This is what happens when a loose cannon backfires. Eighteen months after he arrived in Odessa promising to reform the notoriously corrupt region, Mikhail Saakashvili has exited his post as governor.
While I’m writing this, a song by Swedish rockers The Hives is bouncing around my brain. It’s called Hate to Say I Told You So. The tune is apt right now, because what everyone who understands Ukraine - and doesn’t live in cloud cuckoo land - warned would eventually happen is happening. Maidan is eating itself. And it hasn’t taken very long either.
Just over two and a half years since the violent coup/revolution which Western leaders and opinion formers promised would transform Ukraine, nothing much has changed. In fact, things are arguably worse than ever. The economy lies in ruins and the country is divided. Perhaps permanently.
Now another high profile figure has leaped from the sinking ship. And it’s a big beast this time. Mikhail Saakashvili tendered his resignation on Monday and he didn’t depart quietly. Instead, he accused highly-placed officials in Kiev of obstructing his attempts at change.
The timing isn’t hugely surprising either, as ‘Misha’ proved his heart wasn’t in the job last month, when he predicted his imminent return to Tbilisi.This proved yet another delusion, as Saakashvili’s hopes of a victory for his former political movement in Georgia’s general election ran aground. On the contrary, his party was annihilated at the polls.
In his parting shots, Saakashvili lambasted Petro Poroshenko, saying “in reality, in (the) Odessa region, the President personally supports two clans.” And, yes, that’s probably David Byrne you can hear in your head, hollering “same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”
Ties That Bind
Amazingly, this was the ‘pleasant’ part. During a live speech, broadcast on Facebook from a windy seafront, Saakashvili pledged to “do everything it takes until we win full victory to free Ukraine from this scum.” He then directed his ire at Poroshenko’s cronies, bellowing “I just want to ask, how much can you lie and cheat?” It was enough to make one consider eating one’s tie. However, it’s not clear whether his apparent targets - Igor Kononenko and Aleksei Honcharenko - succumbed to such an impulse.
The former Georgian President also delivered a particularly stinging association, when he compared Poroshenko to his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich. Given current levels of alleged malfeasance in Kiev and the incumbent’s dire 10 percent approval rating, the exiled Yanukovich might take umbrage at the correlation. But Poroshenko, and his backers, will doubtlessly be vexed too. Because Saakashvili has influence and leverage with their Western supporters.
So, how did it come to this? As I explained almost exactly a year ago, in these very pages, it’s all down to Misha’s reverse Midas touch. While the old Greek legend turned everything to gold, Saakashvili destroys whatever he puts his hands on.
A Brief History of Failure
Let’s be clear about his record back home. This is a man who, in 2008, started a war with Russia. He believed his former country of 4.3 million could win. It was the military equivalent of putting Dynamo Tbilisi up against Real Madrid and fancying their chances. Of course, Georgia’s forces were quickly smashed and as a consequence the country finally lost any chance of ever regaining its former territories in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The following year, in 2009, violent protests against his regime erupted in Tbilisi. As Saakashvili’s rule became more totalitarian, a graphic video showing inmates being sodomized and beaten in Gldani prison sparked more demonstrations.
In 2012, with Georgia’s economy teetering, Saakashvili’s party lost a parliamentary election to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream movement, achieved despite Saakashvili’s harassment of his opponent. Saakashvili had illegally strippedIvanishvili of his Georgian citizenship in 2011. This was right after the latter had announced his intention to challenge him. The following year, Saakashvili’s courts attempted to fine Ivanishvili $90 million for allegedly breaching party funding rules. At that time, Georgia’s GDP per capita was $2,919. Saakashvili left Georgia for the USA shortly after his defeat.
In 2014, Georgian prosecutors filed criminal charges against Saakashvili for a range of offenses. They included “exceeding official powers" during earlier protests in 2007 and spending $11,000 of public money on Botox injections. Saakashvili's extravagance was well known in Tbilisi, which he ran like a personal fiefdom. He flew in - on the Presidential jet no less - a masseuse from Berlin who specialized in biting her clients. Furthermore, it appears the massage expertdidn’t even bother with the formalities of immigration as her video blog is the only evidence of the visit.
The Touring Circus
Disgraced in his homeland, Saakashvili eventually settled in Brooklyn, where Western media outlets promoted him with several gushing profiles. Despite his track record, he remains popular with American and British hacks on the Russia beat who seem to empathize with plucky losers, perhaps seeing something of themselves in their subjects.
Sensing an opportunity for a second bite at the cherry, Misha appeared at the Maidan protests and eventually Poroshenko - probably after urgings from his American sponsors - appointed him governor of Odessa. The announcement was greeted by Russia Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, with a memorable tweet “Saakashvili is Head of the Odessa Region. When the circus comes to town... Poor Ukraine.”
And, now, “just like that” as Tommy Cooper used to say, he’s gone. Thus, the immediate question is “where to next?” for our hero.
Up against entrenched native elites, and having no substantial political base in Ukraine, his days in that country are probably numbered, despite taking out citizenship. Meanwhile, back home in Tbilisi, Georgian Dream has just increased its mandate in last month’s elections, so any prospects of having the outstanding criminal charges there rescinded look remote.
Unless another post-Soviet nation fancies a “color revolution” in the next few months, Saakashvili might just have reached the end of the road. If so, he’ll be remembered for a unique achievement. Because if you look at other foreign leaders nurtured by Washington to promote its interests, from the sublime - South Korea’s Syngman Rhee or West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, for example - to the shambolic, like Iranian Shah Mohammad Pahlavi, or the downright criminal - think Augusto Pinochet of Chile or Panama’s Manuel Noriega - they all at least boast some sort of major achievement. Something to justify Washington’s investment in their fortunes.
However, Saakashvili has zero notable accomplishments to speak of. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s failed miserably. And that takes a special level of incompetence. As a result, this particular travelling circus just might have packed up its tent for the last time.