Limitations of power – Saakashvili’s problem

June 2, 2015

After a few emailed requests from regular readers in response to questions arising from several recent posts leading up to, and following, the appointment of Governor Saakashvili in Odessa Oblast – despite stating repeatedly that the dust must be allowed to settle before making any knee-jerk judgement – there are a few matters that can be addressed relating to the questions received.

Predominantly, this reply to those questions will stick within the parameters of constitutionally granted/authorised power verses the challenges Governor Saakashvili faces, and the constraints.

Starting with the very basics, Governor Saakashvili is exactly that – a governor.  He is not a President.  He does not have anything like the powers he held as a President.  Thus his current legitimate (via The Law of Ukraine) and constitutional authority is significantly reduced in comparison to those he once held.  The ability to dictate the sacking of all the traffic police en masse as occurred in Georgia is far, far out of reach for him as a governor.

Quite simply, he is not the President of Odessa Oblast (even if it is a bigger geographical area than Belgium).  Neither is he the Mayor of the City of Odessa.  The Mayor holds his own constitutionally legitimate power and responsibilities over what occurs within the city limits.  The same can be said for other town and village administrative heads – although all eyes will naturally be focused upon just how heavily Governor Saakashvili will tread (or tries to tread) upon the nefarious toes of Mayor Trukhanov.

It is suffice to say that the Odessa Oblast Administration and Odessa City Hall have always had a fractious relationship, being extremely zealous in guarding their own turf, and quick to scoff, ridicule and publicly lambaste each other in the game of political oneupmanship.  Whether the shadow of Governor Saakashvili – particularly as he has the ear of President Poroshenko – will loom large over Mayor Trukhanov to the point of at least a truce between administrations,  perhaps even a reasonably coherent working relationship occurs, remains to be seen.

The problem with expecting such a reasonable working arrangement is that of the (nefarious) relationships the Mayor has with the vested power/clan interests in Odessa – notwithstanding his own vested personal/business interests that extend far beyond his office in City Hall, many of which are far from transparent – to be diplomatic.

In short, Mayor Trukhanov did not become Odessa Mayor without playing by “Odessa Rules” over decades past to get there.  Governor Saakashvili has no such local ties, interests, illicit hooks from which he can be hung or pressured over as far as the local elites are concerned.  In short, they have no local kompromat that can be used, and offering bribes would be somewhat risky – at present anyway.

For the people of Odessa that is a plus.  For the elites of Odessa it is a minus.  For Governor Saakashvili, it may become problematic – at the very least insuring “institutional resistance” where he has very few legitimate methods to address that resistance alone.

To take on the infamously corrupt customs and port authorities, he will need more than a little assistance from the Ministry of Interior – and indeed the Minister himself – in order to break the “Odessa System”.  Likewise with the issue of smuggling and Transnistria.  His control and influence over vital State institutions such as customs, the State Fiscal Service, police etc is (currently) limited.  He has perhaps already received such relevant assurances prior to accepting the role – if not, then progress may be far slower than many expect.

In taking on the “oligarchy”, Odessa has never really had its own oligarch – but oligarchical interests there undoubtedly are.  The replacement of former Governor Palitsa with Governor Saakashvili does not remove the Kolomoisky influence or “his people”, as is made clear in this recent entry predicting the immanent fall of then Governor Palitsa.   It is not only Mr Kolomoisky with “his people” in Odessa to confront.  Messrs Firtash/Liovochkin have “their people” too – headed by a former Odessa Governor and current MP, Mykola Skoryk.  There is also former (and probably the worst and most obnoxious) Governor, current MP Eduard Matviychuk, not withstanding his long-term chum Sergey Kivalov MP who seemingly still has the local judiciary wrapped around his nefarious finger.

Indeed these, and other local MPs sitting within the national Rada such as Messrs Cisse, Gyliev and Pressman are all problems to be dealt with – problems that still enjoy immunity.

The link above, also displaying that neither the Oblast Governor, nor the Chairman of the Oblast Rada, can be sure of the support of the Oblast deputies over policy large and small.

There is however, the “fear factor” that arrives with Governor Saakashvili amongst the more corrupt yet clueless within the regional institutions of State – regardless of what powers he may actually have.

By way of example, very soon a story is likely to break in the local media regarding a high ranking police chief (that won’t be named here yet – but it was inferred here first) from Odessa.  Suffice to say this police chief is not particularly bright, and his mother for years has wasted no time in telling those she knows just how well her (very corrupt) son is doing for himself.  A new home in Arcadia, a new $80,000 car etc.  That son (whether unbeknown to his dear mother or not) is now desperately trying to get a transfer from Odessa to Zaporozhye – and is offering $100,000 to those that can accomplish that transfer.  Thus far, though it is sad that there are those in Odessa willing to try and facilitate this transfer, unfortunately for him, his reputation precedes him and those in Zaporozhye don’t want him.  If Governor Saashavili can’t get him directly within his powers, he can perhaps insure he sits high upon the “lustration list” or insure criminal corruption proceedings are opened after an “encouraging word” at the Prosecutor’s Office.

