In the latest news from the ongoing comedy skit that is Ukrainian politics, we learn that Mikheil Saakashvili has been appointed governor of Odessa oblast.
Who is Saakashvili?
The son of Soviet apparatchiks with ties to the diplomatic service, which was dominated by Georgians in the late USSR, this onetime university dropout enjoyed a great deal of success in the 1990s, picking up various fellowships, grants, stipends, awards, etc. from respectable European and American institutions. Invited back into Georgia by his friend Zurab Zhvania, he soon went into opposition to Gorby’s Foreign Minister turned Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Eventually, this culminated in Shevardnadze’s overthrow in the Rose Revolution of 2003. From then on, it was a familiar story.
Saakashvili was, back then, one of the beacons of pro-Western liberalism and reform in the former Soviet world, the object of regular paeons in the MSM. Some of the lustre has since come off, following his idiotic attack on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia that resulted in military defeat in 2008, and his own ignominious political end in Georgia itself following revelations of mass abuse in the prison system – under his Presidency, the incarceration rate tripled to become Europe’s highest per capita – relevations that were carefully coordinated by his political opponents. He is now wanted in his native land, which he fled even before his Presidential term came to a formal end, on an array of charges related to corruption as well as possible involvement in various suspicious deaths (including that of Zhvania kek) and murders. Nonetheless, for all his democratic and human rights failings, which all but the most hardcore neocons by now acknowledge, there is still a very widespread impression that he is at least someone who can get the job done – that is, improve living standards, strengthen the country, and root out corruption. After all, did he not liquidate the everyday bribery that is a depressing feature common to the entire post-Soviet world? Did he not make Georgia one of the world’s most attractive places for business? Did he not lay the foundations of, in his own word s, “a future Georgian Switzerland, the future Georgian Singapore, the future Georgian Dubai, the Georgian Hong Kong, and of the greatest Georgia of all times”? And would not Odessa benefit from his impeccable credentials and expertise?
The only problem is that his legend is lies, lurid and false; a con for the ages.
The economy did grow under Saakashvili. And across a range of institutional indices like the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and various economic freedom indices it did radically improve its position.
The only problem was that it was doing so from an exceedingly low base, and even today, total GDP per capita (in constant dollars) is still considerably lower than it was in 1990. That’s 25 years and counting! Moreover, the growth rate was virtually the same under the “reformist” Saakashvili as it was under the “Soviet fossil” Shevardnadze. Nor was it any better than that of Georgia’s neighbors. To the contrary, it was far worse than in Azerbaijan, which yes you could ascribe to oil, but was also far worse than in neighboring Armenia and in Belarus. Both Armenia and Belarus are located in geopolitical straits just as trying as Georgia’s – Armenia is blockaded on two sides by Turkey and Azerbaijan, while Belarus is known as “Europe’s last dictatorship” and is under longstanding Western sanctions. Georgia’s performance, including under Saakashvili, only looks adequate in comparison to the total disaster zones that are Ukraine and Moldova. Productivity in the agricultural sector – where around half the Georgian population still works – has remained completely static since the early 1990s, whereas it more than trebled in neighboring Armenia.
Amazing as it might sound, but fanatically-pursued libertarian reforms, US military aid, and a couple of hotels erected by Trump to service gushing Westerners seeking photo-ops with Saakashvili on G.W. Bush Boulevard do not a strong economy make.
One of the things that virtually everyone agrees on, even his critics, is that under Saakashvili, Georgia “solved” its corruption problem. If so, this would make it a somewhat unique achievement for the ex-Soviet world, bar only Estonia, and worthy of praise.
