When President Volodymyr Zelensky offered former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili the job of deputy prime minister for reforms on April 22, it was bound to make headlines.
Saakashvili is a colorful character, famous for his rapid reforms in Georgia, his short tenure as governor of Odesa Oblast and his forced expulsion from Ukraine under Zelensky’s predecessor.
That reputation is also an obstacle: Saakashvili’s appointment was stalled and he has not received any job so far.
Zelensky’s seemingly odd offer to the former Georgian president was an attempt to insert an influential reformer into the government as the country suffers under the global COVID-19 pandemic and current economic crisis, according to Saakashvili.
He’s likely not wrong, political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said.
“The main motive was to strengthen the government. He is a heavyweight,” he told the Kyiv Post. “Zelensky wanted Saakashvili as an energizer and catalyst.”
However, the Verkhovna Rada failed to muster enough votes for Saakashvili’s appointment and did not consider the issue at its meetings on April 24 and April 30.
Influential powerbrokers and much of Zelensky’s own faction opposed the former Georgian president’s candidacy. Zelensky allies fear that Saakashvili, known for his robust and flamboyant personality, may soon clash with the current administration, just like he did with Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko.
But Zelensky didn’t give up hope to find a place for Saakashvili. On April 30, head of Zelensky’s faction in parliament David Arakhamia said that Saakashvili was offered another position in the government. He said he couldn’t reveal which position it was.
Speculation is rife that Saakashvili may be appointed as an advisor to Zelensky or an acting minister. He could even be chosen as a candidate from Zelensky’s team for Odesa’s mayoral election this fall.
One of the reasons why Zelensky considered appointing Saakashvili was apparently to seek his help as Ukraine stares down a dire economic crisis.
“The situation in the country is crossing a critical threshold,” Saakashvili said on the Ukraine television channel on April 25. “Not just a crisis — a whole storm or tsunami — is coming to Ukraine. Its very existence is under threat.”
The former Georgian president lashed out at corrupt bureaucrats and politicians who “think this is business as usual.”
“A storm is coming, and it’s not the right time to bask in the sun,” he added. “Either Ukraine will survive with them or without them.”
The only way to cope with the crisis is through deregulation and tax cuts, which will help businesses to survive, Saakashvili said.
“The oligarchic economic system doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “Either we will save small and medium-sized businesses or Ukraine will have no future. Jobs are created by (economic) freedom and the absence of corruption.”
If appointed, Saakashvili said he would take major action to boost the economy and would aim to move Ukraine up by 20 positions in the Doing Business ranking.
“We should view this as a great challenge and a great opportunity and re-think the structure of the Ukrainian state,” he said. “What has been done over the past 30 years doesn’t work.”
Cooperation with the West
Known for his ties with the West, Saakashvili has presented himself as a potential liaison who can work with Western governments and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
He said he is acquainted with Western leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Saakashvili also said he would try to persuade the IMF to lend Ukraine up to $10 billion this year. Currently, the IMF is expected to disburse an $8-billion loan.
“I know how to work with them on equal terms,” he said at a meeting with lawmakers from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party on April 24.
Some argue, however, that the media uproar over Saakashvili’s potential appointment was used as a smokescreen to divert attention from several scandals that have ensnared the government.
These include the sudden firings on April 24 of Serhiy Verlanov, head of the State Tax Service, and Maksym Nefyodov, head of the State Customs Service. Both have the reputation of pro-Western reformers.
Additionally, Verlanov was rapidly replaced with Oleksiy Lyubchenko, who is likely banned from working in the government under the 2014 law that forbids officials who served under ex-President Viktor Yanukovych from holding top offices.
A parliamentary committee’s decision to back a bill allowing the dismissal of Artem Sytnyk, head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, has also sparked controversy. Anti-graft activists believe it would undermine the bureau’s independence.
Fesenko said that the Saakashvili saga had also distracted attention from the scandal surrounding leaked video footage that appeared to show the brother of Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak in negotiations to sell government jobs. Andriy Yermak and his brother Denys dismissed accusations of wrongdoing, but did not deny the authenticity of the footage.
Conflict with Zelensky?
One of the reasons why Zelensky’s allies blocked Saakashvili’s appointment may be that they fear his past conflict with ex-President Poroshenko will repeat during Zelensky’s presidency.
