KIEV (Reuters) – Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, vowed on Friday to help his new boss, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, clean out a political “swamp” of oligarchs’ interests that he said were preventing Ukraine prospering.
He spoke to Reuters in an interview a day after being appointed to advise Zelenskiy on reforms, a surprise political comeback in his adoptive country for one of the post-Soviet world’s most recognisable figures.
Twice president of Georgia, Saakashvili had a brief but stormy spell in Ukrainian politics five years ago under Zelenskiy’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko in which he once clambered onto a roof to avoid law enforcement.
His reappearance ruffled feathers in Kiev and in Tbilisi — Georgia’s government recalled its ambassador for consultations in protest.
He joins Zelenskiy as Ukraine faces the prospect of a recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic — which Saakashvili argued makes sweeping reforms all the more urgent.
“President Zelenskiy has a clear mandate from the population of Ukraine to drain the swamp, to clean up the corruption mess that Ukraine has inherited, and to go against the vested oligarchic special interests,” he said.
Time has been lost since Zelenskiy’s election last year, he said. “But now, with the challenge of imminent, huge crisis … there might be no other option but fast reforms and changes. Because we are dealing with a situation when Ukraine either changes or disappears as we know it.”
ECHOES OF TRUMP
His language echoes that of U.S. President Donald Trump, who vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington of lobbyists and elites, and has expressed admiration for Saakashvili.
The 52-year-old had initially been sounded out for the post of deputy prime minister, but the move met with resistance in parliament.
“The point is that President Zelenskiy, by appointing me, demonstrated he is prone to unconventional, brave steps,” Saakashvili said.
“I myself was surprised and President Zelenskiy was taken by surprise by the amount of fear that my candidacy generated. And this is a fear of not a healthy personal nature. This is a fear of old lobbies that don’t want any change,” he said.
He promised to help drive an overhaul of the judicial system — long seen as riddled with corruption — as well as deregulation and tax reform.
“We’ve been unable to create state institutions and democratic framework for real change. Rather we created some ugly post-Soviet structure that is more or less, in many ways, more corrupt than the Soviet Union ever was,” he said.
“And that’s the system that is killing Ukraine.”
Under Poroshenko, Saakashvili was invited to run the southerly Odessa region in 2015, based on his track record of fighting corruption as Georgia’s leader after its 2003 Rose Revolution.
He was among several foreign politicians and technocrats to be given key posts by the pro-Western leadership in Kiev after the Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled in the face of street protests.
But the appointment descended into a running feud. Saakashvili resigned, accusing Poroshenko of corruption, which Poroshenko denied.
Ukraine stripped Saakashvili of his new citizenship when he was abroad, but he barged his way through a checkpoint at the Polish border to get back into Ukraine in September 2017.
Five months later, he was deported after playing a cat-and-mouse game with law enforcement that saw him variously live in a tented protest camp, go on hunger strike, and break out of a police van with the help of his supporters.
Zelenskiy restored his citizenship in one of his first official acts as president.
A benchmark for the progress of Ukraine’s reforms has been its negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a new loan agreement. The government hoped to secure an $8 billion package but the IMF this week switched to what is likely to be a more modest loan deal with fewer riders.
Saakashvili saw it as evidence of the international community’s scepticism about Kiev’s ability to pass reforms, but also called for the IMF to increase its lending to Ukraine.
(Reporting by Ilya Zhegulev and Sergiy Karazy; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey)