Odessa’s future in Saakashvili’s hands

Even with his track record, Poroshenko has gambled big with Saakashvili’s appointment as governor of Odessa.

Citizens greet Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Mikhail Saakashvili, newly appointed governor of Odessa region, in Odessa, Ukraine [AP]
Citizens greet Poroshenko and Saakashvili in Odessa, Ukraine [AP]

At first glance, the news that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of the Odessa Oblast is surprising, if not unbelievable.

Saakashvili’s ascendancy in Odessa is not the first time the governorship has been held by a foreigner.

French nobleman Duc de Richelieu was appointed by Tsar Alexander I as governor of Odessa in 1803. Another Frenchman, Count Andrault de Langeron, succeeded him. 

It is well known that Poroshenko and Saakashvili have a close friendship. There are several foreigners, including former Georgian ministers, already serving in the Ukrainian government.

Interview: Former Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili

In fact, before his recent appointment, Saakashvili was already serving as a top adviser to the government. More importantly, considering Saakashvili’s success in fighting corruption and improving the Georgian economy, the appointment makes perfect sense.

Endemic corruption

Odessa is a region where economic and political corruption are endemic.

Poroshenko knew that he could not run the risk of Odessa sliding further into the abyss so he took the drastic measure of appointing an outsider to break the cycle of corruption.

The region is important to Ukraine. The city of Odessa is one of the three jewels in the Black Sea’s crown (the other two are Sevastopol in Crimea and Batumi in Georgia).

It is the largest oblast in size and economic output. The city of Odessa is the third largest in Ukraine and home to the country’s largest port.

Those who have been around Saakashvili know that he oozes charisma. He is attentive, engaging, and has endless amounts of energy.


Odessa is also a divided region. There is a sizable Russian-speaking population. During the Maidan protests in 2014, serious violence took place there that resulted in the deaths of scores of protesters. A year later there are still security incidents involving pro-Russian activists in Odessa.  

Those who have been around Saakashvili know that he oozes charisma. He is attentive, engaging, and has endless amounts of energy.

Saakashvili’s challenge

The fact that Saakashvili isn’t from the region, and wasn’t even a Ukrainian citizen until recently, might seem like obstacles to an outside observer – but not for Saakashvili.

In Saakashvili’s mind, his appointment is simply the next challenge in his life to check Russian aggression, promote Euro-Atlantic ideas, and fight corruption.

Saakashvili does not see his service to Ukraine as abandoning his homeland, Georgia.

On the contrary, he understands that the geopolitical reality of the Black Sea means that a secure Odessa is a secure Georgia. For him, this is part of his destiny.

Like him or not, Saakashvili has a great track record to fall back on. During his time as president of Georgia he fought corruption and drastically improved the economy. Considering all of the problems the country faced after it regained its independence in the 1990s, Saakashvili was probably the one reason Georgia did not become a failed state.

In the last year of his presidency in 2013, the Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, ranked Georgia 21st out of 184 countries – a striking improvement from when he entered office in 2003, when it ranked 113.

Saakashvili [Rabii Kalboussi/Al Jazeera]
Saakashvili [Rabii Kalboussi/Al Jazeera]

That year also saw Georgia ranked ninth globally in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. During the peak of his presidency in 2010, Georgia experienced the world’s biggest decrease in perceptions of corruption according to Transparency International’s annual Global Corruption Barometer. 

‘Miracle of Batumi’

Saakashvili also has a proven track record concerning the Black Sea. He fought corruption and separatism during the early days of his presidency when he successfully confronted Aslan Abashidze, the separatist leader of the Adjara, a region along Georgia’s Black Sea coast.

Today, separatism in Adjara is a thing of the past, and the capital city, Batumi, is booming. Foreign Direct Investment is flowing in. Five-star hotels mark the skyline. The old city has been rebuilt and preserved.

One can find a church, a mosque, and a synagogue all within a few blocks of each other. It is no wonder that Saakashvili’s accomplishment there is known as the “Miracle of Batumi”.

There is little doubt that Russia has its eyes on Odessa.


There is little doubt that Russia has its eyes on Odessa. The region forms part of what was known during Russian imperial times as Bessarabia (along with Transnistria and Gagauzia in neighbouring Moldova).

In the same way those in the Kremlin fantasise about recreating Novorossiya (the Tsarist-era name for southern Ukraine), there are many around Putin who would like to see the historical region of Bessarabia brought back under Russian control.

This fits in line with Putin’s imperial vision of the region and his designs on Ukraine.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Even with his track record Poroshenko has gambled big with Saakashvili’s appointment.

It makes sense that Poroshenko is hoping that Saakashvili will do for Odessa what he did for Georgia, and specifically Batumi.

It remains to be seen how Russia will react. But if Saakashvili can replicate his “Miracle of Batumi” with a similar miracle in Odessa, the gamble will have been worth it.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.