Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, makes no secret of his hatred for the Kremlin. Now he has taken the fight to Ukraine – as the newly appointed governor of its most corrupt region
The governor was late. It was the end of a hot day in July, and 38 people, most of them women, sat fanning themselves in a stuffy room of the regional administration of Odessa. Most looked exhausted. For three days they had protested outside the building, until, finally, an aide to the governor had come down to say that he would meet with them. That was at 3.30pm; now it was approaching 6pm and the women had grown tired of waiting.
“Maybe he isn’t coming,” one sighed. Just then, the door swung open and Mikheil Saakashvili walked in. Dressed in jeans and a tight green T-shirt, he moved as if he was about to sprint across the room: his tall frame leaning forward, his arms swinging ahead. “I am so glad to see you all,” he said, walking around the large, wood-panelled room, smiling and shaking hands.
Saakashvili, 47, exudes the confidence of the elected statesman that he once was, rather than the appointed bureaucrat that he now is. In May, Saakashvili – the former president of Georgia, friend of George W Bush, and the man who once went to war with Vladimir Putin – was appointed governor of the Ukrainian province of Odessa, which lies 500km south of Kiev, on the Black Sea. The entire post‑Soviet world was shocked by the move. There is no precedent for a former president moving to another country, in order to take up a new political role. Some said it was a gamble that could change Ukraine, and with it the post-Soviet world. Others thought it was political suicide.
By October, six months after he was appointed, Saakashvili would top the polls as Ukraine’s most popular politician, but on that hot July evening, the reception felt chilly. The women looked on sceptically as he positioned himself behind a wooden podium and delivered a variation of a speech that he has made hundreds of times since becoming governor. He talked about the need to stamp out crime in Odessa’s ports, about his plans to build a major road connecting Odessa to Romania, and about other steps he was taking to turn the most corrupt region of Europe’s most corrupt country into a shining example of reform. Then he announced that he had a confession to make.
“There is one thing that you need to understand about me,” he said, pausing briefly and scanning the room. “I hate Vladimir Putin. I am in Ukraine because this is my war, the destiny of my life is being decided here. We need to stop him.”
As he continued speaking, Natasha Pinzh, a tall 33-year-old woman with blonde hair, felt herself getting angry. She was not in the mood for a lecture. She had good reasons for hating Putin, too: the family of refugees from east Ukraine who now slept in her living room; the long days she had spent collecting aid for Ukrainian troops fighting Russian-backed battalions; the uncertainty about whether her husband would return from the frontline every time he went to deliver aid; and, above all, the mutilated bodies of her childhood friends – young men who had gone to fight in the war that Putin had brought to Ukraine.
When they heard that Saakashvili had been appointed as their governor, Natasha and her husband had cracked open a bottle of wine that they were keeping for the end of the war. They had high hopes. Saakashvili was unlike any Ukrainian politician they had ever known: he was a reformer in his native Georgia, and he was, in their view, Odessa’s and Ukraine’s best chance of survival.
But today, two months after he arrived in Odessa, Natasha had come to tell Saakashvili that he had made a huge mistake. Three days earlier, he had appointed a Russian politician as his deputy in charge of social affairs. What could Maria Gaidar, a Muscovite and daughter of the former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar, possibly know about Odessa’s social problems? For three days, Natasha and others had protested against Gaidar’s appointment and now, instead of listening to them, Saakashvili was getting deeper and deeper into a pre-prepared speech.
Natasha jumped up from her seat. “You know what, Mikheil Nikolaevich?” she said, interrupting Saakashvili mid-sentence. “This is not what we’ve come here for. You are wasting our time. I am tired of going to morgues to identify bodies of my friends who are dying on the frontline. All of us here are tired of doing the job that the government should be doing.” Her voice filled with tears. “A lecture from you is not what we need. You need to listen to us.”
For a few seconds nervous silence hung over the room. Then Saakashvili bit his lower lip, ran his hand through his greying hair and said: “You are right. I will listen.”
* * *
Mikheil Saakashvili is not used to being interrupted – or to listening. He sets his own agenda and changes it often, leaving his staff to frantically reschedule press conferences and make excuses for ditched appointments. As president of Georgia, he was known for his habit of inviting journalists to interviews at 1am and holding meetings at 4am. He was nicknamed the “Energizer bunny”.
