Like some human Stretch Armstrong doll, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili might have to stretch pretty far to play a political role in both Ukraine and Georgia after resigning from a key Ukrainian governorship on November 7.
At least one spectator, Russia, is likely to enjoy the sight, however. Particularly if the longtime nemesis of Russian President Vladimir Putin splits in the middle.
Saakashvili’s angry resignation as governor of the Ukrainian port city of Odesa raised fresh questions about whether the reforms of Ukraine’s pro-Western government, no friend of Moscow, are all they’re cracked up to be.
“How much can you lie and cheat?” the 48-year-old governor asked in a diatribe about Ukrainian corruption aimed both at his onetime university classmate, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and the president’s political pals.
Poroshenko appears to have no regrets at seeing him go. He told reporters in Slovenia on November 8 that he hoped the Ukrainian cabinet approved Saakashvili’s resignation if he is bent on joining the country’s opposition. “We are a democratic state . . . “ he asserted, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The cabinet is expected to discuss the matter on November 9.
Russia’s state-run or associated press – in other words, most of it — can barely contain its glee at the news, seeing it as a precursor of Saakashvili’s general political evaporation. “A farewell tour or escaping from a sinking ship,” proclaimed a Vesti.ru headline about Saakashvili’s resignation.
Other Russian news stories claim Ukraine’s economic crisis prompted this move or, rehashing one Georgian state minister’s criticism, refer to Saakashvili as a “bankrupt politician.”
Conceivably, the fact that the Ukrainian presidential administration has stated that it will “analyze” the reasons for his resignation could offer further opportunities for these spin-masters.
The largely uniform Russian media coverage also has emphasized that Kyiv wanted Saakashvili to go this summer when it supposedly became clear that he was not making the cut.
The Georgian-born politician, now a Ukrainian citizen, long has complained about alleged obstacles for his corruption-busting in Odesa. He has served as the region’s governor since May 2015.
But what Saakashvili’s announced departure means for Ukraine’s larger anti-corruption, anti-Putin front is unclear, however.
Back in May, one of Saakashvili’s closest Georgian political comrades-in-arms, Davit Saqvarelidze, a former Ukrainian deputy chief prosecutor, announced plans to create “a new party” with the ex-Georgian leader as one of its “ideologues and drivers.”
On November 7, Sakvarelidze told the Ukrainian news outlet Gordon.ua that Saakashvili will not leave Ukraine and will continue to be active in Ukrainian politics.
“Saakashvili’s further steps will be aimed at nationwide changes. It’s necessary to clean the whole lake, and not some part of it, with limited possibilities [for change],” he said.
Elaborating to the Ukrainian-language LB.ua, Sakvarelidze mentioned an attempt to hold early presidential elections.
He did not elaborate about how that would happen.
One report, though, has claimed that Saakashvili and Sakvarelidze are trying to set up a “united front” of opposition parties in Ukraine; a tactic Saakashvili put to work in Georgia nearly 15 years ago to the day when he announced, on November 7, 2001, the creation of the then “New National Movement.”
Whatever his ultimate choice, meanwhile he’s keeping an eye on PR.
A Russian-language video posted on Saakashvili’s Facebook page not long after his resignation detailed how he allegedly has improved Odesa’s infrastructure. The list of items may sound familiar from his Georgian past – new roads, a new airport, and, of course, fighting corruption. To back that up, a news story posted on his page featured local businesses managers generally praising Saakashvii’s efforts, with blame for failure falling on the status quo.
But one commentator for Foreign Policy cautioned that, in attempting to combat Odesa’s corruption, Saakashvili ultimately made questionable compromises; particularly when it came to road-building. Saakashvili has not responded.
Taking a break from past practice when political drama hits, nor has he elaborated on-air about his resignation with the Georgian TV station Rustavi2, a political ally.
While opinions vary in Georgia about what role Saakashvili, who lost his Georgian citizenship when he became Ukrainian, now should or could play, no clear sign exists that he will reinvent himself, yet again, via Georgian politics.
A tug-of-war has emerged within the Georgian party he co-founded, the United National Movement (UNM), over whether or not to elect a new leader after the UNM took a serious hit in the October parliamentary polls. Many blame Saakashvili’s promise of a post-election homecoming (he currently faces criminal charges in Georgia) for the defeat.
Against that backdrop, caution seems to be the watchword.
“No one can replace Saakashvili since he is a large-scale figure . . .” commented Elene Koshtaria, one of the UNM’s senior members, to the pro-Saakashvili Tabula.ge on November 8. However, “we should turn no one into an idol.”