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Vader v Saakashvili – The Empire Strikes Back? (Probably not)

March 14, 2016

It has been a while since the local politics of Odessa has been specifically subject to the prose appearing on the blog.  The reason for that is that much of the local politics (though not nefarious dealings) are in suspended animation awaiting the outcomes within the Verkhovna Rada over the coming days and possibly a new/revised/reshuffled Cabinet of Ministers and/or Prime Minister – or not.

To be blunt, short of literally levering Arseny Yatseniuk out of the Prime Minister’s chair, and a sudden influx of quality candidates for ministers, neither a new Prime Minister nor overly technocratic Cabinet of Ministers seems likely – and even if it were to appear the necessary support from the Verkhovna Rada to insure an effective reform programme is more than a little questionable.

Nevertheless, the local politics of Odessa are more or less “on hold” pending the outcome of the next few days and the actions and political path subsequently taken by Governor Saakashvili – or not.

As previously noted on far too many occasions to link to, it is a question of timing (and opportunity) before the Odessa Governor and his national anti-corruption movement make the transition from civil society entity to political party.  The question of timing the “Anti-Governor Saakashvili” crescendo for the political arts seemingly remains set for the first anniversary of his appointment.

As stated within the above link, “It is also clear that a slow burning scandal within the police in Iliychovsk/Chernamorsk may well be, or may be manipulated to be, a public death by 1000 cuts for Giorgi Lortkipanidze the Oblast Police Chief (who is beyond doubt the most transparent and public spirited Police Chief in the modern history of the Oblast).  Further there is likely to be an increased campaign against Davit Sakvarelidze the Odessa Prosecutor launched soon over the lack of successful prosecutions in the Oblast (despite no reform of the corrupt judiciary, and with “lustration” of the local judiciary simply not occurring – which puts any prosecutor at a disadvantage).

The plan to remove Governor Saakashvili by certain political forces/actors clearly includes trying to remove those around him and further frustrate any efforts at confronting vested interests before the “1 year and what has he achieved campaign?” reaches a crescendo.   The thinking is that if either Mr Lortkipanidze or Sakvarelidze be toppled, Misha will throw in the towel in an tantrum claiming “impossibility of progress” under such onerous and nefarious conditions.

How well such a plan will work against what are two of the most unsullied civil servants the Oblast has ever had remains to be seen – but such a plot there certainly is.

This notwithstanding the public trashing of the “Odessa Customs experiment” (and by extension Yulia Marushevska’s efforts) publicly in Kyiv.”

What then to make of the appearance of 20 campaign tents across Odessa carrying the slogan “Kicked out of Tbilisi – Throw him out of Odessa!”?  These tents are collecting signatures for a petition to remove the governor and have been dotted around since 3rd March.  The campaign is sponsored by former Solidarity Party, and still faction member, MP Dmitry Golubov, who claims that there are currently about 30,000 signatures.

To be clear, 30,000 signatures is not nearly enough to concern Governor Saakashvili – for several reasons.  The first is that he is a Presidential appointee as all regional governors are.  His future as regional governor just as when it was created, will be ended by the decision of President Poroshenko.  The second reason is that 30,000 signatures from a city of over 1 million and an Oblast of twice that number is simply insignificant by way of the local population over which he governs.

Indeed, no matter who would be the Odessa Governor, they would surely get 30,000 signatures against them holding the position.  Whomever eventually replaces Mr Saakashvili as governor, be it Alexie Goncharenko or somebody else, can be sure of having at a minimum 30,000 signatories against their appointment almost immediately.  Nobody will ever have 100% popular support – or anything close to that.

The question therefore is whether Mr Golubov’s campaign is part of a wider plan to attempt to unseat Governor Saakashvili?  The answer is probably not for few in Odessa, just like the readership of this blog, have any idea of just who Dmitry Golubov is, or even what he looks like.

For those that know his name locally (even if they don’t know what he looks like), he is generally associated with two things.  Allegations of hacking for nefarious and distinctly criminal purposes in years past, or as the political caricature Darth Vader in the local politics of Odessa.

Mr Golubov, however is not the original Darth Vader of local politics as is generally thought.  The real identities behind the original idea and use of Vader as a political character in Odessa are known to this blog – as they are to Mr Golubov who met with these people back in 2009 and remained in contact.

In order to maintain a little well-earned mystery, the man who had the original idea for using Vader, and the local political forces around him that used the idea will be withheld.

The idea for Vader in Odessa came from Mark Malkoff testing the limits of Apple Stores friendliness, where as the video in the link shows, at one point he was customer “Darth Vader”.  It was thought it would be fun, and make a social/political/bureaucratic point, to test the limits of the local administration in the same way:

At this time in 2011, Darth Vader was a civil activist and not affiliated to, or identified with, any particular political party.  “Vader” was used only twice by those with the original idea.  In fact the idea of any overt linkage between “Vader” and the local politician and adviser originally behind him was deliberately “firewalled”.  The two people in question are what, at that time, could be described as “progressives” within a firmly establish mainstream Ukrainian political party that was very much “business (nefariously) carried out as usual.