In person, Saakashvili, who is broad and tall, seems to be in constant motion. A photographer once told me that Saakashvili’s facial expressions change so fast that it is almost impossible to get a picture of him with both eyes open and his mouth closed. There is a goofiness to him that he tries to control in public. His hair is often ruffled, his shirt often untucked. He sometimes giggles at his own jokes. In private, his high-pitched laugh punctuates almost every conversation.
With his arrival in Odessa, Saakashvili has taken his long battle against the Soviet system, and Putin, to a new level. It began in 1995, when aged 28 and fresh out of Columbia Law School, Saakashvili came home to Georgia to crusade against corruption. He became an MP and then, in 2000, the former president of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze appointed him justice minister.
Saakashvili was an odd addition to a cabinet dominated by middle-aged former communist apparatchiks. Theirs was a generation nostalgic for cheap airfares to Moscow and proud of Georgia’s most infamous son, Joseph Stalin. Saakashvili, by contrast, was from a generation shaped by struggle against the Soviet Union. His heroes were Reagan and Thatcher, who stood up to the USSR; their martyrs were the 30 young Georgians killed by Soviet troops on 9 April 1989, when Moscow sent tanks to break up a pro-independence demonstration in Tbilisi.
Saakashvili did not last long in Shevardnadze’s cabinet. He resigned after 11 months, publicly declaring that he could not work with his corrupt cronies. Three years later, he helped to oust them from power. After Shevardnadze’s party rigged the 2003 election, thousands of people took to the streets in protest. “What people were asking us for wasn’t compromise. They wanted a complete change,” Saakashvili told me this summer.
When Saakashvili became president of Georgia in 2004, he was 37 years old, the youngest elected leader in Europe. He found himself in charge of a country where electricity cuts lasted for days, roads were potholed and corruption infected every aspect of life. If you wanted medical treatment, say, or a new passport, then you would have to pay bribes. By the end of his presidency in 2013, petty crime had all but vanished and Georgia’s position in the corruption watchdog Transparency International’s world rankings had dramatically improved.
Politically, Saakashvili leans towards the socially liberal, pro-business right. As president, he prided himself on slashing regulation and encouraging foreign investment. However, he also annoyed his team of libertarian advisers by embracing populist social policies such as his “Smiling Georgia” programme, which offered free prosthetic teeth to thousands of citizens.
Despite his successes, Saakashvili’s reforms did not come without cost. In 2013, Transparency International noted that his party had “shown increasingly autocratic tendencies”. Nine years after Saakashvili first took office, prisons were full of people serving long jail sentences for petty crimes, the government controlled the media, the privatisation deals that brought foreign investment were not transparent and some of the reforms, especially in health and education, were poorly implemented. Even more gallingly, many Georgians felt that Saakashvili had become arrogant and dismissive of their criticism.
Parts of Georgia were also occupied by Russia. Saakashvili’s first official visit as president was to Moscow in 2004, where he tried to improve Georgia’s turbulent relationship with its neighbour. But it quickly became clear that Saakashvili, the crusader against all things Soviet, and Vladimir Putin, who considered the collapse of the Soviet Union to be the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, would never get along. In August 2008, the tension erupted in a five-day war over Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia. As Russian tanks rolled towards the Georgian capital, Putin, who does not hide his disdain for Saakashvili, having publicly mocked his Georgian accent, famously told then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy that he wanted to hang Saakashvili “by his balls”.
In September 2013, shortly before the end of his second term as president, Saakashvili went to New York, where, in a passionate speech to the UN general assembly, he warned of Russia’s expansionist ambitions. “An old empire is trying to reclaim its bygone borders,” he said. Few took notice.
Two years after his speech, Saakashvili no longer needs to convince western leaders of the dangers that Putin poses. Does he feel vindicated? He says he does. “Mostly, though,” he told me one afternoon in Odessa, “I feel lucky. Not many people have a chance to build a country from scratch. Hardly anyone has had a chance to do it twice.” His new job, he says, holds the answer to the question of his lifetime: will democracy in the former Soviet Union prevail over the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions?
“It’s a huge gamble,” Saakashvili said. To take up his new post, he had to become a Ukrainian citizen. This upset many of his supporters at home, but he dismisses it as a distraction. “If Russia, God forbid, succeeds, then the idea of the renewal of this part of the world is gone.”
He claims that he tries to think of Putin as little as possible – “The man makes me sick” – but his battle with the Kremlin seems to be the backdrop to every meeting in his packed schedule. “If the Russian regime doesn’t disintegrate, we are all gone,” he said one day, in a throwaway comment as he ran up the stairs of his residence and disappeared for an unscheduled rest. During these mid-afternoon lulls, which occasionally interrupt his schedule, Saakashvili stops answering phone calls from his assistants: a signal, as one of them put it, that “the boss is recharging”.