Now what does the data say? Certainly Georgia greatly improved its positions on surveys that elites pay a lot of attention to, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, where Georgia increased its rating from an abysmal 18/100 in 2003 to a respectable, Baltic-level 49/100 by 2013. But according to ratings that measure corruption realities as opposed to the perceptions of anonymous “experts” who can be unduly influenced by PR agencies – the likes of Aspect Consulting, Orion Strategies, Public Strategies, and the Glover Park Group, which received millions of dollars under Saakashvili to burnish his reformist image – the improvement on the ground was far more modest. 6% of Georgians reported paying a bribe in the past year in 2004, the first year of Saakashvili’s Presidency, and before his reforms could reasonably be expected to have taken effect; in 2013, the last year of his President, it was 4%. An improvement, sure, but not a particularly radical one. Actual opinion polls by Transparency International suggest that lowlevel corruption was not a big problem in Georgia pre-Saakashvili, and its reduction under him could just as easily have been a simple matter of the general withering away of the state’s regulatory agencies under his libertarian reforms. For instance, the near wholesale removal of university tuition subsidies – essential for democratic access to higher education in a country as poor as Georgia – led to a plunge in tertiary enrollment by almost a third relative to the early-to-mid-2000s. Fewer students automatically translates to fewer bribes for grades. These examples can be extended indefinitely: Less contact with the state automatically leads to “lower” corruption. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “good” in all cases.
What about institutions? According to the Open Budget Index, an organization that asseses the transparency of state accounts according to objective criteria (as opposed to perceptions), Georgia did improve, but has always lagged Putin’s “mafia state.” Now, true, a low score in the OBI doesn’t necessarily imply institutions are more corrupt; they could be both secretive and honest. But in the virtual absence of objective, quantitative measures of institutional quality – of which corruption perceptions by a bunch of anonymous and unaccountable “experts” are most definitely not – it’s the best we have, at least as a rough proxy of states’ eagerness to tackle corruption and willingness to be forthright with their citizens.
Then, in addition to lowlevel and institutional corruption, we also have highlevel corruption. This is the hardest to gauge of them all, even just by definition (how many American bank bailouts are equivalent to how many Chinese or Russian offshore accounts?). That said, this is the one aspect of corruption in Georgia that many people acknowledge is unlikely to have improved and might have even become worse relative to Shevardnadze’s period. To the contrary, all accounts indicate that Saakashvili merely centralized highlevel corruption around his own figure – allegations that have now been given form by concrete criminal charges against him in Georgia.
Added all up, we likely see real but modest improvements in lowlevel and institutional corruption under Saakashvili, which is of course “good” but doesn’t come anywhere near to justifying the panegyrics addressed towards him by Western elites and their lackeys in Ukraine when we consider that these improvements were seen in most of the rest of the ex-Soviet world in the 2000s as well, including in the dark lands themselves, Putin’s Russia. As for highlevel corruption all that happened was that the pig put on lipstick.
Surely the ultimate litmus test of a political leader’s performance is in whether people want to live in his realm or not. For a long time, for all his foreign policy failings and overblown economic and institutional achievements, it appeared that in this at least Saakashvili had succeeded, with Georgia’s demographic decline stabilizing at around four and half million people after 2002 due to declining emigration and a rebound in the fertility rate from 1.4 children per woman in the early 2000s to 1.8 today.
Then came the 2014 Census, and it emerged that Georgia’s population decline had if anything accelerated under Saakashvili, with the population hitting 3.7 million relative to 4.4 million in 2002 and 4.9 million in 1989 (all figures are minus Abkhazia and South Ossetia).
Where did all the Georgians go? Most went to Russia: Of the $1.26 billion Georgia received in remittances in 2011 (almost 10% of Georgia’s GDP), more than half – $655 million – came from Russia. Surely quite an embarassment that the economy of “Switzerland in the Caucasus” and “oldest Colchis Europe, the most ancient civilization” was essentially held afloat by Georgian Gasterbaiters in a “barbarian” country with “mongoloid brutality and ideology,” as Saakashvili himself put it.
But even as Saakashvili ranted and raved about Russia’s Asiatic barbarity, using vocabulary that had disappeared off respectable European tongues since 1968, it appears that Georgians continued to vote with their feet and emigrate to Russia in ridiculously large numbers. For comparison, Georgia’s population loss over the past decade is equivalent to what saw in Latvia or Lithuania after their accession to the EU. I imagine it is considerably easier for a Balt to move to Ireland than it is for a Georgian to move to Moscow.
Mishiko in Odessa
Now that the myth has been swept away, we have just the man before us, whose essence boils down to an idiosyncratic combination of iconoclasm, vindictive incompetence, and Western cargo cultism.
