ODESSA, Ukraine -- Mikheil Saakashvili tends to be easily dismissed. The former Georgian president’s impulsiveness and habit of exaggeration have always made him controversial, and when he let himself be lured into firing the first shot in a war with Russia in 2008, his reputation seemed unlikely to recover.
Yet Saakashvili has re-emerged.
For three months he has been running Ukraine’s Odessa region, where he is proving popular and also right about what Ukraine as a whole needs.
In some ways, the Georgian has never have been better suited to a job than the one he has now: shaking things up in a mafia-ridden region of a country that isn’t his own.
That’s just as well, because if Russian President Vladimir Putin has throttled back his war in eastern Ukraine and pivoted to Syria, it is in large part to distract attention from here.
There is no need for him to incur the cost of further military action to destabilize Ukraine.
By Saakashvili’s own calculation, Ukraine’s pro-Western government has as little as six months to get radical economic reform underway or collapse.
So President Petro Poroshenko’s experiment in sending Putin’s bete noire to Odessa is in reality a Hail Mary pass, designed to break the reform logjam before it’s too late.
Speaking late at night in his Soviet-era governor’s office in Odessa, Saakashvili explained why:
Because within six months, if real change doesn’t happen, the state apparatus, the state bureaucracy, is going to disintegrate.
Look we have a state bureaucracy that people don’t realize is not getting salaries any more.
It is not getting paid.
As a result we can get all kinds of chaotic elements taking over, or trying to take over and causing more chaos.
As if to make his point Sunday, a bomb went off outside the offices of Ukraine’s security service in Odessa.
Devaluation and inflation have hit hard.
Without sweeping corruption trials and reforms to demonstrate that the kleptocracy Ukrainians revolted against almost two years ago is coming to an end, patience with the new regime is running out fast.
Support for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party, the largest in parliament, has fallen to just 2 percent.
The good news is that Ukrainians, tired of corruption, hardship and inept government, want the radical change that Saakashvili brought to Georgia, after its so-called Rose Revolution of 2003.
He gave the corrupt businessmen who sucked that country dry after independence an ultimatum:
Pay a large lump sum in arbitrary “back taxes” and get out of the way, or go to jail.
Empty coffers were filled, enabling him to make other changes.
He amended the constitution to give himself more powers at the expense of parliament, jailed undesirables, fired traffic police whose sole function had been to extort bribes, winnowed unwanted civil servants and sold off all the state assets he could.
The big question is whether Saakashvili can repeat his Georgian reforms without having the Putinesque powers he wielded in Georgia.
Won't he simply get sucked into the same reform-blocking morass as the government in Kiev?
“True, but not fully,” says Saakachvili.
Poroshenko gave him the right to put a new chief prosecutor in place (a Georgian) and purge the office -- an essential step as Ukraine’s prosecutors protect the corrupt.
Saakashvili recently replaced the region’s top 10 prosecutors, as well as 26 district heads of administration.
The president also let him install a new police chief (another Georgian), and with U.S. aid he has already put through his signature reform from Georgia: retraining and rebranding the police.
The governor of Kharkiv, a large Ukrainian region on Russia’s border, now says he wants a similar U.S. package for police and prosecution reform.
Just as important as the law enforcement leverage Poroshenko provided is having popular backing for the reforms he wants, says Saakachvili:
In Georgia we had all the time to initiate reforms, sometimes not even to ask them about them and just do it and drag society after us.
Here society is leading the reforms.
Here society wants the reforms, they can articulate the reforms, they can tell you exactly what they want.
You can follow them rather than being followed by them all the time.
That’s a huge difference.
Right now there isn’t a single radical idea that cannot fly well with Ukrainian society.
They [the population] have also such a force that all the elite in Kiev is quite scared of them.
Also local elites.
And this is Saakashvili’s pitch: He may not wield absolute power, but he can stir up public support to use as a battering ram to change or defeat Ukraine’s deeply entrenched vested interests.
That’s what he did to get the legislative changes for his police and prosecutorial reforms from the parliament in Kiev, “screaming” in public after weeks of quiet lobbying got him nowhere.
That’s also what will be required to drive through customs reform, enabling him to automate customs at Odessa’s port and so remove the discretionary powers that enable corruption that greases wheels all the way to Kiev.