As in Georgia, Saakashvili keeps long hours, but these days he does so in far more austere surroundings. In Georgia, he drove in an armoured limousine and flew on a private jet. Opponents accused him of wasting state resources on entertaining foreign dignitaries. He went hiking with Albert II, the Prince of Monaco, took Hillary Clinton wine-tasting, and hosted Sharon Stone in the modern presidential palace that he built on a hill overlooking the capital, Tbilisi. Saakashvili has always argued that these stunts helped to put Georgia on the map and to attract investment. (After he left office, the country’s new government produced what it called proof of Saakashvili’s abuse of power: bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of massages, Botox and hair‑removal treatment for the president and his friends. Saakashvili says that these allegations are part of a political vendetta.)
In Odessa, he lives in a gloomy two-storey property at the end of a tramline, on the outskirts of the city. He inherited his home from his predecessor, complete with faded carpets, a Soviet-style banquet hall (always empty), and a hedgehog that lives in the garden. “I called her Violetta,” he told me one evening, as it scurried across the grass. “Or Viola for short.”
* * *
Saakashvili was living in Brooklyn in the summer of 2014 when Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, asked him to join his team. For Saakashvili, the timing was ideal. New York, which had excited him as a student, seemed “empty of content”, after the thrill of running a country. And returning to Georgia was no longer an option: in a move that the US State Department described as “political retribution”, the new Georgian government, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch with ties to Russia, initiated criminal proceedings against Saakashvili in July 2014 for alleged misappropriation of state funds and abuse of power. “Why would I choose to rot in prison in Georgia, if I could be helping Ukraine?” he explained to me.
Saakashvili moved to Kiev to take up an official position as an adviser to Poroshenko in February 2015. It was a critical moment for Ukraine, a year on from the revolution that had toppled President Viktor Yanukovych. The economy was shrinking, the country’s self-serving bureaucracy was failing to deliver reforms, and Poroshenko’s government was divided on how to handle the Russians. The country needed a success story. After a few months in Kiev, Saakashvili asked Poroshenko to send him to Odessa. Change, he thought, would be easier to bring on a local scale, and the region could become a launchpad for national reform.
He could not have picked a more symbolic location. Built by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century and once the third biggest city in the Russian empire, Odessa holds a special place in the Russian psyche. Pushkin wrote parts of Eugene Onegin there and Gogol spent winters there. The region has also produced a number of great writers of its own, including Isaac Babel. Separatist leaders in east Ukraine view Odessa as part of “Novorossia”, a 19th-century term for the region, when it was under tsarist rule. There is significant support for Moscow in the region: only a year ago, the Russian-speaking parts of Odessa were rocked by anti-Kiev protests.
According to a diplomat in Kiev, “some western European leaders, Germans in particular” were initially opposed to Saakashvili’s appointment in Odessa, fearing it would be too provocative for Moscow. Saakashvili says that western Europeans have always treated him with a certain amount of suspicion. “Frankly there is still a bit of a colonial attitude in the west. The west collectively seems to believe that no one outside the west can be truly successful. That’s what makes it an even a bigger gamble for me – our success in Georgia was easy to dismiss; it’s a small country, it doesn’t matter. Here everyone will have to pay attention.”
But achieving success as an elected leader of a small country is very different from trying reform one region in a country of 45 million people that is at war and on the brink of economic collapse. In Georgia, Saakashvili had power over the police, the army, the intelligence services. In Odessa, when he arrived, he had no control over the prosecutor’s office or the security services. In Georgia, he would rant for hours, uninterrupted, on the main television channels. In Odessa he is constantly ridiculed on the popular channel 1+1.
Russian TV, which is widely viewed in Odessa, also dedicates a lot of airtime to Saakashvili. In these programmes, he is always referred to as “fugitive Saakashvili”; and most include embarrassing footage from 2008 of Saakashvili chewing nervously on his tie after hearing that Russia had begun to bomb Georgia. (This clip has long been a favourite of Saakashvili’s opponents.) In September, Russia’s biggest state-controlled network, NTV, broadcast adverts for an “exclusive exposé” on Saakashvili’s sex life, which featured a transgender woman who claimed to be his lover and promised to “tell all about Saakashvili’s American adventures”. Another Kremlin-controlled network, Rossia 24, recently aired a prime-time news report on what it described as Saakashvili’s “harem” in Odessa.
