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October 2015

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Saakashvili as Odessa governor
by Dimitry Shlapentokh

Similar to that of other turbulent periods in world history, post-Soviet realities demonstrated an almost similar political narrative. In Georgia, the fate of Mikheil Saakashvili started out as one of the most bizarre. Charismatic and quite popular in the beginning of his tenure as a leader of a small post-Soviet republic, he not only lost his power and became an outcast but actually lost his Georgian citizenship to become governor in Odessa, Ukraine. The current leader of Ukraine are certainly different from Saakashvili. Still, they share with him one important trait: they believe that an easy solution could be found in just a replacement of a "wrong" person by a "good" one.

Similar to most republics of the former USSR, Georgia believed that  its problems, mostly the sharp economic decline that marked the end of Gorbachev's tenure, were due to the Russian/Soviet presence. Independence should immediately have solved all of these problems. The result, however, was the opposite; and Georgia lapsed into a long period of economic decline, civil war and ethnic strife. Still, the notion that socio-economic problems could be solved by the  "right" leadership was still entrenched, and this led to the assent of Saakashvili who became president after the so-called "Orange Revolution."

Saakashvili seemed to be entirely different from previous Georgian leaders. He was educated at Columbia University and was fluent in many languages. He was married to a Dutch woman and had no connections with native Georgian clans. Upon becoming Georgian president, Saakashvili started to follow meticulously Western design plans for "transitional" societies. Corruption was one of the major targets; and, as one might state, Georgia was one of the most corrupt republics of the USSR. Saakashvili's success in this respect was unquestionable, acknowledged even by those who hardly could be regarded as his admirers. He demanded that government officials behave not as a privileged caste but as ordinary citizens. (During a visit to Georgia, I saw the cabinet minister stand in line with everybody else at the airport and subject to the same security check.)

While Saakashvili's fight against corruption was undoubtedly praised by the majority of Georgians, in itself it could not solve the problems of the Georgia economy. Georgia prosperity during the Soviet era was mostly due to Georgians' ability to send fruit, especially oranges, and tea to Russia. With increasing alienation from Moscow and the availability of other options for Russia, this market shrank.

Saakashvili's attack against the runaway Abkhazia/South Ossetia, where Russian peacekeepers were stationed aggravated the situation even more, leading to the August 2003 war with Moscow.  With no help from Washington despite clear encouragement from the ruling "neocons" to employ force, Georgia was badly beaten. Saakashvili's humiliation was reinforced by the fact that he had named one of the Tbilisi, Georgian capital, street after George Bush, most likely the only street in the world so named. Infuriated, Saakashvili turned to Iran, at that time Washington's mortal enemy, and proposed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian president, visit Tbilisi. All of this increased the economic problems, and love for Saakashvili disappeared quickly. He emerged in the public's mind not as a Western-educated savior but as a lecherous and brutish tyrant. He lost the election, and a new president immediately started an investigation of Saakashvili's real or imagined crimes. Saakashvili's fate would have not been much different from that of other leaders of post-Soviet states if not for his political afterlife related to Ukraine.

Similar to Georgians, Ukrainians shared the same illusion of post-Soviet prosperity and soon became disenchanted with the results. Also similar to Georgians, they believed that change of government, finding "the right" man, would solve the problems. Consequently, as in the case of the Georgians, Ukrainians engaged in changing their regimes with kaleidoscopic speed. Many believe that corruption in itself is the source of the problems as it was advised by the West. The present-day Ukrainian president Petro Petroshenko, who came to power during the recent crisis, apparently believes that locals could not avoid the temptation of corruption and filled government positions with foreigners, most of them from the West. Saakashvili was the only exception. The transition from  position of Georgian president to governor of Odessa had led to the loss of Georgia citizenship, making Saakashvili's case clearly unique in post-Soviet history and possibly beyond. One could assume that Saakashvili could have, if not eliminate corruption completely, at least reduce it. Still, it is doubtful that the economic situation in Odessa and, as one could assume, Ukraine in general, would improve. And this certainly would reflect the general economic instability in the world in general and in Europe in particular, with possibly serious political implications, the nature of which was hardly envisaged by those who were engaged in crushing the Soviet empire in 1989-1991.bluestar

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Dimitry Shlapentokh is Associated Professor in the Department of History, Indiana University-South Bend. He is the author of several books and more than 100 articles, the newest of which is titled Global Russia: Eurasianism, Putin and the New Right (Tauris, 2013, forthcoming). Dr. Shlapentokh holds master’s degrees from Moscow State University (Russia) and Michigan State University and a Ph.D. in Russian/European history from the University of Chicago. He taught and had research appointments at Harvard University’s Russian Research Center and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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