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A nation must think before it acts.
President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko has appointed Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili the new governor of Ukraine’s key Odessa region. It is difficult to decipher the bizzare news, but considering the implications this move could have for both Ukraine and Georgia, the issue merits some meditation.
How are Georgians reacting?
What caused the biggest outrage in Georgia was the fact that by accepting the Ukrainian citizenship (required by Ukrainian law in order for one to take office in government) Saakashvili automatically lost, thus deliberately gave up, his Georgian citizenship. It is certainly an unorthodox move for a former president of one country to first give up citizenship of his own country, and second take political office in another country, especially a position that is of much lower rank than that of a presidential office.
Georgian citizenship is something Georgian politicians have taken lightly for a long time, but we’ve seen it used as a tool of political maneuvering recently. In the 2012 parliamentary elections when the Georgian Dream Coalition was formed under the leadership of billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, his lack of Georgian citizenship became an issue. According to Georgian citizenship laws, one automatically loses Georgian citizenship when accepting another. However, it is viewed as a mere technicality, as Georgia allows its citizens to have dual citizenship, which is achieved by requesting to be “granted Georgian citizenship by law of exception.” Ivanishvili had become a Russian and a French citizen, and had never reapplied for Georgian citizenship. Legally he was not allowed to run for office. He later gave up his Russian citizenship and asked for Georgian citizenship—a process that was dragged out for months, and put on a public display by Saakashvili’s government, adding to the already high pre-election campaign pressures. To be sure, this was a process Saakashvili himself was directly involved in, as granting Georgian citizenship is the president’s job there.
Ukraine on the other hand does not allow dual citizenship. Whoever becomes a citizen of Ukraine has to give up his/her other citizenship within two years of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship. In a recent interview given to the Georgian television channel Imedi, Saakashvili, among many other things, explained the reasoning behind this move. It appears that: (1) he sees the issue of citizenship as a technicality to comply with the bureaucratic requirements of taking political office in Ukraine; (2) he does plan to return to Georgia with the hopes of reentering Georgian politics; and (3) he believes in his Georgian supporters more than they believe in him. He thinks all of this will be undone soon, with support of his Georgian voters.
In the interview Saakashvili said that “taking away my Georgian citizenship is the [Georgian] president’s prerogative [this would be in the form of the president rejecting Saakashvili’s application for being granted Georgian citizenship by the law of exception]. If he decides to take my citizenship away, I am sure, this will not be a deciding factor, because for the moment when I return to Georgia, and this will happen much sooner than many imagine, people will make them rescind the indictments against me as well as the act of stripping me of my Georgian citizenship.” Moreover, he went on to explain how he does not see the lack of citizenship as an obstacle. “Eduard Shevardnadze was not a Georgian citizen when he went to Georgia and became its leader; nor was Ivanishvili, when he was running around, conducting his pre-election campaign and became the leader of Georgia. Thus citizenship issue was never an obstacle for anyone, why should it become one for me?”
While he may be technically correct, Saakashvili may have strongly miscalculated this move. Let us set aside for a moment the implications this move will have on Ukraine. All along, Saakashvili has still believed that a comeback as Georgia’s leader was possible for him. He has been counting on the incompetence of the current government—if they bring enough poverty and setbacks to Georgia (which the current Georgian government has already partly achieved), Saakashvili and his party would then regain the people’s confidence, and would be “obligated” to return by popular demand. The Georgian Dream Coalition government may be losing approval ratings due to the worsening economic conditions in the country (the lari has been plummeting since November 2014), but this does not automatically mean that there will be popular demand for Saakashvili in Georgia any time soon (a recent National Democratic Institute poll shows that only 16% of Georgians would vote for Saakashvili’s party). Additionally, if there was any possibility of Saakashvili regaining popularity in Georgia by some miracle, those chances have now been severely diminished thanks to his Ukrainian venture.
The president in exile waited for the Georgian officials to drop charges, but ran out of patience. As he expressed,
…what does Georgian citizenship mean to me today?! Today for me Georgian citizenship means sitting in a prison cell, along with my other friends… therefore, this is purely a matter of formality, although I wanted to avoid it. … I cannot go to Georgia, whether I am a citizen or not, what difference does it make. Therefore as soon as the people make them [the government] void the indictments, when the time comes, they will also resolve the issue of my citizenship. I will distance myself from this formality, but I will always be nearby, whenever the Georgian people desire, if they need me for anything.
