IN THE spring of 2014, as the war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region was breaking out, deadly clashes wracked the elegant port city of Odessa. On May 2nd pro-Russian separatists shot at pro-Ukrainian demonstrators from behind police lines. The riot ended in a fire that killed 46 separatists. The city has been largely quiet ever since.
Yet over the past few months Odessa, now governed by Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia, has become a battleground in a less visible sort of war. This pits the corrupt post-Soviet system that has ruled Ukraine for nearly a quarter of a century against the law-based state that was promised by the Maidan revolution in Kiev nearly two years ago.
It was Ukrainians’ aspirations for a modern Westernised country that spurred Russia’s aggression against them in the first place. But while the war has turned Ukraine against Russia, cost 8,000 lives and battered Ukraine’s economy, it has not created a functional state. All too often, the conflict has been used by the government as an excuse for its failure to change.
Only 3% of Ukrainians are satisfied with the pace of reforms. None of the officials who pillaged the country under its prior government and were responsible for the deaths of demonstrators in Kiev has been prosecuted. Despite a few fresh faces in government, the old elite continues to dominate, showing little interest in investigating the scams they once ran—and in many cases still do. A new anti-corruption bureau set up a year ago has been stymied. “The government is killing the spirit of Maidan,” says Yulia Mostovaya, the editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, an independent weekly.
It is this spirit that Mr Saakashvili is now trying to revive in Odessa. Lacking a responsible Ukrainian political elite, the president, Petro Poroshenko, has recruited foreigners into his administration. An ideological corruption fighter, Mr Saakashvili is trying to replicate in Odessa the reforms he successfully implemented in his native Georgia between 2004 and 2013.
Fighting corruption is a critical struggle throughout the post-Soviet region, and Mr Saakashvili’s administration has attracted a clutch of Georgian, Ukrainian and even Russian reformers. They include Maria Gaidar, daughter of Yegor Gaidar, the liberal who served as Russia’s first post-Soviet prime minister. She believes she can do more for Russia’s future in Odessa than she could in Moscow, where she helped lead the anti-Putin protests in 2011. “Putinism is based on the idea that there can be no alternative to his model of governance,” says Ms Gaidar. “What we are trying to do here is to create this alternative.”
The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has shifted the focus from war to reform. For the first time in 18 months, nobody is dying in Donbas. Russian state television channels, whose programming is a good predictor of Kremlin intentions, have stopped showing images of combat and turned to upbeat footage of separatist leaders visiting kindergartens. “The situation in the east of Ukraine has reached an impasse,” says Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank. Rather than escalating the conflict and risking further Western sanctions, Mr Putin is counting on political turmoil to destabilise Ukraine.
The biggest threat to Ukraine is now not a Russian invasion, but corruption so pervasive that it long ago ceased to be a disease of the post-Soviet system and became the system itself. Police and prosecutors are in effect commercial structures used to gain wealth and power. And while in Mr Putin’s Russia security and law-enforcement agencies are controlled by one clan, in Ukraine the privatised state is divided between several oligarchic groups, providing a measure of pluralism (if not democracy). The attempt by Viktor Yanukovych, the former president, to monopolise corruption was one reason for his overthrow.
Although Maidan started as a popular movement against corruption, it was supported by the oligarchs, who put their own politicians on the stage. Getting rid of Mr Yanukovych did not end corruption; it merely decentralised it. “Instead of rebuilding the system, [the new government] is redistributing assets and spheres of influence,” says Victoria Voytsitska, one of the young members of parliament swept in by the revolution.
Rule by bribe
Russian aggression empowered the oligarchs further. Unable to rely on its corrupt, ill-equipped police and army, the new government appointed several oligarchs as governors of the country’s most vulnerable regions. Ihor Kolomoisky, a billionaire with interests in banking, oil, television and an airline, took charge of Dnepropetrovsk. He financed a private army, topped up police salaries and put a bounty on every separatist’s head.
Having stemmed the Russian-backed secessionists, the oligarchs felt entitled to continue profiting from state firms. Aivaras Abromavicius, the Lithuanian-born minister for economy and trade, says there is not a single state enterprise in Ukraine that has not been usurped by one clan or another.
