Our (Neocon) Man in Odessa

"People compare my style with that of J.F.K., but in terms of substance, I feel much closer to Ataturk or Ben-Gurion or General de Gaulle – people who had to build nation states."

~ Mikheil Saakashvili

If you had to use one word to sum up newly minted Odessa Governor and former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, it would probably be slick or, less charitably, phony. Educated at Washington University in DC and Columbia Law School, he ‘s extremely comfortable addressing North American politicians and power brokers using their own talking points

He’s so good at this that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by both John McCain and Hillary Clinton in 2005. In fairness, his hawkish supporters couldn’t have known at the time that he’d start and lose a war with Russia at the cost of 25% percent of his country’s territory, hundreds of lives and thousands of refugees.

From the grand gesture of barging into the Georgian parliament where he presented a rose to the back of a fleeing President Eduard Shevardnadze while screaming for his resignation in 2003, to his recent, fashionable exile in Williamsburg, New York, Saakashvili has used his obvious charm to build a network of powerful supporters inside the Beltway. He is a man who always has the word democracy on his lips, even when it’s meaningless, as when he explained to the New York Times that Brooklyn coffee shop Mogador is "my absolute favorite cafe, because it’s very democratic."

Although he has been charged in Georgia with human rights abuses resulting from protests near the end of his reign and the embezzlement of government funds to pay for, among other things, hotels and flights for "two fashion models" and at least $10,000 for services, possibly including "bite massages", by an American masseuse, Dorothy Stein, the American press generally presents the case against Saakashvili as politically motivated. While there is no doubt some truth to this, Georgian politics are a full contact sport, the facts above, as reported by multiple mainstream sources, don’t lie.

Tellingly, Saakashvili relinquished his Georgian citizenship for a Ukrainian passport when he accepted his new post, meaning he is unlikely to return to Tbilisi to face his accusers. One wonders if his Dutch wife and younger son, who remained in Georgia throughout his exile, will join him in his new home.

Odessa and its Discontents

Odessa, Saakashvili’s new fiefdom, was a warm water port city in Greek antiquity and, because of its prime location on the Black Sea, passed through numerous hands until the Russian Empire captured it from the Ottoman Turks in 1792. Catherine the Great officially founded the city in 1794, giving it its modern name. It also came to be the name of the Oblast (province or state) that contains the city itself and over which the Georgian’s remit extends.

The city and surrounding area is majority Russian speaking, and the region is of great strategic importance for its three major ports. It is also of particular interest to Russia, as it borders the legally autonomous pro-Russian statelet of Trans-Dniester on the Moldovan border to the west. As reported by Time Magazine in March, 2014, Saakashvili predicted that Putin would soon move to establish control over this area which could be one of the reasons he chose to take the post.

The city of Odessa was most recently in the news when it was the scene of one of the most brutal moments in the low intensity civil war that followed the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych after mass protests in Kiev’s Maidan. Although not really covered by the Western press, footage that is easily found on YouTube shows an attack by the Neo-Nazi Right Sector on the historic Trade Unions House where dozens of people, including pregnant women were shot, suffocated and burned to death and hundreds injured for the crime of being "Pro-Russian sympathizers".

Seeming somewhat eager to throw this tragedy into the dustbin of history, one of Saakashvili’s first acts as Governor was to announce that he wants to re-purpose the building. If he gets his way it will be the new headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy.

Saakashvili has also been accused, like his nemesis Putin, of infringing on press freedoms (famously using police to shut down a Georgian television station, Imedi, which was critical of his handling of the prisons’ scandal and resultant protests).This is troubling because the situation for some journalists in the Odessa Oblast is already dire.

Take the treatment of Vitaly Didenko, editor of a local website, infocenter-odessa.com who in May was "arrested on trumped up charges of drug possession which, according to multiple sources in Odessa, are entirely fabricated by the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) secret police in order to create a pretext upon which to detain him." After having his arm and several ribs broken he was put in an Odessa jail where he remains as of this writing. Hopefully, Saakashvili has learned from his past mistakes and will try to put an end to these kinds of abuses.

The Real Saakashvili Record

Saakashvili was lionized in the western press for his battle against low level corruption in Georgia. His administration had some success at this, as shown by Transparency International’s corruption index for the country, progress had been made in combating the problem by 2010. However, the law and order policies that grew out of this focus also had what can only be described as disastrous consequences for the country’s justice system.

As reported in the UK Independent, during Saakashvili’s reign, Georgia’s court system had an acquittal rate of less than 0.1%.. The result of this was the 6th largest prison population per capita in the world and the largest in Europe. The legal system became so Kafkaesque that transcripts of trials were only available three days after their end while appeals needed to be handled within 48 hours!

Saakashvili isn’t the only Georgian in the Ukrainian government who must bear some of the blame for the horrific conditions in the prison system which led the Independent to call one of them, Gldani #8, Georgia’s Abu Ghraib. Ekaterina Zguladze was the Deputy Minister of the Interior in Georgia when the abuses took place and was temporarily promoted before Saakashvili’s government was booted from power. She has also relinquished her Georgian citizenship and will hold the same position in the Ukraine.

Part of her mandate in her new country appears to be transforming Ukraine’s "militia" (the term for police there, not to be confused with the often openly Neo-Nazi groups operating in the east of the country) into modern, uncorrupted police forces. To do so, she will have to stand up to some of the country’s Oligarchs whose power outstrips anything she or her former boss were faced with in tiny Georgia.

A Danger to Peace

The strange phenomenon of Georgian and other foreign carpetbaggers being given high level positions by the Poroshenko government should raise some alarm not only in the country itself but in other European capitals, who are put at risk by such a forcefully anti-Russian orientation in Ukraine. Saying that these kinds of appointments are to combat Oligarchs is as absurd as saying there was not one qualified Ukrainian for these positions. Poroshenko is himself an oligarch, and is no doubt using his clout to go after rivals, something we’ve seen time and again in former Soviet states.

This is not to dismiss the genuine historical suffering of the Ukrainian people under Russian and Soviet leaders like Stalin (who, for the record, was actually a Georgian) but rather to recognize that, because of the country’s ethnic makeup, there is a real possibility that what is happening in the east of the country could extend into the Odessa Oblast at the cost of many more human lives. This is something that the Western press should be decrying rather than encouraging.

There’s no doubt that Vladimir Putin’s social policy could have been forged in the extreme right of the Republican Party, but what he isn’t, is crazy or a "New Hitler" (can we now retire this useless comparison?). He has shown himself, most recently in twisting Bashar Al Assad’s arm into giving up his chemical weapons arsenal, to be a rational actor, that is, someone who can be negotiated with. This quality has been less visible in Saakashvili who, based on the 2008 war alone, has shown he is prone to make rash decisions with awful consequences.

As Alexander Cooley, the Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute was recently quoted as saying about Saakashvili’s Odessa appointment, "Rather than getting on with the difficult internal process of reforming Ukrainian institutions, this move sends geopolitical signals that the Ukrainian government is thinking more about ideology, image and positioning in the eyes of certain western actors, rather than governance." It is a problem which could have serious consequences for all Ukrainians, regardless of their ethnicity.

Derek Royden is a regular contributor to Occupy.com and a news feature writer for Skunk Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @derekroyden.