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Odesa: the new hotspot of Ukraine

Odesa: the new hotspot of Ukraine
What has changed in Odesa since the appointment of Mikheil Saakashvili, as seen by a foreigner who spends summer holidays in Ukraine

On May 30th, President Poroshenko surprised many by nominating the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Odesa Oblast, in south-western Ukraine. One can indeed wonder at Kiev’s motives for positioning such a world famous personality in a minor role in the provinces. In fact, this surprising choice has been eminently sensible since the port of Odesa remains of strategic importance both economically and politically.  Bear in mind that Odesa, the largest coastal city in the Black Sea has long been a point of transit for imports and especially exports of cereals, fertilisers and metals – vital for the country’s economy. Moreover, this large Oblast runs along a 405 km border with the breakaway Republic of Transnistria in Moldova, which geographically is isolated from the rest of the world. Many Ukrainians are deeply concerned about the authoritarian regime in Tiraspol. Since the Maidan Revolution, more than 25 bombs have exploded in the city of Odesa causing plenty in the region to suspect Transnistria of planning to destabilise southern Ukraine in which Tiraspol’s ultimate goal would be to create a land route linking their republic, unrecognised by the international community, to annexed Crimea, occupied by Russian troops.

Furthermore, Odesa, a Russian-speaking metropolis, where a quarter of the population is ethnically Russian, is under control of the opposition although Odesites voted for the coalition of President Poroshenko during the legislative and presidential elections. We rarely see the European flag flying over official buildings of the city unlike in Kiev, Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk. The mayor (Hennadiy Trukhanov) and Odesa’s oligarchs (Klimov, Kivalov, Bekker, Rodin) who control the economic life of the city were associated with the former Party of Regions of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. Moreover, the agglomeration is currently plastered with giant posters on which the opposition promises peace by respecting the Minsk Protocol, commits to reduce gas bills by 15% and to increase pensions once in power. Another thing which is striking, is the construction of huge and kitsch modern buildings, contrasting with the architectural elegance of the city centre; how could a municipality so disfigure the Pearl of the Black Sea? Alas, this beautiful city is notorious for being the hub of all traffic in the country.

It is therefore not surprising that the government in Kiev has made it a priority to ensure the stability and loyalty of Odesa. Saakashvili is actually the perfect man for the job. This new Ukrainian citizen, recently settled in the country – but fluent both in Russian and Ukrainian – has made his mark by reducing corruption and modernizing the Georgian economy. Even better, thanks to his origins, he is able to implement the necessary reforms since he does not share any financial or political interests with the Ukrainian oligarchs largely responsible for the country’s failures. He is said to have refused to meet the all-powerful Odesa tycoon, Serhiy Kivalov, former friend of ousted President Yanukovych.

The challenge he faces is daunting because corruption is endemic and pervasive in Odesa. The old system persists. To clinch a business deal in this part of the world you must bribe police, government officials, judges, customs officials and mobsters. It is unsurprising that Odesa was chosen as the second place[1] after Kiev to overhaul the police force. This week, new recruits trained by North Americans will be seen on the streets of Odesa, maintaining order in their new New-York style uniforms. Customs reform has also begun. A young entrepreneur I spoke with, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me that more and more people wish to follow legal channels although in this city doing business requires paying in cash, regardless of the amount. Bank transfers are still rare, making it difficult to control the exchanges. Customs officials are more than willing to drastically devalue the declared goods and to work diligently in exchange for a large commission, sometimes up to 50% of the declared amount. Furthermore, geographical proximity with Moldova and especially Transnistria assures the sustainability of much illegal traffic: stolen vehicles from Europe, electronic equipment and even human organs.

Since his appointment, Saakashvili has rapidly become popular. He appeals by his straight talking and man-of-the-people approach: for example, travelling in an old city bus without air conditioning, organizing a rally to make all beaches accessible to the public, volunteering to be “arrested” in simulations during the training of police recruits. He recently denounced the monopoly of Ukraine International Airlines, owned by billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, which restricts tourism in the city and region. An open skies policy with the EU, Turke,y and Israel would improve the economic and cultural ties of this Black Sea port. So far, the government of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has signed only one Open Sky agreement and that is with the US, which in no way threatens the interests of Ukraine International since no American airline flies to Ukraine! Nevertheless, Saakashvili managed to topple the Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, Denis Antonyuk, whom he publicly accused of corruption and conflict of interests. And this month, he has not hesitated to lash out at the Cabinet in Kyiv accusing it of sabotaging reforms in order to protect the interests of oligarchs.