“Oh yes, I am a well known sex addict, drug addict, food addict, you name it,” Saakashvili laughed over lunch with the Swiss ambassador and his wife, as well as three of Saakashvili’s deputies. “Actually, they are right about food – I am a food addict,” he said, tossing a piece of grilled chicken onto the ambassador’s plate.
With resources scarce, visitors to Saakashvili’s residence usually end up eating take-away food from a local Georgian restaurant. (Crispy grilled chicken and aubergines in walnut sauce are staples.) “Basically we are running a startup,” explained Saakashvili’s deputy Sasha Borovik, who did, in fact, once run a startup in Silicon Valley. Borovik, who is currently running to be mayor of Odessa, took the job without knowing what his own salary was, or whether he even had one. Like many of Saakashvili’s team, he is living off his savings. “If we get six hours of sleep, it feels like a long weekend. The only difference is that, with a startup, if you fail, you move on. Here, if we fail, this is it,” he said.
The odds are against Saakashvili and his young team. The regional administration is broken. Like every Ukrainian government institution, it is also bloated. “This is ridiculous, where is everyone?” Saakashvili exclaimed one day when he walked out of his office and into the administration’s reception area. It was just after 6pm and everyone, apart from Saakashvili’s deputies and volunteers, had gone home. “How can people expect to change the country if they don’t want to work past 5pm?” he grumbled. Saakashvili has already dismissed half of the 600 staff who were employed by the governor’s office when he arrived. His team now relies largely on activists and volunteers.
One afternoon in Odessa, I watched a group of Georgian and Ukrainian technocrats spend hours poring over details of legislative changes that Ukrainian politicians would need to pass in order to create a simpler, more efficient bureaucracy. “We may not look it, but we are soldiers too,” a Georgian called Dato Kiziria told me during a coffee break. Corruption, he said, was Russia’s most effective soft-power tool: the more corrupt the system, the easier it is to manipulate those running it. As with many of the people around Saakashvili, Kiziria saw his work in existential terms. “You cut red tape, you cut corruption, and by doing it together we are creating a new alliance in the former Soviet space. An alliance against Putin’s system. We can’t afford to fail.”
* * *
Unlike Georgia’s revolution, which brought a total overhaul of the system, the Ukrainian uprising did not change the political elite. Ukraine’s post-revolutionary government is made up largely of the same people who have run the country since the early 1990s. President Poroshenko is himself an oligarch. Nicknamed the “chocolate king”, he owns, among many other assets, the popular Roshen confectionery brand and has a fortune estimated at $1.3bn.
Saakashvili admits that his boss’s biography does not make him an ideal reformer. “Political parties in Ukraine are interest groups,” he said. “The curse of Ukraine is that the same elite have been entrenched here for 25 years, and Poroshenko is very much part of it – but he is also showing that he is willing to go against his own party’s interests.”
Poroshenko does not have much choice. The revolution that failed to change the Ukrainian political elite has transformed its society. The government’s ineptitude and the ongoing war with Russia has created a new class of Ukrainians: millions of disciplined, energetic activists who are working to fill the gap left by the state. In the east, volunteer battalions provide crucial support to Ukraine’s ragtag army. Away from the frontline, they are setting up crowd-funded television stations and websites to counter Russian propaganda, monitoring local elections, feeding refugees, and pushing their politicians to reform. “In Georgia I felt like I was pulling the nation – here, people are pulling us,” Saakashvili told me.
Still, reforming a country with an entrenched elite is no easy task. Under these conditions, even basic things – such as transport – become challenges. Saakashvili often goes to Kiev to meet President Poroshenko, and to lobby the government on legislative changes. The problem for him is that most of the flights out of Odessa are run by Ukraine International Airlines, a company owned by Ihor Kolomoisky, a tycoon and former governor of Dnipropetrovsk region. Earlier this year, Poroshenko, who had promised to curb the influence of oligarchs, dismissed Kolomoisky from his position as governor. He also sacked Kolomoisky’s close associate, Igor Palitsa, who was governor of Odessa, replacing him with Saakashvili. Saakashvili has accused Kolomoisky of running a smuggling business at Odessa’s ports (Kolomoisky denies this, and has threatened to sue), and announced he would no longer fly on Kolomoisky’s airline. But the boycott left Saakashvili with virtually no flights out of Odessa. To get to Kiev he now has to make a five-hour journey by car along Ukraine’s bumpy roads.
