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The politics of reform: Saakashvili’s Odesa mission

The politics of reform: Saakashvili’s Odesa mission
Article by: Vladimir Socor
Edited by: A. N.

Georgia’s former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has accepted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s offer to chair the Executive Committee of Ukraine’s National Council for Reforms (Ukrinform, May 7). Taking up the new challenge, Saakashvili promised to draw on the experience of his universally recognized achievements in Georgia (which inspired this new appointment in Ukraine) “but also to draw on the experience of my defeats” (Ukraine Crisis Media Center, May 8).

Saakashvili’s new appointment is being met with a fair measure of skepticism on the part of Ukrainian civil society groups and pundits. One of the reasons for skepticism is the perceived outcome of Saakashvili’s governorship in Odesa Province in May 2015–November 2016. It may perhaps be termed as an inconclusive outcome, although in all fairness it should qualify as a limited success against daunting odds. Saakashvili resigned from that mission after only 18 months, with a show of anger, blamed then-president Petro Poroshenko—who had appointed him there—for sabotaging the mission, and has attacked Poroshenko implacably since then (adding more issues over time). Those recriminations have unnecessarily cast a pall on his Odesa mission by implying its failure or fostering such a perception.

Saakashvili was governor (technically: chairman of the state administration) of the Odesa region from May 30, 2015 to November 7, 2016. Poroshenko selected Saakashvili, a long-time friend, for the governorship, but this was the ultimate merit-based appointment. As president of Georgia in 2004–2012 he had led the boldest and most successful reform program of any country in Europe’s East—a program cut short at mid-distance by regime change. Many Ukrainians expected Saakashvili to deliver a repeat performance in Odesa Province (population 2.4 million, including slightly more than 1 million in the main city of the same name).

Underdeveloped and mismanaged, but with strong natural potential for modern development, this province was supposed to turn under Saakashvili’s administration into an example of successful reforms, to be emulated by other Ukrainian regions and the country at large.

Parallels between Georgia’s pre-2004 circumstances and those in Odesa were readily apparent when Saakashvili took over the province. Broadly similar features included a pre-modern, incoherent administration; local power brokers and networks able to bypass or influence official institutions; social cultures of organized crime and corruption; insufficient and decaying infrastructure; mismanaged state-owned industry; disincentives to foreign direct investment; under-utilized potential of the maritime trade in the Black Sea.

In Odesa, however, Saakashvili lacked all the instruments that he and his team had fashioned in Georgia to push high-paced reforms through—essentially, orders from above. Some of the instruments were those of authoritarian reformism pursuing economic liberal and social liberal goals. The panoply of those tools in Georgia included:

– the institution of the executive presidency;

– a highly motivated, Western-schooled core team of impeccable integrity around the president;

– a vertically organized state administration pushing through the reform measures from above to local levels;

– a stable, constitutional majority of the pro-presidential party in parliament, for two full legislative terms, unencumbered by coalitions, and postponing the introduction of checks and balances until a more mature political system could handle these;

– discretionary budget-forming authority;

– one or two major television channels consistently supportive of the Saakashvili team’s reform agenda;

– and (as starting premises) effective law enforcement agencies to guarantee stability and rule of law, along with a judiciary applying maximum severity to corruption and organized crime.

No such reform-driving instruments were available in Odesa Province or in Ukraine generally; nor do they exist now.

Georgian advisors identified these weaknesses in Ukraine’s political system as soon as they began arriving in the country in 2015. Poroshenko and the government of Arseniy Yatseniuk employed a significant number of former Georgian officials and experts who had served during the Saakashvili era, to impart their experience to Ukraine. The 2012 regime change in Georgia halted the further advance of reforms in that country, but the results achieved up to that point inspired Ukraine’s leadership—after the country’s own regime change—to invite some of the authors and practitioners of Georgia’s reforms to work in Ukraine.

Those Georgian officials and advisors expressed sometimes impatience and frustration with the slow pace and cumbersome mechanisms of reforms in Ukraine. They had been able to set a much faster pace in Georgia. In Kyiv, however, they saw vested interests entrenched in corrupt bureaucracies, deficient institutional capacity, shortage of personnel with modern Western training, and many problems associated with the system of government by coalition. They saw the dispersal of political authority in Ukraine as ill-suited for radical reforms. Infighting for power among political factions was even more counterproductive. In Georgia, they were able to act radically because they had a clear system of decision-making and implementation. In Ukraine, however, every issue had to be negotiated and considered in detail, taking into account the interests of many stakeholders; any significant initiative or legislation necessitated lengthy efforts to build parliamentary coalitions (see EDM, June 5, 2015).

That situation has changed at least formally with the 2019 elections, which resulted in a parliamentary majority of one party (mono-majority) for the first time in independent Ukraine’s history. The uncertainty, however, inheres in the presidential office at this time.

While Mikheil Saakashvili served as governor of Ukraine’s Odesa Province (May 2015–November 2016), the region presented the former Georgian president with hurdles not only to system reforms but even to rational management as such. Those obstacles included:

– institutional resistance from vested-interest networks within the customs service, tax authority, port authorities, and the justice and law enforcement system, which (in Ukraine’s state organization) are beyond the governor’s direct control;

– chronic deficits of administrative capacity and Western-trained personnel;

– a political and administrative system factionalized along party lines and networks of several descriptions (business, ethnic-territorial, organized-crime networks);

– several decision-making centers within the province, such as the elective Odesa Province Council and the Odesa City Mayoralty, with their own legal powers and their own vested interests, led by old regime holdovers, and capable of frustrating reform measures (see EDM, June 2, 4, 22, 23, July 13, 14, 2015).

