Odessans living in the city’s center were shocked awake by the sounds of a bomb exploding at the Angelovyh Café in the early morning hours on a Wednesday morning in early July. The bombing campaign which had reached a near weekly peak this spring had commenced mysteriously at around the time of the second Minsk accords. Terrorists, widely assumed to be agents provocateurs run by Russian special services, carried out such attacks across most of the major cities in southern Ukraine all spring.What made this incident particularly noteworthy was that it was the first to occur on the watch of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s former President, whom Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko appointed as governor of Odessa oblast (or province) last month. While the bombings had tapered off over the spring, many assumed they would begin again in earnest, especially when Saakashvili began to do what he does best: root out corruption in his own frenetic, hyper-focused fashion. His appointment in Odessa reflected hopes that he might be able to emulate his relative success in reforming corruption in the judicial and political arenas of decrepit post -Soviet Georgia.The cafe that the bombers targeted is operated by the eponymous Angelovyh family, who are fixtures of Odessa social life and well known for their nationalist politics and fundraising for the Ukrainian army. (The cafe serves a pastry in the form of the red and black flag that the ultra-nationalist militia Right Sector has appropriated from the World War II-era Ukrainian Provisional Army.) A bomb left on the café’s doorstep had been defused earlier in the year. This second attack bore the hallmarks of a direct challenge to Saakashvili’s capacity to deliver on his lofty promises of restoring security, fighting corruption, and bringing investment to the region.If the purpose was to rattle the Governor and his supporters, then they soon let it be known they would not be so easily intimidated. The next night, the windows swiftly replaced but the doors still blown wide open, the café’s operators defiantly re-opened to serve customers in time for the evening shift. At around 10:30 p.m. Saakashvili and his loyal police chief Giya Lortkipanidze arrived for a chat over tea and cake with shaken family matriarch Irina, as well as Odessa’s Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov. Trukhanov, a trim and muscular fifty-year old former Soviet artillery officer and Thai boxer, hails from Odessa’s sleepy suburbs. His constituency encompasses shady business clans connected to organized crime. Long used to dominating the city council and city politics, Trukhanov didn’t look especially comfortable playing second fiddle to the voluble Saakashvili. Saakashvili finished every bite of his opera cake; Trukhanov did not touch his own.Saakashvili used the opportunity to browbeat the Mayor and the city authorities for not having illuminated the city properly, and called for a host of improvements to the city center. In a pointed exchange, he demanded that the city, which is mostly dark at night, should be better lit. “The city feels like Tbilisi in 1995, with shady types hanging around in dark alleys,” Saakashvilli observed several times that “it should be safe to walk at night in this gem of a resort town.” Trukhanov mumbled some self-exculpatory excuses about the bureaucracy and the burdensome expense of procuring new light bulbs. With mayoral elections slated for this autumn, he didn’t look pleased addressing such thinly veiled allegations of incompetence, if not outright embezzlement, in a public setting.The Mayor is just one name on a long list of local figures Saakashvili will need to bring to heel. Former President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (now reconstituted as the opposition bloc) has a firm electoral base in Odessa oblast. It has reconstituted and reenergized itself as a formidable opposition bloc in the regional legislature. Not having a natural power base or any elected allies, Saakashvili won’t be able to rely on an overwhelming parliamentary majority of the sort that undergirded his reforms in Georgia. His friends and powerful allies in Kiev (and the world over) may be too far away to be of any use in the day-to-day legislative infighting that is clearly ahead.And the task at hand is undeniably daunting: to cut the gangrene out of a single limb while the rest of the nation’s body politic writhes from the malignant infection of rampant corruption. Nurturing a healthy region in a deeply sick country may be a Sisyphean task. Despite calls to fight corruption emanating from seemingly every sector of society, Ukraine slipped to 142nd place last year on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. And the problems of Odessa are a microcosm of the nation in miniature. The widespread assumption is that Saakashvili’s work in Odessa is a preliminary run for tackling the country’s issues from the post of Prime Minister, currently held by President Poroshenko’s uneasy rival Arseniy Yatsenyuk.The morning after the nighttime meeting with the Mayor, I joined the Governor and several journalists aboard a minibus on an impromptu tour of a decaying resort town in the outskirts of Odessa oblast. The locals, initially shocked by the governor’s presence on the bus (accompanied by a token security detail), were soon complaining of the lack of gas and plumbing in their villages. Alternating between Ukrainian, Russian and English Saakashvili briskly insisted to both the journalists and the passengers