Thus, although headway can be made directly by Governor Saakashvili, few of this issues can be dealt with by him alone.  More than a good deal of support, readily available assistance, and goodwill from both President and certain Ministers within the Cabinet of Ministers will be required to break the “Odessa System” and repeal the unofficial “Odessa rules”.

In the meantime, Governor Saakashvili can do little more than keep a watchful eye over Mayor Trukhanov, intervening where his powers allow, confront the “infamous” where opportunities present themselves – and in both cases get the external assistance required to get results.

He can go through the Oblast Administration like a dose of salts turning out the embarrassingly corrupt, disbanding departments that have no practical use or benefit for the public (and using some good people within to replace the bad apples thrown out from departments elsewhere).  In other words good house keeping over the next few weeks, getting a grip on the Oblast budget (which is separate from the City budget), and gaining the political consensus to pass policy that has hit the Oblast Chamber wall.

Having to leave the city for the most part to the Mayor, and as most districts of the Oblast are generally “on board” with the national and regional policies, particular attention should, perhaps, be given to the southern districts that are less robust in their supportive attitude.

Attention should perhaps be given to Ismail in the south, and a development plan (together with local MP Anton Cisse if possible) agreed.

Indeed, whilst Mayor Trukhanov has begun to flirt with Poland and its diplomats in Odessa (something that may (or not) become the subject of a different entry), perhaps Governor Saakashvili should embark upon a regional (yet international) policy that will be “owned” by him – something like an “E87 policy” given the few obvious options available.


E87 is the road from Odessa that passes through Ismail en route (briefly through Moldova) into Romania and then Bulgaria.  He is possibly the only regional governor that has the clout associated with his name that could generate real cooperation from Romania and Bulgaria to turn the E87 into a far more revenue generating infrastructural artery than it currently is.

It would require significant budgetary commitment from Odessa to upgrade its part of the E87, and also to reinvigorate Ismail.  Ismail has the potential not only to be a transport/logistics hub on the E87, but also a scientific – specifically ecological – hub given its location next to the unique biosphere of the Danube Delta.

Further, whilst Odessa is well connected to Europe (and the world) by sea and air, that is not the case by road.  An attempt to drop an upgraded and useful infrastructural road anchor in Romania and by extension Bulgaria (and ultimately Turkey) would seem logical for a regional Governor with international recognition that has these nations as his closest EU neighbours.

The expensive prospects of building new roads west, or causing immense potential damage to the Danube Delta in crossing it, limit the options.  Thus an “E87 policy”, including the development of Ismail, would seem logical and in keeping with the ethnic mix in the southern districts too.

Granted the Kremlin will take a dim view of any “E87 policy”, no doubt stating it would be a “squeeze” on Transnistria or some such bluster – but whilst Kremlin “concerns” may be considered, they are not likely to be a driver for Ukrainian foreign policy, nor any local/regional “E87 policy” should it be pursued.

Transnistria will suffer more from a crackdown on smuggling and organised crime than it will any “E87 policy”.

There are yet other strings for the Oblast Governor to pursue in pulling Romania and Bulgaria closer – The EU Black Sea Basin policy is another.  Indeed there are several.

It would also seem a policy to pursue with the international flavour a former President would relish, rather than being confined to the daily grind of Oblast administration and little-league politicking.  Not everyday can there be headline-grabbing anti-corruption news after all.

That “daily grind of Oblast administration and little-league politicking” naturally raises another question when combined with the statutory and constitutional limitations of power on a Governor that used to be a President.  With the powers invested in him being insufficient to deal with the issues of Odessa Oblast without considerable help from Kyiv Ministers, one wonders just how long he will remain content to be a regional governor?

Having now taken Ukrainian citizenship, its absence it no longer prevents taking far loftier roles.

He has perhaps been given assurances, prior to accepting the role, over the devolution/decentralisation of powers that are to come, that may in turn increase his regional powers in orders of magnitude.  It seems unlikely a man with his ego would accept the role and leave it for loftier positions without first having made a regional difference.  “He managed to change a country, but failed to change an Oblast” is not the desired political epitaph.

That said, with a government reshuffle in the Autumn almost guaranteed, there is a chance Odessa Oblast is a “parking spot” until that reshuffle, providing the opportunity for Ukrainians to get used to their fellow citizen and politician Mikhail Saakashvili.

Whatever the case, the reforming powers once held as President of Georgia are much more retarded and limited as Governor of Odessa.  It is going to take a great deal of teamwork, coordination, and prompt assistance with, and from, the Presidential Administration and Ministers in Kyiv to effect the same reforming/modernising results in Odessa Oblast that were witnessed in Georgia.  For that timely and robust assistance, the Presidential Administration and those Ministers concerned are going to expect to be publicly recognised for their contributions too – so perhaps we will witness a far less “public eye” governor than when a President.


  1. […] south west Ukraine except via Moldova. Well connected British expat writer Nikolai Holmov, aka ‘Odessa Blogger’, says a useful way for the new governor to make his mark would be to push for this E87 road to be […]

  2. […] south east Ukraine except via Moldova. Well connected British expat writer Nikolai Holmov, aka ‘Odessa Blogger’, says a useful way for the new governor to make his mark would be to push for this E87 road to be […]

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