The news that the Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko has brought former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in to head Ukraine’s International Advisory Council on Reforms has been met by responses including enthusiasm from western supporters of Saakashvili who are both happy to see him involved and believe he can bring some energy and solutions to the deep problems of corruption that have plagued Ukraine for its quarter century of independence. The current Georgian government has been much less excited about this appointment and recently asked Vasyl Tsybenko, Ukraine's ambassador to Georgia, to explain it to them. The Russian media has stressed that Saakashvili’s primary role will be to secure weapons from the US for Ukraine.
Saakashvili is not the first Georgian to assume a high level position in the new Ukrainian government. Several other former leaders in Saakashvili’s government have been appointed as ministers and to other high ranking posts Kyiv. This is a bit strange as it indicates that Poroschenko, and those around him, have a very limited understanding of the years of rule by Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in Georgia that began with some impressive and bold reforms, but also fell short of being the corruption free democracy that Saakashvili’s most ardent boosters, generally on the right wing of European and American politics, like to believe. It also suggests the rather implausible notion that in a country of more than 40 million, there are not enough people who are competent, ethical and hard-working enough to serve in their own government.
While Saakashvili is clearly a high profile figure with strong name recognition among people who pay attention to the countries of the former Soviet Union, President Poroschenko’s decision to bring not only Saakashvili himself, but so many people from his former government remains puzzling. This decision indicates that the lens through which Poroschenko understands recent Georgian history is a relatively narrow one, consistent with the UNM, and general neoconservative spin on events there. The story of reform and reducing corruption, particularly between 2004-2007 is incomplete without also discussing the limits on freedoms of media and assembly, harassment of the opposition, stagnating economy and, of course, the prison abuse scandal, that characterized the later years of UNM governance in Georgia. Poroschenko’s apparent failure to recognize this, and seeming willingness to transport the Georgian model wholesale to Ukraine, should raise concerns among those concerned about Ukraine’s democratic development, because if the Georgians helping run Ukraine now have not learned from their mistakes in Georgia, they could lead Ukraine down some very dangerous paths.
If Poroschenko wants to model Ukraine’s reforms on those of UNM era Georgia, he needs to be aware that those reforms were also often used rationalize away the weakening of democracy and limiting of freedoms in Georgia. Ukraine badly needs reforms, and the extraordinary work the UNM did on reducing low level corruption in Georgia would, if replicated, be great for every motorist, pensioner, student and citizen in Ukraine. However, Ukraine also needs democracy, stability and a measure of caution in its governance. These were never areas in which the UNM was particularly strong.
For Saakashvili, the appointment to Poroschenko’s government is an excellent development. It gives him a platform so he can institutionalize his position as an important international actor on matters regarding Russian aggression, and provides him with another layer of protection against efforts by the Georgian government to bring him to trial. Shortly after his appointment, the Georgian government asked Ukraine to extradite Saakashvili to Georgia. To the surprise of nobody, that request was refused.
The appointment also gives the former Georgian President another position from which to both trumpet his success as a reformer during his nearly a decade as President of Georgia and to attack the current Georgian government. Saakashvili and his foreign and Georgian supporters have spent a great deal of energy on these two tasks since the UNM lost a parliamentary election in 2012; and there is little reason they will stop their ongoing effort to spin their story, primarily to the west.
Although the politics surrounding Saakashvili’s relationship with the Ukrainian government are complex and potentially divisive, and the wisdom of the decision to bring Saakashvili on board is debatable, the work in Ukraine that the former Georgian President is charged with overseeing is not. Thus, regardless of particular views of the UNM regime in Georgia, it is important for anybody concerned about the future of most obviously Ukraine, but also the west, and indeed Georgia, that Saakashvili succeed in his work. If Ukraine remains corrupt with a moribund economy, Russia will be the winner. If, however, Ukraine can reform and rebuild its economy, it will be easier for Kyiv to push back against Russian aggression.
The former Georgian President, who has built his international reputation around being one of the most visible figures in the world seeking to draw attention to and limit Russias’ aggression, is undoubtedly aware of the stakes in Ukraine, and probably of the difficulty involved as well. In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Saakashvili outlined his new role and the importance of reform in Ukraine, but also stressed the danger posed by Putin to the west and the need for the west to arm Ukraine. These opinion pieces can be helpful, and his analysis is largely consistent with most of the Washington foreign policy establishment. However, this piece also suggests that Saakashvili will use his new position to continue to draw media attention to himself and, as reported elsewhere, to lobby for the US to send weapons to Ukraine.
The question of sending weapons to Ukraine is the subject of much debate in Washington, with the White House more reluctant than congress to send weapons, but the image of a very controversial Georgian politician, lobbying the US government to arm Ukraine is, to say the least, unusual. The added value Saakashvili brings to this effort can be easily overstated as well. Because his views are already so well known, and the question of arming Ukraine is such a high profile issue, Saakashvili's impact may be quite limited.
It also might not be good for Ukraine. It has already caused problems in the Georgia-Ukraine relationship and could lead to greater problems as Saakashvili is both under indictment in Georgia and unpopular among the electorate over which he recently presided. According to an August poll by NDI, Georgians disapprove of their former President by a margin of 49%-22%. Georgia is an important country for Ukraine as it is also threatened by Russia, looking towards the west and probably closer to NATO than Ukraine.
Having Ukraine’s interests represented by Saakashvili also leaves Ukraine vulnerable to becoming a partisan issue in the west. Saakashvili, while enjoying relationships across the political spectrum, is much more identified with the right wing of the Republican Party than any other American political grouping. Additionally, the Ukrainian leadership should be able to make its own argument to congress, rather than hiring a Georgian to do it. On the other hand, Ukraine should also be able to find a health minister or a first deputy interior minister without turning to Georgia, and apparently has not been able to do that either. The presence of so many members of a defeated, and inside of Georgia, disliked, Georgian political force in such visible roles in Ukraine may be good for the UNM, and for Saakashvili personally, but perhaps not so much for Ukraine.
While Saakashvili’s efforts to help Ukraine are sincere, they have also become another vehicle for his rehabilitation inside of Georgie, or more accurately for his ongoing quest to win support from the west while framing how the west views the current Georgian Dream (GD) government. Predictably, the media savvy, strategically sophisticated and telegenic Saakashvili has made real progress in this area, presenting himself as an altruistic advocate for Ukraine while helping the west view the GD, who are much less deft at communicating with the west, as petty and focused on punishing Saakashvii in order to achieve their narrow political goals, even if it hurts Georgia. This also supports the UNM meta-narrative that the GD is ultimately doing Moscow’s bidding.
Saakashvili, however, could probably be more helpful to Ukraine if he redirected his still impressive level of energy away from attempts to keep himself in the media and towards the much more difficult work of actually reforming Ukraine, rather than making the accurate, but not exactly ground breaking, point that Vladimir Putin is an aggressive autocrat causing great harm to Ukraine and threatening other countries. Doing the latter will always get Saakashvili that next opinion piece or television appearance but will not make any Ukrainian government agency function more effectively, honestly or openly.
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