Misha In Odessa and What It Might Mean for Georgia

The appointment of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as Governor of Odessa has set off a maelstrom of commentary among people who follow events in Ukraine and Georgia closely. Different analysts have hailed it as a potential stroke of genius by Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko, drawn attention to the difficult and disunified political environment Saakashvili will confront in Odessa, framed it as a very high risk bet by Poroschenko or worried that it is a triumph of politics over governance

Saakashvili’s appointment will raise issues for Georgia as well. Tom de Waal, in a recent piece largely devoted to the potential impact of the appointment on Transnistria, turned his attention to this question at the end of the article. “The UNM (United National Movement) has a solid but small base of support and Saakashvili’s divisive legacy is the major reason it cannot attract new supporters. If the party can get itself a new less controversial leader, the news that is shaking Odessa may have a calming effect on Georgia.”

De Waal is right that if Saakashvili finds himself fully engaged in his work in Odessa, that might allow the UNM to pivot into a post-Saakashvili era, rather than still being defined by an unpopular former President. Last week, however, Saakashvili, almost as if responding to de Waal’s article dutifully demonstrated that he was not moving off the Georgian political stage and still planned to return to Georgia to deliver that country from what Saakashvili perceives to be the misrule of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Telling a Georgian interviewer, according to Eurasianet.org that “I shall return, and ‘we will’ bring jobs, education and dignity to Georgia, which, he claims, 'has become uncool’ (gabandzda) under a government of amateurs and sycophants to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.” 

The questions of how a term limited President can return to power in Georgia, or whether the country would benefit from moving away from the model of rule by one larger than life figure notwithstanding, this is not great news for the UNM. As long as the UNM can easily be portrayed as a vehicle for Saakashvili’s return, that party is not likely to grow into the valuable political force, with a clear ideology, and base of support, that it could become. Instead, it will remain mired in the politics of 2008-2012.

The prospects of the UNM are only one way in which the former Georgian President’s new job will have bearing on Georgia. The appointment of Saakashvili in Odessa will also bring Georgia back into the Russia-Ukraine conflict in a way that may not be helpful for Georgia. In the almost two years since the Euromaidan movement began, followed by President Yanukovych’s flight from Ukraine and then Russia’s multi-tiered invasion of Ukraine, Saakashvili has energetically and assiduously sought to build his post-2012 image around first his admission of defeat in the Georgian election in October of that year and second, his position as one of the world’s loudest, most visible and most eloquent critic of Russia and its authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin.

Saakashvili’s political sleight of hand during these almost two years has been to persuade his international supporters, in Kiev and elsewhere, that his strong anti-Russian sentiment is evidence of his record as a democrat and corruption fighter in Georgia. Poroschenko has clearly been persuaded of this by Saakashvili, as the Ukrainian leader has a perception of Saakashvili that is more the product of the former President’s impressive spin than of a rigorous examination of Saakashvili’s record and recent Georgian political history. This may well lead Poroschenko to disappointment with his new Odessa chief executive.

It will also, however, influence how Georgia is seen globally. Because the focal point of western anti-Russia sentiment is now Ukraine, and because Saakashvili now has a uniquely visible, and very important, role there, he will have undue influence on how Georgia is perceived, particularly among the most ardent opponents of Russia. It is apparent that as long as Saakashvili remains in his present post, he, not any of Georgia’s current leaders, will be the most visible Georgian in the post-Soviet space as well as globally. In that capacity, Saakashvili can continue to suggest that Georgia is in a tailspin since his party left power, that the current Georgian government is wobbly in its western orientation and that he alone is uniquely positioned to return to power and save Georgia.

The effect of this on Georgian politics will be mixed at best. The notion of Saakashvili continuing to loom, if from a distance, over Georgian domestic politics and the UNM, will probably help the GD minimize the electoral impact of the UNM as the 2016 election approaches. The more general impact of this on Georgia’s future could be more significant. It is probably not helpful for Georgia that the highest profile Georgian in the region continues to sow doubts about the political direction of the Georgian government and, by extension, the Georgian state.

In Georgia, questioning the pro-western credentials of political opponents is standard political fare. It has also long been part of the spillover of Georgia’s domestic politics into the international arena as supporters of various political groupings, most notably the UNM, have frequently come to the west bearing the grim news that they alone are committed to Georgia’s western course. In this regard there is nothing particularly new about what Saakashvili is doing, but because of his renewed prominence, these accusations, and this paradigm for understanding Georgia, will again frame perceptions of that country. Ultimately, Saakashvili’s rhetoric on the current Georgia government is not only off-base and tedious, but it rests on a logical inconsistency that could be very damaging to Georgia. 

Georgia’s future, as the current government well understands, lies in further integration into the EU and NATO. Member states in both the EU and NATO are divided on Georgia, making the challenge for Georgia difficult. A key asset that Georgia has in that struggle is a public that is still largely supportive of Georgia’s western aspirations. That has been shown both through public opinion research and, according to most interpretations, election results, as the parties and candidates that combine for huge majorities of the votes are pro-west. If, as Saakashvili and others claim, the GD is not pro-west, the latter piece of evidence collapses. In that case, Georgia’s electorate is better understood as divided on questions of NATO and the EU. If that misunderstanding of Georgia grows, Georgia’s hopes of making it into the EU and NATO will become even more distant.

The irony is that the broad agreement around Georgia’s pro-west orientation is, in significant part, due to the hard work of Saakashvili himself who, as President, was a tireless advocate for Georgia moving towards the west. He both understood the value of having broad public support for that view and had the political skills to help develop that support. It is a credit to the depth of the Georgian people’s pro-western hopes that while they eventually tired of Saakashvili, they did not cast away their pro-west sentiments as well. The question of why Saakashvili now seeks to portray Georgia that way in pursuit of what increasingly looks like a pipe dream of returning to power, is one for which there is no apparent answer.

It is not at all clear the extent to which Saakashvili’s protestations about the current Georgian government are getting any traction in Kiev or elsewhere. The GD led government appears to be making slow but forward progress towards the EU and NATO in the same way that the UNM did before it. Despite this, Saakashvili’s ascendancy in the Poroschenko government, and the failure of anybody in the west to visibly caution the Ukrainian leadership about the other side of the Saakashvili story and how the appointment could backfire for Kiev, indicates that Saakashvili’s efforts to be the arbiter of recent Georgian history have been at least partially effective.

A central reality of Saakashvili’s appointment is that it is imperative for Ukraine, the west and that majority of Georgians who want to see their country move further towards the west, that he succeed. Correspondingly, if Saakashvili manages to reduce corruption and build a pro-west consensus in Georgia he will have solidified his role as the preeminent corruption fighter and leading anti-Russia voice of this era.

If Poroschenko can get the best out of Saakashvili, this will have seemed like a brilliant move, international pressure on the current Georgian government to drop all charges against the former President will grow, and Saakashvili will indeed be in a better position to return to Georgian political life at some point. If, however, Saakashvili fails in Odessa, he will struggle to continue to be taken seriously by international actors outside of his political base in the Euro-Atlantic neoconservative right. The stakes, therefore, are very high for Georgia, Ukraine and Saakashvili himself, high enough that both Saakashvili and Ukraine would benefit from Saakashvili focusing, for the first time in more years than his new patrons might want to recognize, on governance, and spending less time kibitzing about the country he used to lead.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email lincoln@lincolnmitchell.com.