Text by Agne Dovydaityte
Edited by Darya Malyutina
Since the Euromaidan started in Ukraine in late 2013 and resulted in a change of government during the revolution of February 2014, Kyiv has become an epicentre of events and discussions; stories from the Ukrainian capital frequently made it to the front pages of international media. At the same time, the southern city of Odesa also played a big part in the conflict, and witnessed considerably radical reforms that followed the Euromaidan. On 25 January, Dr Volodymyr Dubovyk, Associate Professor at Odesa Mechnikov National University, visited the University of Cambridge, and together with Dr Rory Finnin, Head of Department of Slavonic Studies, led the discussion ‘Odesa in a Time of Revolution, War and Reform’, reviewing the latest changes in the fourth-biggest Ukrainian city.
If Odesa had sounded unfamiliar before 2014, it became almost impossible to not know its name after 2 May, when 46 people died and over 200 were injured during pro- and anti-Maidan protesters’ clashes.
If Odesa had sounded unfamiliar before 2014, it became almost impossible to not know its name after 2 May, when 46 people died and over 200 were injured during pro- and anti-Maidan protesters’ clashes in the seaport, and in the fire of the Trade Unions House. Appointment of the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili as Governor of Odesa Oblast in 2015 was met with controversial reception. Since then, Ukrainian and European communities have been carefully observing Odesa, following its fight against severe corruption issues in Ukraine, and hoping that Saakashvili’s experience in curbing corruption in Georgia will prove successful in Ukraine. While these hopes are still alive, and Saakashvili has a significant number of supporters, the governor often becomes the centre of attention not because of his reforms, but rather due to bright personality and promising, or even populist, talks.
Changes in Odesa have to be discussed in the context of its geographical, economic, historic and religious position. Home to a number of sea ports, Odesa Oblast has become even more important after the annexation of Crimea. Dubovyk asserted that some people in Odesa expected higher economic benefits after normal trade in Crimea was disabled, not to mention the anticipation of tourism demand increase in this Mediterranean style resort. The significance of Odesa as an industrial city has also increased following the gradual destabilisation of the Donbass region. Even in the context of Russian-Ukrainian conflict, not a single one of Putin’s speeches about the self-proclaimed Novorossiya forgot to mention Odesa, where even the Orthodox Church was encouraging unity with ‘motherland’ Russia, and demonising the West. The elaborations on the role of the port from international, national and local perspectives attract observers’ attention, and put even more pressure on Saakashvili.
As Dubovyk pointed out, in order to understand Odesa today, it is crucial to consider its position in the Euromaidan. Before the violence broke out, many Ukrainians, including people from Odesa, did indeed support Yanukovych’s presidency. Even then, influenced by Russian media, some citizens were favouring him, seeing Euromaidan as the provocation by the West, and principally supporting the president as ‘their guy’, and a legitimately elected head of state. This support faded not after Yanukovych’s U-turn in the EU Association Agreement, but rather after the ex-president’s violent measures against Euromaidan, and over 100 deaths of protesters in February 2014.
A few months later, following some continued civil unrest, the tragedy of 2 May that took lives of 46 people cast a dark shadow on the beautiful sea port. Various versions of the Odesa events spread across the world, resulting in one of the worst summer seasons for the usually crowded place, which was then considered as unsafe and risky to visit.
Fortunately, this public fear did not last forever. According to Dubovyk, 2015 was a successful year for both Odesa’s political and economic situations – tourist numbers soared, while Poroshenko performed well in the presidential election in Odesa, and his party gained more credibility and support across Ukraine.
The governor is not powerless, but also not an extremely powerful person. Saakashvili is not an exception
‘The governor is not powerless, but also not an extremely powerful person. Saakashvili is not an exception,’ Dubovyk noted. Therefore, expectations of him repeating his experience of success as president of Georgia now in Odesa have been somewhat exaggerated, since as a president he had much more power and influence than as a governor. As the speaker suggested, Saakashvili does not have any local social or electoral base in Ukraine, as he was appointed by the President of Ukraine, and it imposes some restrictions on his activities. As well, people tend to know more about the former Georgian president in a common role of corruption-fighting reformist, but they usually know much less about his other image, referring to the times when he served also as a soft authoritarian, applying pressure against opposition, freedom of speech, and independent media. “This is also Saakashvili,” Dubovyk stressed.
The new governor’s promises to make Odesa great have spread euphoria among some people, while others were sceptical towards the newcomer. Reliance on his team and his charisma can benefit and restrict him at the same time, the speaker said: ultimately, Saakashvili is neither a blessing nor a curse for Odesa.
One of the praised qualities of Saakashvili is his cooperation with the local civil society, and seeming attentive to the citizens’ ideas and proposals. However, the extent to which he actually listens to these is questionable. Finally, the governor’s statements very often outweigh his actual actions, and this becomes one of Saakashvili’s major flaws, summarised Dubovyk.
Possibly, being so charismatic and individualistic precludes people, especially those from the West, from considering Saakashvili as a real and serious governor. Dubovyk told a joke about how people praise ‘Misha’ for working late hours and even at night-time; but a lot of them forget to point out that normally after pulling an all-nighter, any person would most probably nod off or be less productive during the day, and being a governor does not give one super-powers to avoid that.
Although life is getting better slowly, the cycle of corruption is considered to be broken by introducing a new, completely different governor to Odesa.
However, Saakashvili, indeed, has been doing some small reforms, and people in Ukraine are hungry even for baby steps towards the better life. For example, he took some measures against people blocking access to the public beaches by building fences around their houses, making it impossible for ordinary people to use the public swimming facilities in Odesa. Although life is getting better slowly, the cycle of corruption is considered to be broken by introducing a new, completely different governor to Odesa. Time will show if the strategy works in the national, rather than just local context. Being not just populist, but also popular politician, Saakashvili is expected to form his own political party in the future and test the deeper waters, provided that his wide comfort zone and better than anyone else’s relations with the president allow it.