At midnight, the Soviet-era Odessa Regional State Administration Building is nearly deserted: a melancholy place plunged in shadow. But on the fifth floor, at the very end of the hallway, the governor’s anteroom is bustling. An assistant with model-like proportions and wearing peach stilettos makes tea and coffee for the small cohort of international journalists waiting their turn for an interview. The press officer plays Adele tracks on her computer. As the hours tick by, Mikheil Saakashvili’s domain feels almost enchanted: a place of youthful energy and blazing lights in a sea of darkness.
Last May, the charismatic former president of Georgia was appointed to his new post as governor of one of Ukraine’s most important – and potentially volatile – regions. Since then Saakashvili has been implementing the same kinds of corruption-busting measures in this largely Russophone region that he instituted during his term in Georgia, from rehauling government bureaucracies to replacing the entire traffic-police force. While Russian president Vladimir Putin is not a fan, Saakashvili enjoys broad-based popularity in Ukraine, where supporters hope he can do for them what he did for Georgia, not least attracting much-needed foreign investment. Who knows? He might even turn Odessa into the new Batumi.
Monocle:What would you say is at stake here in Odessa?
Mikheil Saakashvili: If Odessa can reform, Russia can reform. All kinds of topos [concepts] are being tested here.
M:What have you been doing so far?
MS: Well, I’ve been trying to change the largest region of Ukraine and along the way trying to act as agent provocateur for major change in the whole country of 46 million people. That’s more or less it.
M:And you’ve been doing that by, for example, replacing Odessa’s port director?
MS: What we did is go after all corrupt systems. We downsized our staff by half. We put the idea of privatising the port on the national agenda. We fired all the heads of district administrations and brought in new heads, many of them educated in the West. There are people with degrees from the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Harvard taking over in places where you used to have people from old Communist party schools, or people with thuggish connections from the 1990s.
M:Is it going to work?
MS: Ukraine has no alternative. If we don’t make major reforms all over the country, the state apparatus will have a meltdown and we’ll have a threat of the paramilitary and other chaotic groups taking over and creating a big mess – and Russia benefitting from all of this. In Odessa we need to take the lead and show we are capable of radical change.
M:How important is Odessa to Russia?
MS: It’s very important. Basically, Putin thinks that Odessa is supposed to be in Russia. It’s true that Odessa’s people are overwhelmingly Russophone but the new Ukraine acknowledges that they have a distinct identity. That’s what the new Ukraine is all about: it’s open to all kinds of people. It’s also true that it will take some time before Odessa is fully integrated; what people here have seen is not the new face of Ukraine. They have seen the worst roads in Europe, the worst water systems and the most corrupt bureaucrats in the region. If the new Ukraine builds good roads, cuts off corruption, makes a new police force and creates easier services for the people, they will never look back at Russia.
M:Tell us about the new traffic police.
MS: First of all they are no longer taking bribes; second, they look better. They talk like human beings. They have better uniforms; they are better equipped. Before, the idea was that if you were recruited by the police force you would get money for petrol, cars, sustaining your family and paying kickbacks to your superior. Now the police are being paid by the state, it’s totally different.
M:With so much entrenched corruption, how do you even start?
MS: The situation is not hopeless; you just set up standards and examples.
M:That was your experience in Georgia?
MS: You need to show people it can be different – the problem in Ukraine is that nobody believes that it can be different. That’s why the Georgian example is so important but we need to create a Ukrainian experience they can relate to. I think people here are much better prepared for these reforms than Georgians were. I became president of Georgia 12 years ago but there is a new generation now. Second, people here are natural entrepreneurs. They are always pushing the government to change, to do things. It’s paradise for a reformer.
M:This summer you were riding a city tram that was blocked by a brand-new Mercedes parked on the tracks. What happened there?
MS: Some guy thought that because he was driving a luxury car he could stop 30 people in a tram from travelling from A to B – because he wanted to go to a restaurant and have a drink. I jumped out of the tram and forced the police to remove that car. I really didn’t like that car! In the tram people were mostly supportive. They came out to take pictures with me. One guy, who was the most sceptical, said, “Don’t be so flattered: people also take pictures of monkeys at the zoo.” Maybe he had a point.