One evening in July, after a day packed with meetings and events, Saakashvili rushed to Kiev to convince the government to sack the corrupt head of a port on the outskirts of Odessa. In a more functional country, Saakashvili could send a deputy to do this, but his deputies do not wield enough power to confront politicians in Kiev. Saakashvili is working within a system run by powerful men who are deeply resistant to change, particularly change that will leave them with less power. So Saakashvili, who has an unusual level of authority because of his record in Georgia, his popularity in Ukraine and the enthusiastic support of Poroshenko, has to personally navigate the halls of power to get even simple things done.
Saakashvili got the letter he needed at 2am, drove back to Odessa through the night, and at 9am waved it to reporters who had been summoned to the port. He allowed himself a giggle of pleasure at the name of the port-chief he had just sacked: Yuri Crook. “You know what Crook means in English, don’t you?” he asked the assembled journalists. Saakashvili alleged that he had evidence that Crook, backed by oligarchs, had been renting the port’s mooring lines to a “dodgy” offshore company in Belize and “stealing millions of dollars” from the Ukrainian people. (Crook later told me the accusations against him were unfair.)
Immediately after the press conference, Saakashvili hopped into a car and made the five-hour journey back to Kiev for another meeting with Poroshenko. Later that evening he was back in Odessa, sitting at the table in the garden as Violetta the hedgehog hurried past. Saakashvili drank lemon tea, which he imbibes in large quantities, and checked the responses to his Facebook post about the sacking of Crook: 13,724 likes, 4,269 shares and 1,194 comments. “Go Misha, squash these parasites!” one of them read.
In the absence of much support for Saakashvili from the Ukrainian media, Facebook is his main platform. He spends a lot of time posting updates: usually in Ukrainian first, followed by a Russian translation (he is fluent in both). One day, I accompanied him to the opening of a new grain factory outside Odessa. On the drive back into the city, he noticed some roadworks and urged the driver to stop. He jumped out of the car, clipped on a microphone and offered instructions to his cameraman, who was travelling with him. Saakashvili positioned himself in front of a group of workers who, stunned by his arrival, had stopped laying asphalt. Then he delivered a piece to camera worthy of a seasoned television reporter. “We drove on this road two hours ago and nobody was fixing it,” Saakashvili said, angrily pointing at the bulldozer. “The only reason this road is being fixed now is because local authorities knew I’d be passing here. They rushed to show they are doing something. I am warning you now, we don’t need shows – we need real roads.” Later that day, the video joined dozens of others on his Facebook page.
For Saakashvili, this kind of showmanship comes naturally, but it is also pragmatic. His supporters say that rallying the public around his efforts is, for now, at least, the only way of ensuring his political and physical survival. “The more vocal he is, the more popular he will be, and the harder it will be to kill him,” a local businessman, and enthusiastic Saakashvili supporter, Leonid Kuchuk, told me.
Those who work closely with Saakashvili admit that they are concerned about his security, but as he dashed around Odessa with two bodyguards, he shrugged off the question. Since he cannot afford proper security, he believes that there is little point in worrying about it. “Look, if they want to kill me, they’ll kill me, but I don’t think they will,” he said, sounding strangely upbeat.
* * *
Don’t you think it’s better than Barcelona?” Saakashvili asked one night as he gave a tour of his new hometown to a visiting Georgian politician. (The man, wary of the political repercussions of fraternising with Saakashvili, asked not to be named.) “This place,” he said, “has the best beaches in Europe.”
“Last time I heard you say that, you were referring to Georgian beaches,” replied the guest.
“Just look at it …” continued Saakashvili, pointing to the ornate art nouveau buildings that surrounded a pretty, pedestrianised square. It was half past midnight and the city’s wide boulevard was full of people. Next to a fountain, an elegant old lady twirled to the tune of a busker’s violin, and, all around, street cafes hummed with young people.
Odessans speak Russian, but the Russian spoken there is laced with Yiddish and Ukrainian expressions. It is a deeply cosmopolitan city, shaped over centuries by the many different ethnicities that have settled there, by the foreigners who have ruled it, by the many visitors who have passed through its ports. It is a place where Saakashvili feels at home. “I think he fits right in,” Michael Reva, the city’s best-known sculptor, told me. “It’s a city that has always been very tolerant of adventurers and crazy dreamers – they’ve always thrived here.”