There are some that hope that Saakashvili will close the border with Transnistria where Russian troops are stationed. This pro-Russian enclave could in the long run threaten the stability of the Republic of Moldova and the region of Bessarabia, the Danubian region of Odesa Oblast. Many Russian-speaking Bulgarian, Moldavian and Gagauz living in Bessarabia (38% of the population) are highly influenced by Russian media and could become the next target of the Kremlin whose main objective is undoubtedly the destabilisation of Ukraine. It is important to note that in Moldova, Gagauz Russian speakers (early Turks converted to Orthodoxy) have finally obtained a certain degree of autonomy. It is feared that Moldovan Gagauz and Russian-speakers of Bessarabia could unite in order to create a “People’s Republic of Bessarabia”. Since March 2015, Ukraine has stepped up checks at the border, revoked the treaty allowing Russian troops to cross Ukrainian territory en route to Transnistria and toughened up requirements for Transnistrian nationals travelling to Ukraine with a Russian passport (the majority of the enclaves’s inhabitants however, hold a Moldovan passport – especially since the exemption of visas for Moldovan nationals by Schengen countries).

An elderly man, Dima, of Bulgarian origin, living in Tatarbunari, a village in the heart of Bessarabia, who jokingly asked me to escort his three beautiful girls to the West (they have all applied for Bulgarian citizenship) quickly dismissed Bessarabian separatist aims. “We Bulgarians love Russia because they freed us from Ottoman rule, but we are a peaceful people, we do not want our region to be destroyed as in the Donbas. Besides, nearby Transnistria has lost most of its industry since the Russian speakers separated from the rest of Moldova. Many come looking for work in Ukraine “. He was saddened by Russian propaganda. He said his brother, living in Moscow, refused to come to Bessarabia because he believed the country was run and controlled by fascists.

But the European Union also incurs Dima’s wrath; in his eyes it is responsible for the conflict between Russia and Ukraine by having raised the stakes for signing the association agreement. “Europe now speaks of a special free trade area for Ukraine with the EU and Russia when we were told before the Revolution a free trade association between the two Slavic countries would be incompatible with the association treaty”. Two of his daughters interrupted him to retort that only by joining the European Union would Ukraine be assured of a stable and prosperous future. Dima spoke again this time to accuse oligarchs and the government of taking advantage of the war by slowing down reforms and enriching themselves with the highly lucrative arms trade. Meanwhile, under the IMF’s advice, the leadership in Kiev lowered his engineering pension, from 300 to 120 euros[2] and multiplied sevenfold his monthly gas bill. However, the name of Saakashvili gave rise to a glimmer of hope in his eyes and with a touch of humour, he said, “If we can make wine as good as the Georgians and export it, then that will be progress!”

Hopefully Saakashvili, the sworn enemy of Putin, will carry out reforms and ensure the growth of tourism and economic development of this strategically vital region for Ukraine. His appointment triggered a flood of racist and hateful jokes in Russian social networks. Prejudices against Georgians and Odessites, associated with the underworld and their Jewish origins, resurfaced this summer. (Over a third of the city was Jewish before World War II, and today the Jewish community represents about 10% of the population. When you’re Jewish, Tatar or Caucasian in Odesa, you remain wary of Russians.) Odesa is a success in its multiculturalism and has remained overall a tolerant place, an apolitical city open to the rest of the world; the main concern is the state of its economy. The first governor who contributed to the city’s development was also a foreigner, a Frenchman, the Duke of Richelieu, appointed by Tsar Alexander I. For many Odesites foreign rule is a relief and gives reason to hope.

[1] With Lviv, a very westernised city on the Polish border.

[2] The Ukrainian currency, the Hryvnia, has lost more than 50% of its value since the Revolution.


Pierre Scordia is a lecturer at University College London (London, UK) and holds a MPhil in History (University of Nottingham)
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