Ukraine: Former President of Georgia Appointed Governor of Odessa Region
Former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili will give up his Georgian citizenship to take on an appointment as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, which he called a “front line” against graft in the region.
Saakashvili was appointed on May 30 by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. He left Georgia at the end of his term in 2013, and has been granted Ukrainian citizenship to fulfill his new job.
In an interview with the BBC, Saakashvili said that his position in Odessa is an important “front line” against graft and perceptions of growing Russian influence in the region.
Saakashvili is no stranger to conflict with Russia. His presidency saw Russia and Georgia briefly go to war with one another in August 2008.
While Odessa has been spared military clashes in the ongoing war in east Ukraine, in May 2014 opposing street protests erupted into violent clashes, resulting in the deaths of over 40 citizens.
Speaking of his motivations to the BBC, Saakashvili warned, “If Odessa ever falls, God forbid, then Georgia might be wiped out from the map.”
The decision to appoint Saakashvili has been controversial. He is accused by authorities in Georgia of abuse of power, and Saakashvili fears that “guaranteed imprisonment” awaits if he returns home.
Speaking to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, residents of Odessa had mixed reactions. One woman, discouraged by the criminal charges he faces in his own country, wondered: “How could a man like that be appointed to this post?”
Another resident, citing Saakashvili’s record of economic reforms, was more hopeful, saying: “He will bring positive things.”
Saakashvili rose to power in Georgia after the Rose Revolution in 2003, promising to combat Russian influence within the country.
Many international observers and analysts have speculated that the uproar surrounding Saakashvili’s appointment was a deliberate move by the Ukrainian administration: as the conflict in east Ukraine drags into its second year, they say Poroshenko likely appointed Saakashvili to send a message to Moscow.
The feud between Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin has occasionally veered into the downright bitter.
During the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia, Putin reportedly told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that once Saakashvili was overthrown he would “hang him by the balls”. When Putin was asked in 2009 if he still had plans to hang Saakashvili by “a certain body part”, the Russian president replied “Why just one?”
For his part, Saakashvili arrived late to his first meeting with Putin, reportedly choosing to spend time doing laps in the hotel swimming pool instead. He is also said to have mocked the height of the Russian leader, referring to him as “Lilli-Putin”.