that improving infrastructure is among his highest priorities. He also addressed the oft-levied charge that this sort of trip was pure PR demagoguery. Insisting that he also took helicopters as needed, but that this sort of travel gleaned excellent information and insights. An assembled crowd met us at the depopulated seaside town and fought for the governor’s attention. They cursed their oligarchic mayor and complained bitterly of disputes over resources with the more than 300 refugees relocated from fighting in the East. Saakashvilli promised to follow up by sending aides to deal with their problems and election monitors in the Autumn.The roads around Odessa truly are in ghastly shape. What should be a critical transport corridor linking Moldovan, Romanian, and Turkish markets to Ukraine’s core and industrial eastern regions is all but impassable. No dedicated artery to Romania even exists, which beggars belief considering that it represents a direct link for the region to Europe. European visitors to Odessa have no option but to drive down from the north, using the (also quite dilapidated) Kiev highway.Odessa is a critically important region for Ukraine’s economy, and it should by all rights be a hub of global foreign investment rather than an underdeveloped regional backwoods that it is, given its magnificent location as a deep-water port on the Black Sea. Yet the region’s roads are in such an abominable state that they serve as an active deterrent to regional trade. Cavernous potholes all too frequently rip tires off of axles. The funds earmarked for the roads are without fail embezzled by local and regional authorities.As our bus rocked as it swerved to avoid a barely filled pothole, Saakashvili seethed. “What the hell? Don’t they know that I can see that they filled in the potholes just a few days ago? After they found out that I would be coming here?” Many of the roads leading to the region’s small towns and villages have not seen a road crew since the time of Perestroika. Until now, that is. Some roads are being patched up, albeit in a slapdash manner, and in efforts that appear to be financed directly out of the pockets of local administrators, terrified of the new governor’s reputation for mercurial wrath.When I proposed that he solve the road problem by scheduling such impromptu jaunts to every single town in the region, the Governor’s response was amused resignation. That method would have diminishing returns he pointed out, smiling wryly. One had the sense that the thought had crossed his mind, however. His estimate for the total cost of repairing the region’s roads is $100 million, which unfortunately seems like a wildly optimistic figure.It is the criminally underpaid and thus thoroughly corrupt mid-level bureaucracy populated by intransigent Soviet era apparatchiks that will constitute the greatest threat to Saakashvili’s reform program. Upon arriving back to Odessa from the resort, our group of journalists followed the Governor back to his office for a meeting with his department heads. In what would have seemed like a well-choreographed stunt had Saakashvili not told us on the bus that he was uncertain if he would bash heads together at the meeting, he went around the table demanding progress reports on the status of the various officials’ efforts at fighting corruption, while television cameras filmed away. It was a tense and uncomfortable interrogation, with terrified officials proffering up unconvincing reasons for why there had been so little progress. When the head of the Odessa’s anti-corruption agency admitted under questioning that no one had yet been put in prison for corruption in the region this year, the assembled journalists began laughing out loud. It was likely the moment had made his decision. Starting in a low mournful voice that built up into a crescendo pitch, Saakashvili informed his cabinet that outside of the building people were not laughing. He then promptly fired all twenty of the officials and called for the region’s young people to file applications for the newly opened positions with his administration.Such effusive and effective displays of political theater—as well as the crowd-pleasing gestures like his unilateral move to open up unlawfully privatized beaches to the public—seem to be resonating with much of Odessa’s population. Political theater will only go so far, however. Simplifying the cumbersome multi-step process to attract foreign investment will be critical. Paring down the thicket of rules governing foreign investment is paramount, and to this end Saakashvili has announced the opening of a dedicated foreign investment service center to help guide potential investors. He is a proponent of a libertarian ideal of helping to “get government out of people’s way” so that they can nurture their business.Saakashvili has called for many of the top administrative spots to be opened up to young people, free of tainted practices often Western-educated, entrepreneurial and honest—and Odessans are answering his call in droves. The administration has announced that it has already been inundated with thousands of applications. Whether the obstacles in the path of Saakashvili’s gargantuan ambitions and undeniable skills are surmountable remains to be answered. Beyond fixing regional infrastructure, simplifying the land registry, modernizing privatization laws, reforming the police, and bringing transparency and accountability to government, Saakashvilli is working on opening up Odessa’s airport to low cost and foreign carriers. His own time as