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Mixed Feelings In Odesa Over Saakashvili As Governor

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) presents former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as the governor of Odesa on May 30, 2015.

To say that Mikheil Saakashvili's appointment as governor of Odesa Oblast took Ukrainians by surprise would be an understatement.

Local residents were stunned to learn on May 30 that Georgia's former president had been selected to run the troubled southern Ukrainian city and its surrounding region.

Some Odesites found the news so bewildering they actually thought it was a prank.

"Surely this is just another joke," a local woman told RFE/RL. "Tomorrow they'll say it's the end of the world. Do you seriously believe this?"

Political watchers, however, say Saakashvili had been touted for a government job in Ukraine since late 2014.

"The biggest mystery was that he turned down high-ranking posts," Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko says. "Then he unexpectedly chose an area in which he can show results relatively quickly."

President Petro Poroshenko made the bombshell announcement in a televised event in Odesa, flanked by Saakashvili. "We are united by our love of Odesa and Ukraine," he said, adding that that the new governor would carry out much-needed reforms.

Great Expectations

"In just one year, Odesites should feel that their living standards are higher," he said. He also granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship to facilitate his job.

Saakashvili, a longtime friend of Poroshenko, is widely credited with conducting sweeping reforms in his native Georgia.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and new Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili are greeted by local residents near the regional state administration building in Odesa on May 30, 2015.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and new Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili are greeted by local residents near the regional state administration building in Odesa on May 30, 2015.

Speaking shortly after his inauguration in Odesa, he said he would begin by replacing all his deputies. "We have to look for young people, fresh energy, new approaches," he said.

Poroshenko, who is pursuing a course of European integration away from Russia's orbit, has appointed several non-Ukrainian nationals to government jobs, including U.S.-born Natalia Yaresko as finance minister.

Saakashvili, however, is the first ethnically non-Ukrainian to be handed a key post.

While some Odesa residents believe he will breathe new life to Odesa, others doubt he has what it takes to run the strategic port city -- which lies close to the Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russia -- as Ukraine seeks to stamp out a pro-Russian insurgency further east.

Tensions in the city remain high after clashes between pro- and antigovernment protesters in May 2014 left more than 40 people dead in a blaze.

Wanted In Georgia

Saakashvili is also a deeply polarizing figure.

Authorities in Georgia, which he left after his presidential term ended in 2013, accuse him of abuse of power and have demanded his extradition.

"This is a person who faces criminal charges in a country with which we have political relations," says a middle-aged woman in Odesa. "How could a man like that be appointed to this post?"

"I thought he was a good president in Georgia, I liked his economic reforms," says a more optimistic resident. "I think he will bring positive things."

Former Odesa Governor Ihor Palytsia says he was stunned to learn both of Saakashvili's appointment and of his own dismissal. Palytsia, however, has put on a brave face.

"The reforms they want can only be carried out with Kyiv's full support," Palytsia said. "We all understand that the president is forming a team that he trusts. I am persuaded that a person such as Saakashvili will be able to draw the president's attention to the Odesa region."

Palytsia's tenure had yielded few achievements, mainly due to what was widely perceived as Poroshenko's hostility.

The president appears to have been particularly wary of Palytsia's close ties to Ihor Kolomoyskiy, a powerful oligarch recently dismissed as governor of Dnipropetrovsk, a region near separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine.

Kolomoyskiy stepped down in March amid accusations that he was using private armed forces to promote his own interests, in defiance of Poroshenko's orders that all private battalions be integrated with the official armed forces.

Poroshenko's call for "a Ukraine without oligarchs who have armies," made during Saakashvili's televised appointment, was seen as a thinly-veiled jab at Kolomoyskiy.

"A lot here depends on human factors," says Artem Filipenko, an Odesa-based political analyst. "There is hope that Saakashvili will put the president's backing to good use."

Reactions beyond Ukraine have been mixed, too.

Russia, which fought a brief war with Georgia under Saakashvili's tenure in 2008, poured scorn on his new job.

"Saakashvili -- head of Odesa region. The Chapiteau show goes on. Sad Ukraine..." Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted, referring to a popular Russian comic act.

In Georgia, President Giorgi Margvelashvili slammed Saakashvili for effectively dropping his Georgian citizenship by taking a Ukrainian passport. Georgia does not recognize dual citizenship unless a special request is personally granted by the president.

"By having done so he insulted our state, the presidency," Margvelashvili said. "I think values are more important than a career."