Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced over the weekend that he is naming former Georgian President and Putin foe Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. He called the ex-president, who has been acting as an adviser to the government, a “great friend of Ukraine” and granted him Ukrainian citizenship. This seems legally dubious and politically ill-advised, but it is some next-level trolling of Moscow.
Saakashvili came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, pledging to free his country from Russian influence, and quickly became the darling of Bush-era Washington for his sweeping free-market economic reforms and pro-Western foreign policy. He stepped down after his term ended in 2013 and moved to the U.S. after his party was swept from power in elections that year. The current Georgian government has since indicted him for embezzlement and abuse of power over a crackdown on protests against his government in 2007. He says the charges are politically motivated and accuses the current government of being influenced by Russia. (The current president said Sunday that Saakashvili had “insulted his country” by taking the Odessa job.)
As of last year, Saakashvili was keeping a relatively low-profile in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, giving the New York Times a tour of his favorite bars and food trucks.
As staunchly pro-American as he is, it’s no surprise that Saakashvili ranks pretty near the top of Vladimir Putin’s very long enemies list. During the 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia, Putin famously told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he planned to overthrow the Georgian leader and “hang him by the balls.” Saakashvili reportedly referred to the Russian president as “Lili-Putin,” a reference to his height. Things haven’t improved much since then. Saakashvili said last year that Putin “likes to lie.” And when asked in a televised Q&A this April whether he had really threatened to hang Saakashvili “by a certain body part,” Putin quipped, “Why just one?”
Chocolate tycoon-turned-Ukrainian President Petroshenko is already under fire for appointing too many of his fellow oligarchs to senior positions. Appointing a foreigner to govern Odessa, which is predominantly Russian-speaking, mainly because of his anti-Kremlin credentials doesn’t exactly bolster Petroshenko’s case that he seeks to build an inclusive government representing all Ukrainians. But it certainly is a statement.