In his inaugural speech, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy invited Ukrainians living abroad to return to their historic homeland. As someone who did this in 2015, I feel that some of that experience could be instructive for the new generation of reformers and the expats wishing to return.
In May 2015 President Petro Poroshenko sent his friend Mikheil Saakashvili to see if he could sort out the country’s largest and most corrupt oblast, Odesa. Shortly after, I accepted an invitation by Saakashvili to join him. By the time we all got together in the lovely Black Sea port city of 1 million people, we had an interesting mix of several Georgian cabinet reformers, several international technocrats, and a number of Ukrainian volunteers and expats.
When we came to Odesa, very few of us knew what we were getting into or how this would unfold. We came on a promise to rid Odesa Oblast of a trio of plagues: economic stagnation, corruption and mafia. Poroshenko pledged his full support. The place, and the combination of personalities and events made us the most interesting reform group to watch at the time.
Odesa has been controlled by the most infamous of Ukrainian organized crime units, the so-called Odesa mafia. The city has historically been a smugglers’ haven. Famous writers such as Isaac Babel wrote about the exploits of Jewish gangsters, thieves and crime lords. That romanticized picture has given way to sophisticated crime syndicates which use the city’s sprawling port to their economic and political advantage. Odesa quickly became a key hub in post-Soviet global trafficking networks – moving anything from Europe-bound Afghan heroin arriving from the Caucasus, to the Africa-bound Soviet arms. The local groups, known for being secretive and brutal, often operate in collaboration with Russian and other international mafia gangs.
I had personal ties to the city and was given some visibility into the Odesa underworld through my father, a retired senior officer of the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU. He led the agency in Odesa Oblast, where a number of SBU agents were assassinated by the gang. Through the years the agency itself has been heavily penetrated and exploited by the criminal syndicates. Other than the drugs and arms, the gang has been involved in protection rackets, loan sharking, murder-for-hire, as well as the fuel tax fraud rackets. By the time we got there, it had converted its economic powers into a firm grip over the city’s politicians, media and infrastructure.
Against this backdrop, having exiles and foreigners led by Saakashvili drive the change in Odesa seemed like a good approach. We had no vested interest in the old system and had nothing to lose. We had quickly identified five key strategies: eradicate corruption at the regional administration; improve the life of ordinary citizens by building new roads and assisting the administrative processes; bring proper corporate and system governance to the port; remove mafia from political power; and propose the reform package of legislative changes. Being new to the city held some major disadvantages for us: we did not know whom to trust from the locals, many of whom have been changing sides during the previous revolutions, had controversial reputations, dubious sources of wealth or simply were not willing to partake in our risky political expedition.
I was picked to lead the package of reforms and to challenge the mafia’s political grip on power by running for mayor of Odesa.
We used the Georgian experience and fairly quickly prepared the reform package. I presented it to the president and his team. It included draft legislation and initiatives in several primary areas: civil service reform; reform of labor relations; simplified public service delivery; deep deregulation and liberalization of business; transparent privatization; a new tax and customs system; and an economic freedom act that would cap government spending, debt, and budget deficits. Together these proposals all aimed to simplify government procedures, withdraw government from involvement in the economy, and strictly restrict public spending.
Clearly, it was not possible to set a flat tax system just for Odesa, nor can a regional governor decide that 80 percent of Ukraine’s protected state assets or land should be put up for sale. So, this was our national agenda. Very soon after arriving in Odesa, the former Georgian president and our team there were gunning to sort out the whole country. We felt we could not achieve the desired results in Odesa unless we do so in the context of nationwide reform, which in our view was lacking the dynamic.
Such a plan would be radical and difficult to implement in any country. In Ukraine, where the state has been set to enrich those setting the rules, it was almost impossible. We wanted the plan adopted within the next three months. Poroshenko was dragging his feet. The expectation and the agreement with him were that he will take it through the National Reforms Council, and then to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.
None of that had ever happened and nothing from our package was adopted – all our initiatives died.
In parallel to promoting the plan, I ran for mayor of Odesa. This is when I came across the dark side of Ukrainian contemporary politics: election fraud and manipulation. Rooted in mafia, Odesa politics have been dirty historically.The electoral system and practices are built to provide an opportunity for mischief. Even though the exit polls had suggested that a runoff was likely and election observers reported evidence of many violations, the Odesa City Electoral Commission moved quickly to announce that the incumbent, Hennady Trukhanov, received 51.93 percent of the vote— just enough to avoid a runoff election. Poroshenko, local civic organizations, opposition parties and the Ukrainian media did not question the results. They had done nothing to stop, challenge or investigate the irregularities. I was second place and disputed the results in the Odesa courts, bringing video and other materials demonstrating falsification by the incumbent mayor’s supporters. Before the courts heard the case, Trukhanov quickly took office, and the courts were laughing at us when we finally got there.
For anything: funding, vital appointments, our reform package, the port initiatives or the road construction we had to turn the president, his team and the Cabinet of Ministers. And they had put us on a full red-tape circle sabotaging our efforts. They withdrew efficiency. They followed strict working-to-rule and were creating bungling of bureaucratic job assignments for us. And in the meantime, the media, controlled by them and by the Ukrainian oligarchs, disrupted, harassed and tried to damage our reputation. It had become obvious that Poroshenko’s pledges and public support were hypocritical. All you had to do was look at how long it was taking for our proposals to be processed, for the nominations to get through and for the budget to get approved to realize that he wasn’t sincere. After realizing what we were up to, he was using politics as an excuse to bash our initiatives and hobble our team.
The problem in Ukraine is that whatever you touch you have a Mexican standoff, where everyone has something on everyone else. That includes pretty much anyone who is someone. When there is a systemic threat, such as a reformist agenda, everyone concentrates their firepower on the source of that threat. When it is eliminated, they go back to their familiar business. At that time Saakashvili and our team of newcomers were that threat, and it was hard for us to break this post-Soviet system of governance.
Our affair with Odesa lasted for just over a year. We had failed to deliver on most of our promises. What we managed to accomplish was mainly through the generous aid of Western donors. By the time we left, several of us were stripped of our Ukrainian citizenship. Some were threatened with or even faced criminal investigation.
My reform agenda was over by mid-2016. By that time, I was forcefully thrown out by two thugs from the Odesa City Hall meeting where I tried to challenge mafia’s grip on power in the city. Some of my team members were beaten and some aides had their cars burnt. No investigation followed.
In May 2016, I had to leave the public service, and several months latermPoroshenko stripped me of my Ukrainian citizenship. Many from our team followed a similar path as we saw all our strategies falling apart one by one. Yulia Marushevska’s efforts to reform the port were the last to die as she exited being threatened with criminal prosecution. Shortly after I headed back to Europe, our team dispersed and Saakashvili turned from Poroshenko’s friend to his bitter enemy, entering a new and noisy period of his political career in Ukraine – radical opposition and street protests, which ended in his infamous deportation.
It is not clear how Zelenskiy fits into this post-Soviet system, which we tried to undermine in 2015. He may be a perfect outsider capable of seriously challenging it. If so, soon he will be under some serious fire. In which case, anyone who wishes radical changes in Ukraine needs to support him. He may also be taking his roots and receiving support from some people representing the system. In this case it would be hard for him to break apart and bring about the changes he is declaring to pursue. With reforms it is just like with a revolution, one never knows how they may unfold and who lands where.