Operation Saakashvili: why the Georgian ex-president reappeared on Ukraine’s agenda

Archive photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko/RadioSvoboda (RFL/RL) 

Op-ed, Ukraine

Article by: Olena Makarenko
Today, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appointed ex-Georgian President and ex-head of Ukraine’s Odesa Oblast State Administration Mikheil Saakashvili as the Head of the Executive Committee of Reforms, part of the National Reform Council. The Council was created in December 2014, and its last meeting took place in the beginning of March 2018. In this period, it held 28 meetings, which mainly served as a discussion platform. Why would Zelenskyy need to reanimate it and why is Saakashvili brought to Ukraine’s agenda again?

Failing becoming Vice Prime Minister of Reforms

On 22 April 2020, Mikheil Saakashvili, former Georgia president, reappeared on Ukraine’s political landscape. That day the information that he was offered the new government position of Vice Prime Minister of Reforms appeared. That same day, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed that he sees potential in Saakashvili, and the former Georgian president confirmed that he received such an offer and is ready to accept it. The news about the famous Georgian reformer spread far beyond Ukraine. However, within a week, the question of the potential appointment dissipated.

As the last week proved, Saakashvili is not perceived in Ukrainian society as positively as he was in 2015. During his previous stint in Ukraine, he made serious enemies among the Ukrainian political elite and oligarchs, which has left him with very few friends and little support.

Saakashvili accuses the Ukrainian Cabinet and Avakov of chairing corruption in Ukraine. Photo: snapshot from a video of a meeting of the National Reforms Council.

Notably, one of Saakashvili’s main foes in Ukraine is Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov. A heated skirmish ensued between the two when Saakashvili accused the Ukrainian Cabinet and Avakov personally of chairing corruption in the country during one of the meetings of the abovementioned National Reforms Council. Avakov threw a glass of water at him in response.

The first test for the Georgian past president for getting the Vice Prime Minister position was to gain much-needed votes from MPs. He was mainly counting on Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party. On 24 April, he met with its representatives, but as Ukrainian media reported, he did not manage to attract a majority.

Speculation on a possible appointment to another key state institution, like the President’s Office, started circulating. As of 30 April, the day when Parliament was in session, no official confirmation had been announced. Neither the Saakashvili appointment to the government nor any other was on the agenda.

Once the Saakashvili proposal became public, the European Solidarity party of past President Petro Poroshenko stated they would not vote for the former Georgian president. Poroshenko had been one of his major foes and was largely responsible for his expulsion.

However, European Solidarity’s opposition was not so much related to Saakashvili himself. In fact, the party has avoided voting for any item raised by the Cabinet. Their stance is that for the past one-and-a-half months’ key positions have remained unappointed: Minister of Energy, Minister of Education, and Minister of Culture are all vacant, while the proposal for a new post of Vice Prime Minister of Reforms suddenly jumped to the fore.

Probably, the plan to appoint Saakashvili as Vice Prime Minister turned out as lacking potential. Only two weeks after, Saakashvili eventually returned to the headlines by getting a post in the forgotten Council.

The proposal to reinstate Saakashvili on Ukraine’s political stage was likely targeted at the country’s Western partners. This is not the first time the Ukrainian government has tried to utilize Saakashvili’s image as a reformer.

More than five years ago, it was Poroshenko himself who did the same.

How Sakkashvili’s image was used in Poroshenko’s time

When Saakashvili came to power in Georgia, after the Rose Revolution of 2003, he initiated drastic reforms.

The Rose Revolution was a pro-Western peaceful change of power in Georgia in November 2003. The revolution was caused by widespread protests over the disputed parliamentary elections and culminated in the ousting of President Eduard Shevardnadze, which marked the end of the Soviet era of leadership in the country. The event derives its name from the climactic moment, when demonstrators led by Mikheil Saakashvili, who was later sworn in as president, stormed the Parliament session with red roses in hand.

One of the most outlandish was with law enforcement institutions. He immediately fired all of their heads. Then, unlike many politicians in Eastern Europe, Saakashvili not only promised to punish corrupted authorities, he actually imprisoned thousands of them.