I first met Reva at a summer lunch for the Odessa intelligentsia, hosted by Saakashvili at his residence. Two dozen people – doctors, artists and film directors – gathered around a long table piled with plates of smoked fish, salads and cold meats. Saakashvili sat at the centre, one hand warming a glass of red wine, the other flying around as he answered countless questions from his guests: Where was he going to get the money for the new airport he had promised?; What about the education system?; What was he going to do about healthcare?
“I’ve never been to a lunch with a governor before,” Reva whispered to me as he tucked into his food. “Neither have I,” said his childhood friend, Yuri Karpenko, a heart surgeon.
Some of the reforms, Saakashvili told the guests, would be painful. “We have to accept that it is unsustainable to have a 2,000-bed hospital in a city of one million people. The hospital needs to have 100 beds, and people should stay two or three days and not three weeks.”
“He’s right,” the surgeon whispered to the sculptor.
One of the guests, an older actor, stood up to make a toast: “In this city, we have learned not to trust everyone, especially the politicians sent by Kiev. But over the centuries, sometimes real dreamers have come through Odessa and changed things. What I hope you realise,” he said pointing his glass at Saakashvili, “is that whether or not our children stay here in Odessa depends on whether you manage to make your dreams come true.”
Saakashvili ended the lunch by giving everyone his mobile number and asking them to send him their ideas.
Beneath the hope that Saakashvili’s appointment brought to many in Odessa, there are also undercurrents of discontent. Apart from the oligarchs, bureaucrats and politicians who feel sidelined by him, thousands of people genuinely want to link Odessa’s future to Russia. In Bessarabia, which is part of the Odessa region that borders Transnistria – a separatist, Moscow-backed province of Moldova – the people recently elected an “alternative” governor who pledged that he would never accept Saakashvili’s rule.
Many in Odessa are also unhappy about a botched investigation into the events of 2 May 2014, when 46 people, most of them pro-Moscow demonstrators, were killed in the Trade Union building in the centre of the city. The building caught fire after violent clashes between pro and anti-Kiev demonstrators, and each side blamed the other. Pro-Russian activists say that they do not believe the investigation being carried out by the Kiev government to be impartial. “They are fascists and barbarians,” said Nina Konstantinova, a pro-Russia demonstrator who narrowly survived the fire.
The incident, Konstantinova said – along with the wave of arrests of Russian nationals and pro-Russian activists that followed, and, more recently, Saakashvili’s arrival – has put her dream of joining Russia on hold. Many of her fellow activists are in jail, and the movement’s leaders have fled to Moscow or Crimea. “Sometimes it feels like I am the only one left here, it’s scary,” she said. As for Saakashvili, she added: “He can’t last here.”
The question that Saakashvili is most frequently asked is: “How long are you here for?” His answer is always the same: as long as it takes to bring real change. No one expects him to stay for long, and most appear to think that the region is his springboard to a bigger political role. Is he eyeing a return to Georgia? “Maybe one day,” he said. But not yet. “I am not ready for it, and Georgia is not ready for me.”
* * *
On the evening of 20 July, Russian television ran a report about the trouble caused by the appointment of Maria Gaidar as deputy governor of Odessa. It featured Natasha Pinzh speaking angrily at the protest outside the administration building that afternoon, saying that she would never accept Gaidar’s appointment.
But by the time the report ran, Natasha had changed her mind. At 9pm, three hours into the meeting with Saakashvili at the Odessa regional administration, Natasha and her activist friends were still deep in a conversation with the governor, who was now perched on a desk, asking them questions about their work.
Natasha told me later that what made her change her mind about Gaidar’s appointment was that she felt Saakashvili had understood and appreciated the work activists were doing. Odessa relied on them for so many services that the government was failing to provide. Saakashvili agreed to relieve Gaidar of her social affairs brief, but asked the assembled women to work closely with her.
“Why don’t we hold meetings like this every week, so that we find solutions together,” Saakashvili suggested.
“Every week is too much, Mikheil Nikolaevich, we are all busy. Maybe every month?” one of the women replied.
That evening, Saakashvili had won a small victory by convincing Natasha and her friends that it was important to have Gaidar in Odessa. The fact that a daughter of such a prominent family had switched sides was a big blow for Putin, he said. Increasingly, liberal Russians were coming to him with offers of help – a valuable asset for someone who is playing a long game. “I can either send them away, or take them on and let them join our fight,” he said. “Please understand, this war in Ukraine will only truly be over when people take to the streets of Moscow.”