The indomitable corruption of Odessa:
Saakashvili is only forty-nine, but has accomplished more politically, and can drop more names, than the previous three US presidents combined. He became president of Georgia in his thirties, turned the country around, was nearly assassinated with his good friend George W. Bush, stared down Vladimir Putin, and became a Ukrainian citizen to join the effort to transform Eastern Europe’s sleeping giant.
He supported the Euromaidan from afar then was recruited by President Petro Poroshenko, a university pal. Months after becoming an adviser, Saakashvili convinced Poroshenko to appoint him as governor of Odesa oblast to reshape the corrupt port. For less than one year, he ruled with an iron fist and began cleaning up port operations, then suddenly announced his resignation in a typically dramatic fashion. At a press conference, he accused Poroshenko of supporting “corrupt clans in the Odesa region.”
He is unusually forthcoming as an interviewee. “By my own standards, I failed on every account in Odesa. We proved that it was possible to operate customs without corruption. Some people miss this. But we only accomplished 5 percent of what we wanted to do.”
Poroshenko, he added, has missed his chance to transform the country. “This is because he spends most of the time running his businesses. They cannot be combined. They’re part of the old system. He is part of the old system,” he said.
Nonetheless, Saakashvili is committed to Ukraine’s struggle. “This is selfish because if I can help build two difficult countries that would be an achievement. I’m optimistic. Georgia was worse when I took over than Ukraine is now, and you can see the difference,” he said. “Ukrainians by nature don’t accept authoritarianism, and are more law abiding and today they are more ready for change than Georgians were in 2003.”
Ukraine is also on his agenda because it is the lynchpin to liberating the entire region from Putin. “Russia’s going to explode, but it depends on Ukraine. If it does well, then Putin explodes,” he said. “The plan was to take the east, destroy Ukraine’s army, sabotage its government, and leave it in ruins. Now [Putin] can only wait for its collapse. That’s why Ukraine must grow economically.”