Perhaps the best real life metaphor for this was the demolition of a Soviet-era monument to victory in the Great Patriotic War in Kutaisi, in which 200,000 Georgians died. Not a monument to Stalin, or anything like that – though it should be noted that Georgians are far more partial towards Stalin than are Russians – but just a simple victory monument. But they couldn’t even get that right. When it was blown up, two people – a mother and her eight year old daughter – were killed by the flying concrete, and four others were seriously injured. This was noticed, even in the West. As a Western cargo cultist in a position of power you really have to fuck up pretty good to even get American state media like RFERL to criticize you.
It takes true skillz to make all three of these people laugh at you.
On getting appointed to head Odessa oblast, despite having at most just ever visited it as a tourist, Saakashvili smarmily proclaimed “I ❤ Odessa.” A whole range of other people were not that happy. Kolomoysky, the oligarch-lord of Dnepropetrovsk, whose protege Igor Palitsa had previously ruled Odessa and who is locked in a simmering conflict with Poroshenko, said that Saakashvili would betray Odessa to the Russians at the first opportunity: “By the way, how many citizenships does Saakashvili have? Would probably beat even me. American, Georgian, Dutch, and now Ukrainian” (Kolomoysky, for the record, has three. When a journalist told him that double citizenship is illegal in Ukraine, Kolomoysky remarked that while that is true, there’s nothing illegal about triple citizenship on the lawbooks. A bona fide Odessan retort if there ever was one). Lyashko, a caricature of a nationalist politician who is also widely regarded as a faggot amongst all Ukrainians, including even his supporters (much more so for his hystrionic grandstanding and violent denials than for the actual details of his sexual orientation), and is also deeply at odds with Kolomoysky, was also against the appointment: “Of all Ukraine’s 45 million citizens, not a single one could be found to head Odessa oblast? … [Poroshenko] admitted before the whole world that Ukrainians are unable to govern themselves. Maybe we should get a President from abroad too?” Sure… why not. Finally, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s PM and President at the time of the South Ossetian War, undiplomatically remarked: “The comedy show continues. Unhappy Ukraine…”
When you have someone who simultaneously infuriates and/or amuses such an amazingly wide and conflicting range of political forces, you know that the whole thing is a pathetic farce.
Both Western and Russian analysts have linked Saakashvili’s appointment to the mounting blockade of Transnistria, the breakaway Russo-Ukrainian population Moldovan province. With Ukraine now on board as well as Moldova, its position has become very precarious. Short of Russia establishing an air corridor, the garrison within Transnistria is no longer able to resupply. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is now an additional potential flashpoint to an outbreak of overt hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. In this sense, bearing in mind Odessa’s position right next to Transnistria, Saakashvili’s resume is exceptional.
But in reality things are probably somewhat simpler. Odessa is the most unstable province in terms of separatist sentiment along with Kharkov, due to both demographics and memories of the massacre of anti-junta activists in May 2, 2014. Poroshenko needs someone who is able to crack heads if need be, someone who is unrelated to Kolomoysky, his prime rival in Ukraine’s game of thrones, and preferably also someone who as an outsider would be unable to establish his own independent powerbase. Finally, it is a solid “fuck you” to Russia, and fuck what Georgia – one of Ukraine’s putative allies – makes of that. This might not sound very rational to Western ears, but reason and moderation has always been foreign to the Maidan ideologues. That is why they have unleashed a civil war in place of dialog in the first place. That is why they have claimed the not inconsiderable achievement of alienating major figures in the Polish security establishment – traditionally, and understandably, highly anti-Russian – by their maniac worship of Stepan Bandera and his murderous goons.
So in this sense Saakashvili’s appointment is perfectly understandable.
On another level, however, it is also rather sad, and not just in the way it blithely ignores Odessan opinions and lays bare the failure of Ukrainian statecraft. Saakashvili might have been a cargo cultist, obsessed with making the correct gestures – G.W. Bush Boulevards, being the third largest contributor in terms of troop quantity in the occupation of Iraq – to get cargo from the West and even half-succeeding at it – Trump Towers in Tblisi, a few five star hotels in Batumi, copious US military aid, etc. None of that cargo made a difference when Saakashvili’s forces murdered Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia in the expectation that the US would openly intervene on his side, only to face complete military defeat and the permanent reversal of the Stalinist-era borders that gave ethnically distinct Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia in the first place.
But at least, in his defense, so far as cargo cults go, Saakashvili was the real deal. How much more pathetic is it that Poroshenko’s Ukraine is making a cargo cult of a cargo cultist?