In parliament, they will try to sabotage the reform package.
Look, for instance, at electronic customs.
There is a whole class of customs brokers who would basically just go out of business as a result.
So of course they will try to block it through technical means; but once you make this debate very public, then again this whole crisis of the public makes it very difficult for them to publicly reject it.
Clearly, this strategy can only work if Saakashvili and his message are popular, which they seem to be.
On a walkabout with U.S. Senator John McCain last week in downtown Odessa, and at a concert to boost tourism at a former Ottoman fortress along the coast, under-30s wanted selfies with the new governor.
Older generations were more cautious, skeptical of yet another promise to change the system, but willing to wait and see; they too like what he says about fighting corruption.
In a city split roughly half and half between those who identify with Western Europe and Russia, there have -- remarkably -- been no significant protests against Saakashvili’s appointment.
A few changes are starting to materialize.
On top of the new-look police force, Saakashvili has persuaded businessmen responsible for a half-built terminal at Odessa airport to restart construction -- ostensibly by threatening to open a new airport.
On Friday, he inducted the new (all-young, nearly all-female and stilettoed) staff of a one-stop office for registering passports and businesses in minutes rather than weeks or months, due to open on Oct. 10.
With no more queueing and bribing, the center will be popular.
Which is probably why one of the two men who effectively run Odessa, Mayor Gennadiy Trukhmanov, who faces re-election next month, decided to back the document-registration center.
Saakashvili thinks there’s more to it, though.
At the induction, the mayor was eloquent in promoting transparency and attacking corruption.
“The ‘C’ word would never have been mentioned by him a few months ago,” Saakashvili says.
I would never think that in Georgia such people can change.
Here I have my second thoughts.
Maybe part of them can change.
Because this is a critical situation, they understand the country is standing on the edge of the abyss and something needs to be done.
But the other man who runs Odessa is Sergey Kivalov, the powerful law academy chief.
He headed the election commission that stole Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election for former President Viktor Yanukovych, triggering the country’s first, “Orange” revolution.
Meeting Kivalov is like meeting Yanukovych’s twin brother:
He has the same stiff bouffon hair, the same nose flattened like a street-fighter’s and a similar rough-diamond style.
He even, like Yanukovych, owns an over-the-top home that supposedly belongs to the state and is filled with gilded furniture.
It’s known here as the “Harry Potter house.”
So can Saakashvili also work with Kivalov?
“Hardly,” he says.
“Kivalov still runs this whole ring of judges and prosecutors he used to control and basically they are corrupt and that’s the point; it’s why I have doubts about that.”
Kivalov took me around the impressive sports stadium, rare books collection and reading rooms of the law academy he has run since its creation.
“If I was corrupt, how could we have built all this?” he asked.
He finished by showing off the rooms where Saakashvili’s new chief prosecutor is restructuring the prosecution service.
“I voted for these reforms, I’m helping them,” said Kivalov, a legislator in Ukraine’s parliament.
People in Odessa don’t seem to care greatly about the issue most international commentary focused on after Saakashvili’s appointment, namely that he was a foreigner whose insertion would be seen from Moscow as a U.S. provocation.
What Odessans do care about is that he should change the system and build the road to the European Union he promised -- a pledge every governor in memory has made and failed to deliver.
Kivalov is a good example of how much harder this will be to do in Ukraine than it was in Georgia.
He’s too powerful to ignore, but will seek to make sure the system he helped to build stays intact (for example, he’s pressing for judges to be locally elected, rather than appointed from Kiev, ensuring a hostile government in Kiev can’t eradicate his influence).
So far, though, Saakashvili has just laid foundations for the big changes he needs to make -- his new prosecutors now need to build cases, for example.
It’s hard to see how, on his own timetable, he will have time to drive change through in Ukraine’s corrupt and chaotic democracy:
If Ukraine has six months, he gives himself only another three-to-four in Odessa.
And that’s why it benefits Putin for Western attention to drift away from Ukraine right now; time is on his side.
All the more reason for the EU, as well as the U.S., to get behind Poroshenko’s Hail Mary pass in Odessa, and then in other regions.
If that means the EU getting over its personal wariness of Saakashvili, and of his toxic relationship with Putin, then it’s time.