Mikheil Saakashvili paid a visit to Canada last week. I had the pleasure of speaking with him as well as hearing him dissect the political situation in Ukraine. For those of you who may ask why the analysis of a former President of Georgia is relevant to the current situation in Ukraine as well as to us Ukrainians here in the diaspora, a little history is in order.
Saakashvili was President of Georgia from 2004 to 2012. He came into power following the so-called “Rose Revolution” that unseated President Eduard Shevardnadze. One must remember that Ukraine’s Orange Revolution took place at about the same time, with Yushchenko becoming President in Ukraine.
The comparisons unfortunately end there. While Yushchenko stumbled badly and failed to turn Ukraine into a viable European state, Saakashvili succeeded way beyond most people’s expectations. During his eight years in power, he made a huge impact at rooting out corruption, purging the government of self-serving Soviet bureaucrats, arresting predatory oligarchs, reforming taxes and the economy, and privatizing former state enterprises. While Ukraine’s economy remained in shambles, Georgia’s GDP improved significantly, as did the Georgian quality of life. The only criticism of his track record while in power, was the fact that at times, he may have paid lip service to strict constitutional legalities in order to achieve his ends. There was no doubt though, that he did effectively achieve his end goals of transforming Georgia into a civil society on the European model. His track record speaks for itself.
What many Ukrainians may not realize is that Saakashvili has strong Ukrainian ties. During Soviet times, he did his mandatory military service in Ukraine as well getting his University education at the prestigious Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv. It was at this time that he became friends with another ambitious political activist by the name of Petro Poroshenko. He subsequently obtained a law degree at Columbia University in New York and served as an intern at the United Nations.
Fast forwarding to more recent times, when Poroshenko became President of Ukraine, he appointed Saakashvili as a personal advisor, granted him Ukrainian citizenship, and then made him Governor of Odesa. As Governor, Saakashvili tried to impose on the Oblast administration, the same kind of drastic reforms that he had achieved while President of Georgia. Regrettably, he ran up against the deeply entrenched oligarchic elites that still wield exceptional political and economic power within Ukraine. When he turned to the Kyiv authorities and President Poroshenko for support, he found their backs were turned on him. Facing the brutal reality that the current administration’s commitment to true reform is at best lukewarm, he resigned his position in November of 2016.
Saakashvili is not one to give up easily though, and since his resignation he has embarked on a new strategy. Shortly after his resignation he started a new political party called the Movement of New Forces, with a party platform focused strongly on aggressively fighting corruption and breaking up the political and economic control that the oligarchs have in Ukraine. He has two years before the next elections in 2019 to persuade the Ukrainian populace that he is the one best qualified to “clean out the stables” in Kyiv.
His visit to Canada is part of the process of gaining visibility and credibility both at home and abroad. He has an uphill road to climb of course, and no shortage of competitors. The contenders for the next President of Ukraine are many – Petro Poroshenko, the pugnacious Yulia Tymoshenko, Arseniy Yatseniuk, Andriy Sadovyi, Nadya Savchenko, Volodymyr Groysman, and many others. The problem with most of these is that they represent more of the same old, same old. They have all been around and had their kick at the can and have accomplished very little in real terms. Saakashvili’s task is to convince Ukraine that he, as a now newly minted Ukrainian citizen, is different and will actually do what he says he will. His most telling argument of course, is that he has actually done all this before in Georgia.
I have no doubt that it will be a struggle for him, as the Ukrainian oligarchs will do everything they can to undermine, smear and sabotage his campaign, knowing full well, that if he comes into power, their days will really be numbered this time around.
I must admit that I was impressed with both the man and the politician, and Ukraine could do far worse than having him at the helm. I wish him well.