Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
In this day and age, we are all too used to transnational corporations. Transnational politicians, however, are a rare occurrence. Domestic politics is something we hold very dear. As the recent wave of nationalism has shown, we believe that our issues: healthcare, immigration, infrastructure and transport, as dull as they might be, are uniquely our own.
A voter would be hard pressed to trust a foreigner with a senior decision-making position, let alone the highest office in the land. What I have in mind is not a naturalised foreigner, such as British-born Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw, but rather a former president, say Berlusconi, coming to weigh in on our politics here in the UK.
As ridiculous as that might sound, that is the present-day reality in Ukraine where Georgia’s former President, Mikhail Saakashvili, has been parachuted in as a senior executive within the new parliament. The political theatre back home really does not disappoint.
When I first wrote about Zelensky around this time last year, his corruption-mocking hit TV show took him from unlikely favorite, to a serious contender in the 2019 elections. Within a matter of weeks he had thrashed the incumbent Poroshenko and assumed the presidency. His ascent to a modern-day Reagan was swift.
I was so impressed with the whole affair that I wrote a naively optimistic piece about what a Zelensky presidency might bring. But with almost a year of rule now elapsed, I can confidently say that unlike his novel electioneering, his tenure so far has been underwhelming. With a perpetuating stalemate in the east and continued misallocations, beg misappropriations, of IMF loans, his style of politics seems little different to his predecessors. He is likely conscious that my views are increasingly being shared by the wider population. Enter stage right: Mikhail Saakashvili.
A pomp and animated Georgian, with a taste for fine suits and Gaidar-esque reforms, he is a maverick and a household name across Eastern Europe. Some might argue his laudedness is well earned. Two decades ago, Georgia was not the tourist-friendly Caucasian postcard that it is today. Indeed, a semester did not pass at university without me hearing about a twenty-something student, who would have struggled to locate Georgia on a map a couple of years prior, tell me how they couldn’t wait to dip into Tbilisi’s techno scene or admire the soviet brutalist architecture through the lens of their 35mm Pentax.
The architect of this romanticised utopia is Mr Saakashvili. Brought to power by the energy and optimism of the 2003 Rose revolution, overthrowing the stale remnants of the soviet system, he set about on a program of miraculous and attention grabbing reforms. The police force and judiciary were dismissed virtually overnight in what he termed the dismantling of a system that facilitates extortion, the economy was deregulated, and by the end of his first term Georgia had leaped from the ranks of a de-facto failed state to number 8 globally on the ‘ease of doing business’ index.
Today it continues to rank above Greece, Italy and Poland on many corruption indexes. These statistics gloss over the reality that his dismissals were judicially-speaking illegal or that his sentencing rate shot up to over 90%, whereby the courts would seldom dispute the prosecution – if you were considered guilty you were guaranteed prison or a hefty fine.
Fortunately for Saakashvili, he is remembered for the positive change that he brought about in his small Caucasian enclave. The lack of due-process and failed war with Russia, ceding Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has largely been swept under the carpet. In a post-soviet space that is fixated on the political ideology of a single word – reform, the ends justify the means and Mr Saakashvili holds celebrity status. Indeed, if you look at the sprawling-stans of Central Asia to the east and the Zelensky show to the west, you can get an idea of why a single remotely successful reformer can be elevated to a transnational ideologue.
Given this reformist pedigree, one might be led to think that he is the perfect cameo to the Zelensky presidency. Some astute observers might recall, however, that this is not his first foray into Ukrainian politics. Indeed he has already had a stint as governor of the cosmopolitan city of Odessa. Those same observers might recall that the finale of his governorship was being chased up onto the rooftop of a high-rise apartment block by the SBU before being kicked out of the country and having his citizenship revoked rendering him de jura stateless.
Alas, he is back and oozing with post-soviet reformist fervor like it’s 2003 all over again. Some of you might be thinking that it’s been almost three decades, and you’d be right to think the term post-soviet is outdated, yet the polycephalic enemy persists: the struggle against a former occupant just across the border flexing its muscles with Energiepolitik and a corrupt oligarchic elite at home, is as effective a rallying call as it ever has been.
I can see why Zelensky and his new PM, Denys Shmyhal, have brought him in at a time of crisis, running out of ideas, his presence alone offers an easy solution. The air of reformist-intent provided by Saakashvili might buy them both some time to prove their critics wrong. Although the likelihood of a Georgian celebrity solving Ukraine’s problems where such a promising, young cast of grassroots politicians has failed, does not fill me with much hope. Saakashvili joining the ranks of Ukrainian politicians lining up to suckle on the generous teat of the IMF and a consortium of international partners, seems a more likely scenario.