Poroshenko invited Saakashvili to Ukraine, gave him Ukrainian citizenship and appointed him as governor of Odesa Oblast in 2015.
However, Saakashvili resigned in 2016, accusing Poroshenko’s allies of engaging in corruption and preventing reforms. In 2017, Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship while he was out of the country.
Saakashvili then returned to Ukraine by breaking through the border with Poland and was arrested by Ukrainian law enforcement in what he sees as a fabricated criminal case. Ukrainian authorities then deported Saakashvili without a court order in 2018, despite the explicit ban on deportations without court approval.
Saakashvili returned to Ukraine again in 2019 after Zelensky restored his Ukrainian citizenship.
“Poroshenko was not interested in real reforms, but just in their imitation,” Fesenko said. “And Saakashvili got out of control.”
Servant of the People lawmakers asked Saakashvili at a meeting on April 24 if he would stay loyal to Zelensky and would not “betray” him.
Saakashvili argued that he “does not seek conflict and is afraid of conflict.”
“I’ve had just one conflict — with Poroshenko — and I’m still regretting it,” he said. “I’m a fighter and I like to fight for a just cause. Conflict is not a goal for me… If Zelensky fails, Ukraine may cease to exist.”
He said he believes there is a major difference between Poroshenko and Zelensky: The former wanted to enrich himself, and the latter genuinely wants to help the people.
Multiple groups in parliament have mounted fierce resistance against Saakashvili’s appointment.
He was opposed by allies of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, as well as by the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life party.
“There are people in the Rada whose cash cows I shut down (as Odesa governor), and that’s why they don’t want me to be in government,” Saakashvili said.
Saakashvili has had a long-running conflict with Avakov since 2015, when he publicly quarrelled with him at an official meeting and called him a thief. In response, Avakov threw a glass of water in his face. Saakashvili then campaigned against alleged corruption in then-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Cabinet, which included Avakov.
Recently, however, Saakashvili has tried to downplay his conflict with Avakov, refraining from confrontation and saying that it is up to Zelensky to decide on Avakov’s role in the government. Still, he argued that police reform has been blocked under Avakov’s leadership.
“They wanted to appoint Saakashvili as a counterweight to Avakov,” Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, told the Kyiv Post. “And Avakov is succeeding in preventing his appointment.”
Clash with Boyko
Yuriy Boyko, leader of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life faction, also lashed out at Saakashvili on the Ukraine channel on April 25, arguing that criminal verdicts against the former Georgian president in his home country should prevent his appointment.
After Saakashvili’s presidential term ended in 2013, he left Georgia. The new government then opened criminal cases against him that he deems to be politically motivated.
In 2018, a Georgian court sentenced Saakashvili in absentia on charges of ordering the beating of opposition lawmaker Valery Gelashvili. The evidence against Saakashvili was based on testimony by two of his political foes.
That same year, a Tbilisi court also sentenced Saakashvili in absentia to three years in prison on abuse of power charges for pardoning four police officers convicted of murder. Saakashvili dismissed the accusations as absurd, arguing that his right to pardon them was not constitutionally limited.
Interpol and Western governments have not recognized the verdicts. Georgia’s current Georgian Dream government has vehemently opposed Saakashvili’s potential appointment in Ukraine.
Boyko also accused Saakashvili of failing to demonstrate results in Odesa Oblast.
Saakashvili defended his record in Odesa by saying that he eliminated corruption in customs during his governorship, built a highway to the town of Reni, hired non-corrupt officials through a transparent procedure and went after local corrupt officials by working with his allies in the prosecution and the police.
He argued, however, that Poroshenko obstructed his efforts and, as a result, he did not achieve the results he hoped for.
Saakashvili has also boasted about his record in Georgia, when he carried out law enforcement and free-market reforms in 2004-2013.
“I’m not an enemy of Boyko,” Saakashvili said. “I’m an enemy of his master, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. They believe the capital is not in Kyiv but in Moscow, and they flock there.”
He also lambasted Boyko for becoming one of Ukraine’s richest people when he served Yanukovych as energy minister in 2010-2012 and hinted at Boyko’s alleged role in the embezzlement of $400 million during the purchase of oil rigs. Boyko has denied these accusations.
“I started off with a country that was collapsing, and its economy then grew fourfold,” Saakashvili said. “You started off with a marvelous country, Ukraine, and turned it into something worse than sub-Saharan Africa.”
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