This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum

The former Georgian leader is set to do it his way in Odessa

In August 2008, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said: “The US should make a choice now – either have a partnership with Russia or with the political corpse of Saakashvili.”

Lavrov was not the only one to believe that former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was finished after the August war over South Ossetia. He was not thought likely to survive defeat as most probably he would be toppled by the Georgian opposition sooner rather than later. This was one of the reasons why the Russian troops did not move on Tbilisi – the Georgians were supposed to finish him off themselves.

In 2012, Saakashvili was jeered at by his opponents once again. This time, after his party suffered a humiliating defeat in the parliamentary elections, he was surely politically dead. But it took the corpse just two years to re-emerge – this time in Ukraine as newly-appointed governor of Odessa region - and to stun both his friends and enemies.

So what should we expect from Saakashvili in Odessa?

Saakashvili is someone who would rather be number one in Odessa than number two in Ukraine. He is much more comfortable in Odessa than he was Kyiv. He is now the boss of a wealthy and strategically important region. If he succeeds in reforming Odessa, this might become an example for the whole of Ukraine. But can he do it? He has a good chance of success, at least in the early stages. This is because he will be even more resolute in Odessa than he was in Georgia.

He has learned his Georgian lessons, or rather learned them in his own way.

In Georgia, he started well, but later stumbled. His reforms had costs – some people lost their job, some people were sent to jail, some people just did not like his drive for modernisation, but the reformer did not seem to realise this. As a result, in November 2007 tens of thousands of Georgians rallied against Saakashvili. They were dispersed by force and the TV station which backed them was raided. Georgia’s Western friends were shocked and Saakashvili had to resign. He went on to win the presidential elections again, but this time found life more difficult. After that he had to balance being a democrat and being a reformer. Without being (or at least appearing to be) a democrat, he risked losing Western support and had, therefore, to put up with his critics, the political opposition and the attacks of newspapers. Moreover, he had to tolerate Bidzina Ivanishvili when the latter openly defied him in 2011 (and finally beat him in 2012).

Saakashvili believes that he was not able to finish what he started in Georgia. He may think that this was his fault too, because he was too lenient and allowed his opponents to interfere and criticise him. Many of his supporters still cannot understand why he did not arrest some openly pro-Russian politicians. Here too is evidence of Saakashvili’s difficult balancing act. Perhaps fearing to be called a dictator, he avoided arrests, but his opponents labelled him one all the same. While he certainly harassed the opposition, he never destroyed them.

This is why in Odessa he will be even more resolute. This time there will be no balancing and no half-measures. This time he’ll do it his way and try to do it as quickly as possible. He is already at war with criminal authorities and corrupt officials and defeating oligarchs will be one of his top priorities (an unforgettable lesson of Georgian politics). In Georgia, he succeeded as a reformer and failed as a democrat. In Odessa he has only to succeed as a reformer. Ukrainians need modernization. They are fed up with corruption and bad governance and so democracy can wait.   

This is why he may succeed in the early stages. He has done it once before in Georgia. He knows Ukraine well having studied there as a student and is better than most Western advisors. But there is risk too – with a free hand in Odessa, his determination to change things rapidly and radically may make him even more ruthless than he was in Georgia. But unfortunately Ukraine, beset by conflict and in dire need of reforms, does not have the luxury of avoiding risks.

The uneasy question is: what comes next? Even if Saakashvili succeeds in Odessa thus setting an example for the whole country, it is unclear what will happen to him or to Ukraine. Will he, after all, become an exemplary democrat? Saakashvili is, in many ways, an archetypal moderniser: a product of democratic transition and not of democracy.

But for now, the real issue is getting things moving in Ukraine. Odessites and Ukrainians should remember that Saakashvili is good at getting things moving. But when this has been done, then individuals and leaders should gradually give way to strong state institutions. Ukrainians would do well to bear this in mind.

Tornike Sharashenidze is a professor and head of MA programme in International Affairs at the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs (GIPA) where he lectures on the history of diplomacy

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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.