM seemed for a period to be genuinely mulling the possibility of boycotting majoritarian runoff elections. Worse, evidence mounted that the UNM hoped to lean on positively-spun exit polling to stage violent post-election confrontations in the hope of sparking a “second Rose Revolution”. But the UNM, seeing no realistic avenues to power, eventually acceded to the political reality of its defeat, and Saakashvili’s promises to return to Georgia victorious were found hollow and ultimately wanting.
With his position in Odessa increasingly tenuous and Georgia still closed off to him, Saakashvili’s options have narrowed considerably. He has long since exhausted his mysterious reservoirs of goodwill with many of his Western backers, and the Odessa experience appears to cast a pall on the authenticity of his reputed state-building talents. The Georgian electorate demonstrably has little appetite for his return, and even the Georgian political party he founded is beginning to second-guess the wisdom of his continued informal leadership.
What’s left for Saakashvili? With his options of first resort no longer in the offing, Misha has chosen the last remaining road available to him: Ukrainian national politics. In many ways, this is an arena in which Saakashvili feels comfortable; it’s the ideal space for his unique blend of policy populism, bare-knuckled rhetorical sparring, faux-dissident posturing – and fits his long-cultivated white knight personal narrative. It also happens to be the greater prize for Saakashvili, whom almost certainly aspires to the highest echelons of Ukrainian politics, and would greatly prefer the power and trappings of the premiership in Kyiv to balmy Odessa’s bruising politics or Georgia’s thankless rejection of his tenure in power.
For many outside observers, Saakashvili’s turn to Ukrainian national politics – driven by his departure from his position in Odessa and continued exile from Georgia – may smack of desperation wrought by failure. But for Misha, his narrowed path to whatever comes next will probably seem more providential than pragmatic. A politician whose even most casual political statements are frequently laced with paeans to greatness and destiny, Saakashvili will regard his new thrust into the unknown with a sense of gusto and adventure.
Odessa the model
However, even if Saakashvili no longer concerns himself with the fate of Odessa, his relatively brief stint there will likely hang about him like a millstone. On the whole, his performance as governor will likely be seen as mixed – a few notable reforms, if more incremental than earth-shattering, but leaven with a distinct sense of disappointment. Misha was never able to live up to his habitually lofty rhetoric nor assemble the necessary local political consensus to push through more far-reaching, fundamental reforms, much less turn Odessa into the Black Sea “capital” as he once promised.
But Odessa’s more nagging indictment of Saakashvili is not any particular reform left undone or incomplete so much as the uncertainty of the enterprise as a whole. As expected, Odessa’s inherent complexity and Saakashvili’s more limited resources proved an obstacle too stout for the former Georgian president, who came into the role with his state-building bona fides still largely (if not necessarily entirely fairly) intact. In Georgia, perhaps by virtue of comprehensive control over the organs of state power, the media, and the wider communications narrative, Misha’s reforms were telegraphed internationally as straightforward, efficient and successful, full stop. Yet, that the UNM was unceremoniously dumped from power at the first genuine opportunity in 2012, Saakashvili pushed into exile and the UNM repeatedly thrashed in free elections was somehow often conveniently forgotten or ignored by outsiders examining Saakashvili’s record at the helm.
Thrust into Odessa’s daunting confines without the benefit of post-Rose Revolution political capital, full control over the chief levers of the state, or the fawning generosity of Western boosters, Saakashvili was quickly overwhelmed and locked into the morass of competing local interests.
No doubt, Saakashvili and his backers will claim that any of his admitted shortfalls in Odessa would have been bridgeable with more power, more money and the like. But what the Odessa gambit revealed about Saakashvili was that, in a competitive, relatively democratic space, Saakashvili’s abilities as an administrator were found to be rather ordinary. Short of reclaiming the autocratic powers he happily exercised in Georgia, Misha’s plans for higher office in Ukraine would almost certainly fare no better at the national level. If he could not make it work in Odessa, why should voters think that he would do better as prime minister, where the complications and competition is only greater, and not less?
For the average Ukrainian voter, an extended consideration of Saakashvili’s prospective candidacy would yield few benefits. With nothing in the way of a natural power base, a record of success that is at best mixed, and a reputation as a lightning rod for Russian antipathy, how does Saakashvili’s potential political movement stand out from the rest? In all likelihood, the answer is that it does not. Ukrainian voters may very well be looking for a change from Poroshenko’s extended unpopularity, but Saakashvili’s mooted political alternative provides few reasons for hope.
Saakashvili may be able to attract some manner of support on the mere basis of his residual novelty, but it would be unlikely to bring him to power without the kind of horse-trading and coalition building that has so eluded him in Georgia and Odessa. And even if he were able to find common cause with other groups at the national level, one might wonder if the first compromises he makes aren’t at the expense of personal ambitions, but the interests of Ukraine. For better or worse, Saakashvili was never bound to go quietly into the night, and Ukraine will now have the chance to see what this will mean for their still beleaguered and embattled country.
Michael Cecire is an International Security Fellow at New America, a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the Colchis columnist. He is an international relations analyst focusing on Eurasia and a former economic development practitioner. Follow him on @mhikaric.