a conscript in the Soviet army was spent serving with the border control guards in Kiev’s Borispyl Airport. On this he faces opposition from both inside Ukrainian International Airlines and among regulators (many of them former employees of UIA), and has enlisted Poroshenko’s help in cleaning up the aviation board in Kiev. He is also looking to clamp down on customs fraud by implementing some of the reforms he championed in Georgia: Odessa’s port is notorious for its smuggling and evaporating custom’s fees. Stanching the bleeding of those fees from the region’s coffers would provide the needed capital for his program of capital investment and infrastructure repairs.Asked how long he intends to stay in the job, the Governor habitually proffers the reply one would expect from any competent politician: he will serve as long as is necessary. He followed this declaration up, however, with a rather more realistic estimate of a year and a half to get the reforms going. With some luck, that could be enough, though the administrative gears in Odessa move slowly.Poroshenko has taken a huge gamble in entrusting Saakashvilli with both the region and his political credibility. On the one hand, the move ensured that Saakashvili has more political firepower backing up his reform program than anyone else here has ever had—and most likely ever will. This is undeniably helpful. Conversely, it also ensures that the entrenched political interests and oligarchic forces fighting threats to their livelihood and title to expropriated public assets will be equally energized. If they manage to thwart Saakashvili, they will have struck a significant blow for the debilitated status quo: his failure will constitute an unmistakable signal to the entire world that large-scale reform of the Odessa oblast, and by extension of Ukraine, is functionally impossible.The outright threat of armed separatism in the region has been greatly diminished, as the Kremlin has sent out peace feelers (genuine or not) over the course of the summer, placing lesser emphasis on, and even intimating the unwinding of, the “Novorossiya project.” The death of almost fifty of Odessa’s citizens in street fighting last March has inoculated the city of and deprived the separatist campaign of its potential leadership. The city’s middle and professional classes have also taken careful stock of the banditry and lawlessness endemic in the cities administered by the so-called Lughansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.Yet, Saakashvilli’s proximity to Moldova’s breakaway statelet of Transdnistria is a recurrence of the grandest sort of historical irony: as he once did in South Ossetia, he is yet again administering a boundary with a pro-Russian separatist region occupied by Russian peacekeepers. Somewhere between a quarter and half of the population of the city itself harbors latent pro-Russian sentiments, and those figures are probably much higher in the depressed region itself. Having failed spectacularly to subsume Odessa under the aegis of the embryonic Novorossiya project, the Kremlin’s consolation offer to the city is a glamorous one: Hong Kong-like autonomous status. Pro-Russian separatists and pro-Russian media have adroitly taken to referencing the city’s 19th-century economic glory under its status as “Porto Franco”—a free port where, symbolically enough, one did not need to pay taxes. Proud, anarchic, and perpetually independent, the city that haughtily refers to itself as “the southern capital” will need to be corralled into the ongoing project of the construction of Ukrainian national identity.As the sweltering first summer of Saakashvili’s quixotic, theatrical reign begins, the reaction of the populace to his appointment has mostly shifted from an initial befuddled distrust to approval of his frenetic style. He and the entourage of technocratic Georgian friends that he has brought along are competent and dashing. They can be found drinking at the bar of the Bristol, Odessa’s chicest hotel several nights each week. The city is raucous port town where criminal maneuvering, cosmopolitan self-reinvention, and theatrically have always gone hand in hand. Odessans have always been practical and entrepreneurial, and their values mesh with his ambitions to remake the port town in the image of a modern start-up. Most everyone I spoke with is optimistic in a way that they have not been in a very, very long time.As Saakashvili is fond of pointing out, the city already has 50,000 Georgians calling the city their home. Why not one more? And in any case, if all he accomplishes is to rehabilitate the roads and do something about the decrepit airport, that will be more progress than anyone else has delivered in a generation.Arriving at a beach club owned by a friend late one night, I observed a drunk woman attempting to get past the security guards at the door.“Let me in!” she bellowed at the men who blocked her entrance. Finally acknowledging her case as hopeless she deployed a last, desperate gambit to gain entry.“I am going to tell Saakashvili if you don’t let me in you bastards!” she bellowed.Alas, she would not be drinking on the beach that night. One can only hope her other expectations for reform will not be similarly dashed.
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Published on: July 13, 2015
Reform in UkraineCan Saakashvili Do It?
Mikhail Saakashvili’s charismatic style and ample political capital have generated more optimism for reform than Odessa has seen in a generation. If he can’t do it here, can anyone fix Ukraine?