This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


How is the Odessan Saakashvili experiment shaping up?

Odesa is a major destination these days and it features prominently in the international media. The reason, of course, is because Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president, is now the governor of the region. People flock to Odesa these days to see if a reform miracle (like the one carried out in Georgia) is actually taking place.

ECFR's Wider Europe Forum is a platform for outside experts and analysts on Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Partnership countries

To say that Saakashvili is a polarising figure would be an understatement. His appointment to  governor was met with a wide array of reactions, ranging from utter puzzlement and predictions of dramatic failure, to a sort of euphoria.

The “euphoria” camp has drawn its enthusiasm primarily from Saakashvili’s presumed reformist credentials from his time as president of Georgia. The expectation is for him to wave his “magic wand” and repeat the trick all over again, but this time in a new land. Many were also happy to welcome Saakashvili was because he was new to the Ukrainian political landscape, and was not attached to any oligarchs, or financial and political groups. The appointment of Saakashvili was therefore understood as a bold, smart and unconventional move by president Poroshenko.

Some skeptics have wondered why it wasn’t possible to appoint a new governor from among Ukraine’s 45 million population. Others have expressed their fear that the appointment could endanger the fragile peace in Odesa (leading to new cases of violence akin to the tragic events of 2 May 2014, in which 48 people lost their lives in clashes between pro-Russian activists and supporters of a unified Ukraine). People have questioned how the new governor will manage relations with the sizeable pro-Russian segment of population. Is Saakashvili’s governorship too much of a direct affront to local Russian sympathisers (indeed, the Russian view of Saakashvili has been clear since the Russia-Georgia war back in 2008). Is it not too risky to have a person like Saakshavili ruling next door to Transnistria (the Russia-supported separatist region to the north-west of Odesa)?

Some have also postulated that the results of Saakshavili’s rule in Georgia have been mixed. Yes, he initiated ambitious systemic reforms, which produced some concrete results, but these reforms were derailed at a certain point and Saakshavili’s rule became more authoritarian. This is one of the key reasons that reforms in Georgia stalled and Saakshavili failed to win another term. While claims of Saakshavili’s creeping authoritarianism are accepted amongst reputed Georgia-watchers, few in Ukraine view his time in Georgia the same way. Rather, Saakashvili is understood by many in Ukraine as the ultimate reformer.

There is very little scope for Saakashvili to be authoritarian in Ukraine. He is bound by a whole bunch of other influential players who limit his power. Among them Odesa’s mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov, the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi (who sees Odessa as his sphere of influence, and whose business associate Ihor Palytsia was governor before Saakashvili), Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the prime minister of Ukraine, and a whole variety of national government agencies. The region is also full of people who achieved their positions in society before Saakashvili arrived on the scene and who, to put it mildly, might not share his ideology and taste for reforms. In other words, Saakashvili was never slated for a streamlined and largely unaccountable governorship.

It is important to note that the governors in Ukraine are not elected but instead appointed by the president. This means that Saakashvili cannot claim the support of a loyal electoral base in the same way as in a regular election. Rather, he is at the mercy of the president. Furthermore, under the current constitutional arrangement in force in Ukraine, the president does not control the entire government, and most ministers do not report to the president. So, while Saakashvili has some supporters within the executive branch, he also, as it soon was discovered, has some who are not so enthusiastic about him. This has led to his very public clash with the prime minister over Ukraine’s proposed reforms. Yet, Saakashvili has direct access to the president and enjoys his full support which should not be discarded as a factor helping him to proceed with reforms. This also means, among other things, that Saakashvili’s actions in Odesa are not really a model for other regions of Ukraine, given his unique status among governors.

Saakashvili is known for his open, outgoing and impulsive personality and so is the city of Odesa. There is a match in character here between the city and its governor. Odessans liked Saakashvili’s new and transparent way of doing business, with the governor himself coming out to communicate with people directly. In the case of his predecessors, public appearances were highly formal, scripted and infrequent. This new style of public engagement has changed the atmosphere in the region, and unleashed more public activism (even though much was already in place since Euromaidan and the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas). People were made to believe that their voices and ideas matter. Saakashvili is an inspiring orator and his PR operation is incredibly effective. Unlike the central government of Ukraine, whose many steps and actions often remain unknown to the public, Saakashvili is all about bombarding the residents with information about his activities. His constant promises to make Odesa great again and to turn it into the centre of the entire Black Sea region have resonated with Odessans. The governor’s rhetoric has bought him supporters, even among those who were at first sceptical about his appointment. Amongst the sceptics are presumably some pro-Russian sympathisers, because no Odessan in his right mind would be against making Odesa great again. One of the governor’s first actions was to grant public access to a number of beaches on the sea-front which were previously blocked off by the fences of private villas.

Many of the governor’s initiatives are still works in progress it is too early to say what their outcomes and implications might be. For instance, the Odesa airport “open skies” project that he campaigned for is a long way from encouraging various low-cost airlines to enter the regional market. The work to modernise the airport (its terminal, runways and technical equipment) has to be completed first. The governor’s attempt to wrest the region’s ports from the hands of some shady owners might only be properly judged when we eventually see who the new owners are, how effective their management is and how they will contribute to the state budget.

Since coming into power Saakashvili has halved the number of stuff in the regional state administration. This is something that is very popular with the public, but how it will impact the efficacy of the regional government remains to be seen. The attempt to do away with corrupt methods of appointing public officials on the local level is to be commended. Whether the newly appointed heads of administrations on a county level are up to the task, or have the requisite skills for the job, is, again, something that only time will tell.

The most recent appointment amongst these new heads is Yulia Marushevska. Yulia was appointed the head of Odesa regional customs, something that is currently generating a lot of discussion. Altering the corrupt ways of the customs operation would be a Herculean achievement in Ukraine. Appointing someone from outside of the system and the ranks of the customs administration seems like a bold move. However, some question the merits of selecting this particular individual for the job. Is the 26-year-old linguist and Euromaidan activist up to the task? We will see. Successful reform in this realm would be a formidable accomplishment and send a strong message to the rest of the country.

In many ways governor Saakashvili serves as a magnet, generating interest in Odesa and the region. More and more, people are visiting Odesa to see what is going on and how things are changing. Indeed, last summer Odesa’s tourist industry experienced an extraordinary boom. One reason is, of course, the fact that many cannot go to Crimea any more. However, that alone does not explain the dramatic hike in tourist numbers. Increasingly investors are considering coming to Odesa, even though they will probably take their time to see if the current reform programme is successful. Although the outcome of reforms remains to be seen, the eyes of the world are on Odesa and Saakashvili is the major reason for this.

Volodymyr Dubovyk is the director of the Center for International Studies at the I.I. Mechnikov National University in Odesa.

Read more on: Wider Europe Forum

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.