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The US opens up a new front in Odessa?

July 22, 2015

A few weeks ago an entry was published that stated, “Indeed the recent visit to Odessa by the US diplomatic corps was probably the biggest your author has ever met – the Ambassador, political attaché, naval attaché, press attaché, trade attaché etc (the list goes on). The clear “takeaway” and yet unsaid message for the local elites after meeting such a sizable diplomatic visit was that (despite the US wrestling with the prickly issue of just how close to hug Governor Saakashvili – or not) it sees Odessa as the front line in the fight against corruption and the full US diplomatic weight will be put behind reform in the Oblast – so local elites think on.”

Yesterday, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Brownfield was in Odessa, announcing, amongst many sensible things, the US signing of a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Oblast Administration to create effective central administrative services and customs reforms.

Brownfield

Some of those proposed customs reforms are definitely going to be found within this recent entry regarding corruption and smuggling through Odessa ports.

Much of what Deputy Secretary of State Brownfield has to say was entirely sensible – even if anybody who actually watches the interview he gave will consider it one of the most awful deliveries of a foreign statesman to a Ukrainian audience.

In short, the content was entirely right, but the delivery failed that line between speaking slowly and clearly (even though assisted by a capable interpreter) and appearing to lecture parent to child – a problematic balance when addressing foreigners in your own language, but nevertheless, a spectacular fail compared to the numerous US statesmen and diplomats that have been interviewed in Ukraine and come across as talking adult to adult.

Public speaking perceptions aside however, the content of what was said (and signed) clearly underlined the “takeaway” your author had when last meeting the very large US diplomatic turnout to Odessa at the beginning of July.  That takeaway being the USA “sees Odessa as the front line in the fight against corruption and the full US diplomatic weight will be put behind reform in the Oblast.”

Having mulled over and discussed (face to face with your author amongst numerous others undoubtedly) whether or not to tackle the ports as a US project within Odessa – and the likelihood of success vis a vis failure for the US taxpayers $ – clearly the decision has been to tackle the ports, which is a decision supported unreservedly by this blog.

Put simply, the Odessa economy is centered around the major ports.  Ergo to at least partially clean up the grey/black economy, begin to tackle ingrained institutional and business corruption, and present additional difficulties for organised crime simultaneously – albeit to various degrees – ultimately to have a measurable effect on Odessa itself, there will be few real, sustainable reforms, without taking on the ports.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there is no YouTube clip to show the comedy moment when documents, handshakes and the usual “press moment” descended into nothing short of an embarrassing comedy, with Deputy Secretary of State Brownfield having to resort to telling Governor Saakashvili, to paraphrase, “you give me yours and I’ll give you mine and we hold it in this hand, we shakes hands with our other hand, and smile for the cameras”.

A visual metaphor perhaps for the seemingly unresolved and prickly problem the US has regarding just how closely they want to/be seen to hug Governor Saakashvili – who remains characteristically “unpredictably excitable” and prone to “overstatement”.

Perhaps the way around that will ultimately be to hug him as is deemed prudent and necessary publicly, but also to be both seen and interviewed with as many other Odessa locals “faces”, political, academic, institutional, whatever, as is possible on any regular Oblast visits.  In short publicly presenting the perception of hugging the Oblast, rather than the governor (even if behind the curtain, hugging the governor so tightly his room for fumbles and excitable overstatements is reduced to almost nothing in return for US support).

Whatever the case, is it fair comment to state that the US has firmly and increasingly publicly decided to open up a new front, this front against corruption in one of the most corrupt Oblasts in Ukraine?

It certainly seem to be the case.

A lot of US political, diplomatic, US taxpayers $ will be spent when partnering – and let us be blunt, often having to drive – the national and regional leadership in tackling the entrenched, nefarious and corrupt interests of the local elites and organised crime in Odessa.

A fight it can win?  Certainly it can, if the definition of winning is a dramatic reduction in corruption and a dramatic increase in risks for organised crime.

Will it win?  Only if it stays the course, and that in no small part will be dictated by whether it has an equally willing Ukrainian/Odessa leadership in the years ahead – for this has to be a long term and determined effort if all will not be for naught.

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