Can Saakashvili rescue Ukraine’s reform agenda?UkraineAlert by Peter Dickinson
TUE, MAY 12, 2020
Mikheil Saakashvili has promised to help President Zelenskyy “drain the swamp” as the former Georgian president embarks on the latest chapter of his unlikely second career in Ukrainian politics. On May 7, Zelenskyy appointed Saakashvili to head the executive committee of Ukraine’s National Reform Council. The appointment came after an April bid to install him as Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for Reforms failed to garner the necessary support among MPs.
Saakashvili’s new role at the helm of a little-known government advisory body is a considerable step down for a man once touted as the most successful reformer in the former USSR. Nevertheless, it marks the end of an extended period in the political wilderness following his resignation as governor of Ukraine’s Odesa region in November 2016.
Saakashvili has longstanding ties to Ukraine, having studied in Kyiv as a university undergraduate in the twilight years of the Soviet Union and the dawn of Ukrainian independence. Following the end of his second term as president of Georgia, Saakashvili left his homeland in 2013 to avoid possible prosecution. His attempts to launch a new career in Ukrainian politics began soon afterwards. Saakashvili first lent his support to the country’s 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity and subsequent resistance to Russian military aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, before accepting Ukrainian citizenship in May 2015 and becoming governor of Odesa region on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast.
Saakashvili’s bid to transform Odesa region soon ran aground amid strong resistance from local vested interests and a lack of political support from Kyiv, leading to his resignation and a period in increasingly direct confrontationwith the Ukrainian government that culminated in the loss of his Ukrainian citizenship and his physical removal from the country. Undeterred by these setbacks, Saakashvili welcomed Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s 2019 presidential election victory as an opportunity to resume his Ukrainian political career, and duly had his Ukrainian citizenship reinstated within days of Zelenskyy’s inauguration.
The larger-than-life former Georgian president’s recent appointment to lead Ukraine’s National Reform Council has succeeded in generating headlines both domestically and internationally, but many remain unconvinced that this new role will allow Saakashvili to make his mark. His return to politics comes shortly after the dismissal of numerous prominent Ukrainian reformers, leading to suggestions that Saakashvili’s much-heralded arrival is primarily an attempt to distract attention from the Zelenskyy government’s unfolding anti-reform agenda.
What can Saakashvili realistically hope to achieve as head of Ukraine’s National Reform Council, and what does his appointment mean for the future of reforms in Ukraine?
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine: I don’t expect to see the results of Mikheil Saakashvili’s appointment within a matter of days, but in the coming months we should see an impact. This will primarily mean deregulation in the business environment and reform of the customs service. We have discussed these issues at length. Saakashvili explained how he appointed entirely new people in the Georgian customs service, but was forced to dismiss them all and repeat the process several times. Customs reform is a very challenging issue, but I am committed to supporting Saakashvili’s efforts in this direction. Another key aspect of his appointment is Saakashvili’s positive experience of working with investment communities in many different countries. When Georgia developed Batumi as a major resort city during his presidency, they were able to attract various strategic investors including some of the biggest international hotel chains. This experience is important for Ukraine. (President Zelenskyy was speaking on May 9 during a visit to Zakarpattia region)
Oleksiy Goncharenko, Ukrainian MP, European Solidarity party: First of all, we need to understand that despite the word “executive” in the title, Saakashvili’s new position is advisory in nature. So the real question is not Saakashvili’s role, but the political will of President Zelenskyy himself to engage in genuine reform. I see no evidence from the first year of his presidency to suggest that this is the case. On the contrary, his most recent actions relating to healthcare reform demonstrate that Zelenskyy is currently more interested in his approval rating than in reforms. This raises the question of the real objective behind the appointment of a first-rate orator like Saakashvili to position that gives him a prominent platform but little actual political leverage. It is very possible that Saakashvili will become a spokesman of sorts for Zelenskyy’s reforms, which will remain a media phenomenon with little relation to real life.
Lisa Yasko, Ukrainian MP, Servant of the People party: The appointment of Mikheil Saakashvili is an opportunity to inject new pace into the implementation of reforms. I think Saakashvili can bring much-needed drive and direction to the Ukrainian reform process. He has the potential to make a positive contribution rather than serving as a destructive influence as some skeptics might argue. A lot will depend on attitudes among the cabinet of ministers and members of parliament. We need to work together with the necessary drive and without losing sight of the goals established by President Zelenskyy. I am convinced that Saakashvili is entirely sincere in his desire to help Ukraine achieve its national transformation. This is a good reason to be cautiously optimistic about his appointment.