Under Saakashvili’s management, Georgia transformed dramatically. However, after Russia started the five-day war in 2008, resulting in Georgia losing control of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, his influence in the country gradually dissipated. His pro-Western stance was never in doubt. However, his temperamental nature was a detriment and stirred much controversy. Together with Russia’s campaign to return the country to its orbit – and the efforts of revanchists – Saakashvili’s influence suffered greatly. Criminal prosecutions were initiated, and he had to flee the country.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, 22 March 2008. Photo: James Fimley

Nevertheless, in Western media and in the minds of many Western influencers, Saakashvili remains to this day a popular figure with the image of a great reformer.

And here is where Ukraine stepped in. After the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, the country lacked timely reforms. Major transformations in various areas of public office were announced, but the results lagged – real change needs time.

Many pre-Maidan management ploys prevailed. The old guard resisted any change whatsoever, and corrupt practices within institutions were deeply ingrained and not easy to eliminate.

Still, Ukrainian society, as well as the country’s international partners, demanded results. Clearly, some visible steps were needed. A team of international experts was invited by Ukraine’s government to make reforms. Among these experts was Lithuanian Aivaras Abromavičius, as well as Georgians Eka Zguladze, Khatiya Dekanoidze, and eventually Mikheil Saakashvili. An interesting aside is that Saakashvili was offered the position of Vice Prime Minister as early as December 2014. However, he refused, explaining it by an unwillingness to change his Georgian citizenship.

Current Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, Eka Zguladze, past President Petro Poroshenko, and Mikheil Saakashvili present the new Ukrainian police. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine

On 30 May 2015, Saakashvili, who was in fact an old friend of Poroshenko, was appointed Head of the Odesa Oblast State Administration. Not surprisingly, he had only obtained Ukrainian citizenship the previous day – the application was expedited for “a person whose citizenship is of national interest to Ukraine.”

The Odesa appointment had two benefits for Poroshenko. First, the positive image of Saakashvili was a sign to international partners that Ukraine was moving in the right direction and ready to fight corruption. Second, Saakashvili helped Poroshenko to easily eliminate the influence of oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi in this key oblast. The oligarch’s crony, Ihor Palytsia, had headed the Odesa administration since May 2014.

Mikhail Saakashvili, the new governor of Odesa oblast of Ukraine and former president of Georgia (Image: dumskaya.net)

Within a year, the relationship between Poroshenko and Saakashvili went south with dramatic speed. The former Georgian president started finger-pointing at corrupt officials within Poroshenko’s inner circle but avoided direct confrontation with the past president.

In November 2016, Saakashvili resigned from his position. One of the reasons he cited was the closing of the Center for Administrative Services – maintaining it had been his main achievement in Odesa. He also claimed sabotage by the central government in appointing heads of district state administrations, arguing bias was wielded by the “clans” of the 1990s.

After his resignation, Saakashvili started to actively oppose Poroshenko, who retaliated by stripping the Georgian of his Ukrainian citizenship on 26 July 2017. He did so during Saakashvili’s visit to the U.S., preventing him from returning to Ukraine. Despite a messy scandal, Saakashvili managed to return nonetheless.

Read also:

Kyiv, October 2017, Mikheil Saakashvili is talking to the public at a 4,500-strong rally for passing legislation on a “great political reform.” After leaving the position of Odesa governor, Saakashvili developed the opposition political party “Movement of new forces.” Photo: Olena Makarenko

Soon after returning, Saakashvili provoked waves of protests and created his own political party Movement of the New Forces (Rukh Novykh Syl). According to polls at the time, the party would not have passed the election threshold, in the event of possible early parliamentary elections.

Saakashvili’s last months in Ukraine were worthy of an action movie. He had made a theatrical re-entry into the country, with dozens of fans pushing back at special forces to let him through. He tried to evade authorities by hiding on a rooftop. The Prosecutor General’s Office even accused him of cooperating with Russia. Ukrainian media labeled him in all kinds of ways. For some, he remained Poroshenko’s Administration project. For some, he was a true revolutionary. And for some, he was a Kremlin agent.