Those interests and networks, however fractious, amounted to a resistance front against the outsider governor, disturber of the status quo.

That situation resembled, overall, what Saakashvili and his government had confronted in Georgia. There, they had quickly fashioned necessary instruments to sweep those obstacles away; but Saakashvili and his small entourage in Odesa never had (and could not have had by definition) access to the necessary instruments in Ukraine.

While holding a personal mandate from Ukraine’s president, Saakashvili did not hold a popular-electoral mandate in Odesa. That kind of mandate had been fundamental in Georgia. His own reputation earned him a strong political foothold in Kyiv, but he had none in Odesa. As governor of the province, he had no direct powers over the regional prosecutor’s office, customs service, or tax authorities. Those were subordinated to Kyiv’s ministries and agencies, with their various political affiliations. The governor could not, on his own, hire and fire personnel at those agencies in the province, nor hand down orders to them. He also lacked the legal authority to carry out a deregulation of the economy, which had been a hallmark of Georgia’s reforms.

As governor, Saakashvili had no authority over the elected bodies, such as the Provincial Council and town mayors’ offices.

He found those to be replete with holdovers from the former Party of Regions and its offshoots, reform-resistant interest groups and informal local power brokers, commanding significant resources from illicit business.

The governor also faced insurmountable difficulties in recruiting local staff. The province had an acute shortage of qualified personnel with modern professional training. Young Western-educated specialists were a scarce resource. This situation contrasted with the earlier one in Georgia, where a pool of talent available in civil society had transitioned seamlessly into Saakashvili’s presidential team and government. In Odesa, however, the governor’s own core staff looked rather light.

Given limited real powers and even more limited legal tools to pursue transformational change, Saakashvili had to rely on some other means to push through his reform agenda. He resorted to campaigning on local television and “mixing with the crowds” in the city and the province. He listened to complaints from people in the streets and responded with vehement condemnations of corrupt officialdom. He also found some crowd-pleasing ways to tinker with official corruption or privilege at the margins: e.g., reopening public access to several closed beaches, or publicly haranguing abusive officials at their workplace in a few cases. Such gestures and the accompanying theatrics did much to change Saakashvili’s image into that of a “populist” even before his return from Odesa to Kyiv, where that label then solidified. During his Odesa period, however, the image of a “populist” may be deemed unfair.

Saakashvili’s plans for Odesa were of a transformational nature; but the instruments for transformation were not present there (,, 2015–2016, passim).

This short gubernatorial term did produce creditable results, some of them under a distinct Georgian stamp. Ukraine’s first Center for Administrative Services, modeled on Georgia’s Houses of Public Service (a country-wide system built during the Saakashvili era), opened in Odesa. This city became the second in Ukraine, after Kyiv, to introduce the new police patrol service, designed and trained by Ukrainian Ministry of Interior officials Ekaterine Zguladze and Khata Dekanoidze, formerly with Georgia’s interior ministry during the Saakashvili era there. This new police service operated under the Odesa province police chief, General Giorgi Lortkipanidze, formerly of the Georgian police, whom Saakashvili recruited for this post.

Moreover, a modern customs center opened in the Odesa harbor during Saakashvili’s tenure. Rehabilitation of the decayed Odesa–Reni road (the only road connecting this province to European Union territory in Romania) began in 2015, to be completed four years afterward. Saakashvili exempted small wine producers from paying an onerous commercial license fee. He cut the bureaucracy in the governor’s headquarters from 800 to 400.

Certain other goals remained out of reach, however. Not enough resources were available at the governor’s disposal for a crackdown on racketeering, extortion and raiding in the business sphere (Saakashvili had declared this action to be a high priority). Corruption, extortion and abuse of office in the prosecution system and the judiciary were also beyond the governor’s remit. Saakashvili would notify Ukraine’s General Prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, in Kyiv, about such cases, apparently to no avail. For his part, Shokin was undermining (and, in the end, fired) his deputy, Davit Sakvarelidze, also recruited from Georgia and double-hatted for a while as prosecutor of the Odesa province. Shokin’s ill-repute notwithstanding, President Poroshenko long delayed before dismissing Shokin under pressure from the United States.

The mayor of Odesa, Henady Trukhanov, also remained out of reach, both for law enforcement and for Saakashvili, who had vowed to have Trukhanov charged and convicted for illicit business activities. The governor’s closest aide in Odesa challenged the incumbent Trukhanov in the 2015 mayoral election. Saakashvili and the local branch of Poroshenko’s political party campaigned for the challenger; but the old-regime holdover, Trukhanov, won reelection hands down in the first round.

Saakashvili resigned from the governorship after only 18 months in that post. Bookending his term of office were two political conflicts. He had arrived in Odesa in May 2015 in the broader context of Poroshenko’s effort to curb oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi’s growing influence. Kolomoyskyi’s ally, Ihor Palytsia, was the Odesa Province governor at that point. Poroshenko dismissed Palytsia and appointed his own ally, Saakashvili, instead. Saakashvili, however, left Odesa in November 2016 as an implacable adversary of Poroshenko. Not long thereafter, Kolomoyskyi launched Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidential candidacy to topple Poroshenko from office. And Saakashvili took Zelenskyy’s side at that stage.

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Edited by: A. N.
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