Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Mikheil Saakashvili lost a bid for reelection as president of his native Georgia in 2013. In fact, he was not a candidate in that race. The article has been updated to reflect the change.
ODESSA, Ukraine — In Ukraine’s last-ditch battle to stamp out official thievery and wrest the nation from Russia’s orbit, an unlikely leader is heading the charge.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the crusading ex-president of Georgia, is trying to upend Ukraine’s most lawless region as the new governor of the smuggling stronghold of Odessa. A man who led his tiny nation into war with mighty Russia has taken up a new fight in a high-profile appointment in a fellow post-Soviet state that was a slap at the Kremlin. Western officials say that Saakashvili’s anti-corruption assault will be as crucial in the effort to break Ukraine free from its ex-Soviet masters as the country’s shooting war with Russian-backed rebels — and that the hot-headed Georgian has just months to get it done.
Public disillusionment with Ukraine’s new leaders is building amid a rising sense that last year’s wave of protests delivered little but fresh misery. Citizens say they still face demands for bribes nearly every time they encounter a government official. Many fear that Ukraine’s leaders will fail altogether and that the country will fall back into Russia’s sphere.
“Ukraine is a big revolution, and in my way I am a revolutionary,” Saakashvili said in an interview in his office, which is decorated with a bust of Ronald Reagan, the man often credited in Eastern Europe with taking down the Soviet Union.
With old habits holding firm, many of Ukraine’s international partners, including the United States, are reconsidering the amount of assistance they can provide if the nation cannot help itself.
That gives an outsize importance to Saakashvili’s effort, which Western diplomats say they are treating as a test case for whether reforms can take hold. Saakashvili has given himself until the end of the year to overhaul Odessa, said a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on internal discussions. If Saakashvili fails, the diplomat said, “the window closes for 10 years” on domestic support for Ukrainian reforms.
The Obama administration sees the Odessa efforts as so vital that it has committed up to $2 million in direct assistance and has sent numerous top State Department officials to visit Saakashvili. U.S. money is going to foundations that hire top Saakashvili associates to implement changes. U.S.-paid lawyers are studying the structure of the crime-ridden port. Officers from the California Highway Patrol are training new police officers to replace the detested old ones.
“Ukraine today is fighting two wars. One is the war with Russia,” the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, said last month. “The other is the war against corruption, the war for reform, the war to move Ukraine towards the standards of modern European democracy that the Ukrainian people have sought.”
The region of Odessa “in many ways is the front line for that second war,” Pyatt said.
Saakashvili, a brash Columbia University-trained lawyer, rose to power in Georgia in 2003 and shook his Caucasian nation out of a post-Soviet stupor with a crusade against corruption that rocketed the country to the top of international ratings for transparency. His ravenous appetite for politicking is Clintonian.
But after he launched into war with Russia in 2008, his country suffered a catastrophic defeat within days. Critics say he became increasingly intolerant of dissent. He lost power in 2013 and fled the country to avoid charges of abuses of power that he says are politically motivated. Saakashvili swooped into Odessa at the end of May, taking over a Russian-
speaking region of 2.4 million residents whose alliances are split between Kiev and Moscow. The surprise appointment provoked feverish warnings that he was there to stoke hatred of ethnic Russians, although he has tamped down his old fiery anti-Kremlin rhetoric and has won grudging support from members of the ethnic Russian community who detest corruption as much as ethnic Ukrainians.
If Saakashvili fails, Ukraine could soon boomerang back into Russia’s orbit — with gloomy consequences for Georgia, which is feeling the same competing tugs.
“Before if you were involved in governance, you were involved in corruption. It’s very difficult to be dry when you’re in the sea,” Saakashvili told a crowd this past week in Kominternivske, riling them in staccato but fluent Russian. Many in the town of 7,000 said that such a high-ranking official had never bothered to listen to their concerns before, much less travel there by marshrutka, the shuddering, packed minibuses that are the main public transit in rural Ukraine.
At the sweltering open-air conclave, held in a dusty square under whispering plane trees, Saakashvili listened while dozens of residents detailed their daily struggles with public officials who sounded more like marauding bandits than civil servants. He quickly won over the crowd with his enthusiastic denunciations of their detested officials. The event was unusual in Ukraine, where politicians typically steer clear of such unvarnished back-and-forth with constituents.
“To get a child in kindergarten, you have to pay a bribe. If someone dies, you have to pay even more,” Saakashvili told them, describing the corruption that has driven Ukrainians to twice overthrow their leaders since 2004.
One farmer’s fields were stolen through a feat of paperwork. A mother had to pay bribes for a day-care spot for her son. A soldier on crutches watched his disability benefits drop into the pockets of the officials charged with passing them on to him.
“I thought we had some mistakes in the system and we could fix the mistakes, and we’d be okay. It turns out the whole system is a mistake,” said Yulia Marushevska, 25, a Saakashvili deputy and a political novice who rocketed to international attention for her dramatic video dispatches last year from the Maidan, the central Kiev square that was the focal point of pro-European protests.
Many of Saakashvili’s recruits are similarly young, Western-
educated activists who have no previous political experience. He says he has no idea what the more than 800 employees of his regional administration do, and he has vowed to fire half of them, along with most of Odessa’s hated police force, which he says is “basically a criminal syndicate.” And he has promised to clean up the crime-ridden ports of the city of Odessa, a hub for smuggling, drug trafficking and bribery.
He has taken on some broadly popular issues. He took a bulldozer to knock down an illegally constructed wall that blocked off a portion of a public beach at a property owned by a former lawmaker. On national television, he chewed out the head of Ukraine’s national airline, who was quickly fired amid charges of corruption. He has vowed a new police force by next month.
But critics say that although Saakashvili has made grand promises, he has so far done more to change the tone than the substance of the system. Some question whether he will stay long enough to make sure that his reforms actually stick. Others say that his team is too inexperienced to take on Odessa’s formidable entrenched groups. And he can do little to boost the miserly pay that leads government bureaucrats making $80 a month to seek bribes just to survive.
“He wants to build dreams, but he doesn’t have the instruments,” said Irina Medushevskaya, an Odessan political commentator.
At an Odessa police training academy one morning recently, 200 new police recruits were practicing handcuffing each other under the watchful eye of two trainers who had been flown in from the California Highway Patrol, one more marker of U.S. involvement in the region. A total of 400 new trainees, none of whom have law enforcement experience, will hit the streets next month after just seven weeks of practice. The efforts, led from Kiev by a Georgian who was once a top official in Saakashvili’s presidential administration, mirror those of the first years of his rule there.
Many recruits said they are motivated by a desire to build clean new institutions.
But a Ukrainian trainer said low salaries could lead to problems.
“You should pay enough so that a person doesn’t think about how to feed their families,” Stepan Kostev said.
For now, Saakashvili says he will keep following the Georgian playbook to reform his new country.
“There’s a general perception that you cannot transplant politicians. They get rejected by national organisms, like a heart or a liver,” he said. “But we have matching DNAs.”
Natalie Gryvnyak contributed to this report.