Saakashvili supporters forcefully drag the politician across the border from Poland to Ukraine on 10 September 2017. Photo: rbc.ua

Eventually, on 12 February 2018, the Past President of Georgia was arrested, put on a plane, and flown to Poland.

Since that time, there had been at least three countries on the world map, including Russia, where Saakashvili was regarded as persona non grata since 2010, where he was not welcomed. After the Ukrainian incident, among the countries he could not return to, it was not Georgia – it was Ukraine where he wanted to return.

Zelenskyy repeating Poroshenko’s path with Saakashvili

Saakashvili got his lucky chance to return to Ukraine when Zelenskyy was elected. The ex-comedian-now-president used his new-found decree to fix the situation, and Saakashvili was allowed to return at the end of May 2019.

Saakashvili tells journalists in Boryspil airport that his goal is to “build a new country” with the new president after returning to Ukraine on 29 May 2019. Photo: rbc.ua

A year later, Zelenskyy started making statements and taking steps which are increasingly reminiscent of Poroshenko’s dealings with Saakashvili. One such step is Zelenskyy’s attempt to include Saakashvili in the political game.

As with Poroshenko in 2015, the Saakashvili card could help Zelenskyy show that Ukraine is committed to the path of reform. This play, though, would hardly work for Ukrainian society. Saakashvili’s political force did not make him a serious player with power brokers before his expulsion. However, in today’s scenario, his image as a reformer could still play well with international partners. Amid the coronavirus pandemic crisis, Saakashvili just might serve as part of a PR-campaign, at a time when international support for Ukraine is so desperately needed.

Many political commentators, including Zelenskyy himself, compare his presidency to the TV series “Servant of the People,” where he actually played the President of Ukraine. Increasingly, the president appears to recognize the differences between reality and the show. But in his recent interview with the Guardian, he said that playing a president on screen and being one in real life is very similar. Later, he added that the real job comes with far greater challenges.

“It’s true there are more problems. They are catastrophic. They appear, I’m sorry to say, like pimples on an 18-year-old kid. You don’t know where they will pop up, or when,” the president said.

Today, Ukraine faces many challenges. Apart from those the country has struggled with for

years; such as the de facto war with Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea, pervasive corruption, the urgent need for reforms, and the overwhelming opposition of the old guard, the country – like the rest of the world – now has yet one more problem to deal with… an invisible one … COVID-19.

In times when results are demanded on every front, but can not be achieved anywhere, all that is left is to create the image of one. Perhaps one worthy of Health Minister Zoriana Skaletska. Her much-publicized trip to Sanzhary – ostensibly to stop panic over the coronavirus – was sympathetically framed as bravely supporting 100 people in quarantine. But others called it for what it was – a PR stunt.

During the last two months, Ukraine reshuffled the Cabinet twice. On 13 April 2020, Parliament adopted a revised Budget 2020, responding to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. As Euromaidan Press reported in April, the amended budget has raised the deficit threefold to UAH 0.3 trillion ($11 billion). This huge deficit is expected to be covered by a hefty loan from the IMF. In such circumstances, international support is crucial for Zelenskyy’s government. Commenting on his possible appointment, Saakashvili earlier stated that Zelenskyy expected him to deal with negotiations with the IMF. Could the image of a “Reformer” be the solution?

Read also:

Edited by: Sonia Maryn, Alya Shandra

Dear readers! We need your help. COVID-19 has hit independent media outlets hard, but even more so in Ukraine, where most outlets are controlled by oligarchs. To make matters worse, several English-language media sources from Ukraine have closed recently. And even worse, this comes at a time of troubling government tendencies and amid a pro-Russian resurgence in Ukraine.  Help keep us online and reporting on the most important of Ukrainian issues for you in these troubling times, bringing the voices of civic society to the forefront of the information war. Our articles are free for everyone to use but we depend on our readers to keep going.  We are a small independent journalist team on a shoestring budget and have no political or state affiliation. If you like what you see, please support us with a donation

Tags: ,