Browsing local headlines, this move appears to be seen as a betrayal by many Georgians. Saakashvili and his team are infamous for their impeccable PR skills, yet for someone who wants to return to Georgian politics one day, this is a huge miscalculation. Even his supporters, or what is left of them, are seeing this as a negative move. Georgian government officials have openly condemned his actions. The current president Margvelashvili called it “dishonorable behavior,” saying that with this move Saakashvili has “disgraced the country and the institution of presidency. … A former president should not have given up Georgian citizenship. … Values are more important than career, and these values include being a Georgian citizen. His behavior is incomprehensible to me.”
What does this mean for Ukraine?
So, what is Odessa inheriting from Georgia in Saakashvili? His reforms took Georgia from a nearly failed state to a booming tourist destination with a rapidly growing economy. Foreign direct investment began pouring in thanks to the highly favorable investing conditions Saakashvili created. Rampant corruption and crime disappeared and gave way to high GDP growth rates, free and fair elections, and westernization. The rapid reforms came at a high price for Georgia’s democracy, however. Saakashvili was never able to let go of the power that he had to concentrate in his own hands in the first place in order to effectively implement the reforms. Towards the end of his presidency it became clear that crucial democratic reforms had taken a backseat to the president’s insatiable appetite for contemplating and implementing major development projects in Georgia. At some point Saakashvili swapped out, or even mistook, development for democracy and became unapologetic about being the sole decision-maker in Georgia.
As we’ve already seen, American, Georgian (Saakashvili’s teammates), and Lithuanian individuals were granted Ukrainian citizenship since Poroshenko came into office, so they could take key positions in government. Saakashvili himself was Poroshenko’s advisor on a freelance basis until recently. He had been offered official government positions in Ukraine but had not accepted them. When asked why he turned down these jobs he cited various reasons. Sometimes it was the fact that he did not understand Ukrainian political culture and did not think he could be a part of it. He also said that he did not want to give up his Georgian citizenship (as he was still hoping the charges against him would be dropped and he would return to Georgia after the long exile). And lastly, in an interview earlier this year he expressed that he had reservations over the idea of “having to play nice with others” by working with other political actors in order to achieve consensus to get things done. It looks like the complete autonomy of power is something that Saakashvili is still strongly keen on. Based on Poroshenko’s speech announcing Saakashvili’s appointment, it looks like Saakashvili got exactly that, a full carte blanche to do what he pleases with Odessa, as long as he achieves there what he achieved in Georgia—rapid development and modernization through even faster and effective overnight reforms.
Putting the issue of democracy aside, Saakashvili is likely to achieve these goals in Odessa, but as with Georgia, what will be the cost of this success? Odessa is a region of high strategic importance for Ukraine, but also for Putin’s strategic agenda. Appointing Saakashvili as the head of that region is a direct insult to Putin who infamously despises Saakashvili. If this is not a step back in Ukraine’s attempts at ending the war in its eastern territories, it is certainly not a step forward either. Additionally, now there is a new scenario where Saakashvili could be setting himself up for losing another war with Russia, this time in Odessa.
Yes, Ukraine is desperate for immediate reforms, and there is not enough capacity domestically to implement them effectively. Thus the international community should gladly welcome any bold steps that Poroshenko takes towards achieving that goal. However, the most baffling part in this story is that all of Saakashvili’s competence and expertise could be very effectively utilized from behind the scenes had he chosen to do so, without risking further worsening of already lethal Ukraine-Russia relations.
 Vast number of Georgian government officials, current and past, have dual citizenships. The practice of “bringing back” a successful Georgian from abroad and awarding them Georgian citizenship before appointing them to a government position was one that Saakashvili used quite frequently.
 For the second half of Saakashvili’s presidency Georgia and Russia did not even have diplomatic ties. The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia got very personal between the two leaders and since then they do not attempt to conceal their hatred for each other in public.