Vader thumb

It was in 2012, when Dmitry Golubov’s “Internet Party of Ukraine” contended (and lost) its first, single seat, election battle that Vader became associated with a political party and Mr Golubov.  Aside from the two original Vader (civil activist) media appearances in 2011, everything from 2012 onward is indeed a Dmitry Golubov political production.

(By coincidence – or not – Mr Golubov and the two creators of Odessa’s Vader are all now at varying levels within the presidential Solidarity Party machinery either directly or in the case of Mr Golubov who left the party but remains in the faction.)

The problem now for Mr Golubov is that Darth Vader Odessa politician, is far better known than Dmitry Golubov Odessa MP.  Rightly or wrongly, the allegations of Mr Golubov the nefarious hacker also remain far better known than Mr Golubov, Odessa politician.

Without dwelling upon the hacker allegations of years gone by, it is interesting to note that nobody seems to have ever seem Mr Golubov actually using a computer.  Indeed, unless he has acquired one since becoming a Verkhovna Rada parliamentarian, he was never seen with a smartphone either – ever!

Whatever the case, Mr Golubov, rather than his alter ego Darth Vader, has picked a fight with Governor Saakashvili – and it is one that has been on going for some time with anti-Misha speeches in the Verkhovna Rada, press statements accusing him of failing in reforms, strong-arming local business etc.  The latest manifestation is the appearance of campaign tents and petitions against the Governor.

Yet and unless co-opted in the near future, it seems to be unlikely to be part of the broader plan.

It goes without saying that considering such historical allegations many consider Mr Golubov not beyond suspicion relating to the numerous hacks and attempted hacks of Governor Saakashvili (and his inner sanctum).  Others point the finger at the SBU, yet others at the Russian intelligence services.

There are perhaps two or three reasons for this political assault against the Governor.

The first is Mr Golubov really needs to create a PR bubble in which to inflate his own (rather than Darth’s) image.  He is an MP of the president’s Solidarity Party by virtue of running in a single mandate (first past the post) seat under the presidential banner.  The security of being named comfortably within the top of the party list he has not been afforded.  As and when early Verkhovna Rada elections come, be it this Autumn or next Spring, with Solidarity and presidential ratings falling dramatically, running once more under that banner in a single mandate seat may not be enough to get reelected.  Some preparatory profile raising is in order – and now.

It is going to be yet further complicated for Mr Golubov as clearly the Governor will have a party running too and is likely to do quite well in Odessa (and nationally).  It will be a party that draws from Batkivshchyna, Samopomich, People’s Front, and of course Solidarity voters in his electoral district.

The second reason is that he may see this as the right time to assert himself in Odessa as “a player” of the stature of Goncharenko, Trukhanov, Kivalov, Kisse, Pressman, et al.

Thus in publicly taking on the “Alpha male” of politics in Odessa, Mr Golubov will raise his profile – yet readers may, perhaps rightly, consider that a suicidal strategy.

Lastly, another reason for going after the Governor relates to allegedly criminal schemes – or at the very least acts that are currently under criminal investigation.

The Oblast Rada in 2015 organised the auction of some of its property.  One such lot was a property with a starting price of UAH 15 million.  The property is something approaching a mansion, although clearly in need of refurbishment.  Mr Golubov won the auction paying UAH 21 million for it, thus well above the starting price.  The Governor however, considers the sale price and its opening selling price as part of a scam and greatly below the true value of the lot.

Rumours abound that Mr Golubov bought it on behalf of, or as a partner with, Alexie Goncharenko.  These rumours, much like the allegations of his historical hacking activities, remain unproven.

The Governor considers this price far below its true value, not because of the property itself, but because of the land upon which it sits.

It is however unclear whether the purchase of the property was solely for the property, or whether it includes the land which is owned by the city.  If the land is included within the accepted bid price then Mr Golubov indeed got a very good deal raising questions over its original valuation and opening price.  If not then he probably paid over the odds – which then leads to the question of why he paid over the odds and what prearranged deals – if any – had been nefariously made with City Hall/Mayor Trukhanov, to sell the land upon which the property sits, at what price, and into which budget, or whose pocket, that money would go.

It is unclear whether the Governor knew of any such nefarious arrangements, whether he simply went off half-cocked, or whether he was given duff information when publicly decrying this auctioned lot – the outcome however has been the prosecutors office opening a criminal case – a criminal case that Mr Golubov very much wants closed.

Picking a public fight with the Governor may be any one, or a combination of any or all of the above reasons.  There may be other reasons too.  However unless Mr Golubov’s actions are part of a larger anti -Saakashvili plan, or are at some point co-opted into such a plan by greater political animals than Mr Golubov, “the force” is very likely to remain with Governor Saakashvili and the “Empire strikes back” a sequel that may be quite some time in coming before playing out upon the public stage of local politics.

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