Mr Kolomoisky soon tried to expand his influence to Odessa, installing a business associate as its acting governor. But after a stand-off over control of state energy firms, Mr Poroshenko fired Mr Kolomoisky as governor of Dnepropetrovsk and appointed Mr Saakashvili as governor of Odessa. Mr Poroshenko saw it as a way of consolidating power; Mr Saakashvili sees the president as cover for reform.
Odessa’s new governor faces much resistance. When he tried to clean up the customs department, the national government lowered tariffs at Ukraine’s other ports and sucked away 80% of the Odessa port’s business—to ensure a cut of the bribes would continue to flow up the chain of command. Exasperated by the sabotage, Mr Saakashvili went on national television to accuse the prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, of being in the pocket of the oligarchs. He also attacked the head of the civil aviation authority for restricting competition in favour of Mr Kolomoisky’s airline. The government was forced to drop the differential tariffs, sack the head of the aviation authority and put him under house arrest.
Mr Kolomoisky vowed revenge. “When a dog without a muzzle bites someone, we need to punish both the dog and, more importantly, its owner,” he told Ukrainian journalists. The oligarchs, says Ms Mostovaya, see Mr Poroshenko not as an independent arbiter but as one of their own who is trying to squeeze out the rest. Observers say the oligarchs hope that regional elections, due on October 25th, will allow them to establish control in Ukraine’s east and force early parliamentary elections.
Mr Saakashvili argues that the only way to dislodge the oligarchs is to enlist the public. Whereas Georgia had a pro-reform economic elite, “In Ukraine, there is no such elite, but there is a strong civil society,” he says. “Ordinary people take much greater interest in politics here than they did in Georgia.”
To rally support, Mr Saakashvili has staged a series of publicity stunts. With the cameras rolling, he turned up at seaside mansions to smash walls and free up beaches illegally commandeered by tycoons. “If I tried to do it by sitting in my office or appealing to the courts, it would just never get done,” says Mr Saakashvili. He has promised a badly needed road from Odessa to the Romanian border and a Georgian-style one-stop office to cut through red tape for official documents.
Odessa’s young reformers look out of place in the regional administration’s concrete Soviet-era building. Mr Saakashvili’s 25-year-old deputy, Yulia Marushevska, is familiar to many Westerners as the face of Maidan: in February 2014 she recorded an English-language video from the demonstrations entitled “I am a Ukrainian”, and drew 8m views on YouTube. After a few months of working in Odessa’s government, she says: “I feel like sitting down and rewriting this country from scratch.”
But the key, as Mr Saakashvili knows from his experience in Georgia, is control over law-enforcement agencies. One of his biggest victories so far is the appointment of a Georgian former prosecutor as the head of Odessa’s prosecutor’s office.
On the brink of chaos
With winter approaching and electricity shortages looming, time is short. “We have two to three months at most to show some results,” says Mr Saakashvili. Poorly remunerated public services are on the brink of collapse. The population is growing poorer—and more radical. Meanwhile, Ukraine is brimming with weapons and thousands of militiamen, angry with a corrupt and listless government they feel has hijacked the revolution.
In Odessa a pro-Ukrainian volunteer force called “Self-Defence” boasts 300 men (many of them armed) and 400 more in reserve. Vitaly Kozhukar, one of its leaders, says he and his men are disappointed that Mr Saakashvili does not rely on them. “We expected more radical steps from him,” says Mr Kozhukar. “We will give him a couple of months before we start asking questions. And if he tells us that the problem is in Kiev, we will go to Kiev.”
Given the weakness of law enforcement, it might not take much for a militia battalion to move into Kiev and stage a coup. Many of the paramilitary groups are financed by oligarchs. Were they to overthrow the government, the country could collapse into regional factions—a prospect relished by Russia.
To tame the militias, the state must grow strong enough to establish a monopoly on violence. Yet law enforcement agencies are so discredited that reformers have turned to creating parallel structures. New “patrol police” departments have been set up in cities including Kiev and Odessa. Recruits are put through a vigorous selection process to weed out bad apples, trained by police instructors from California, and paid triple the salaries of the old departments to avoid temptation.
One day last month, Eka Zguladze, a former Georgian official serving as Ukraine’s deputy interior minister, stood at the top of the steps where Sergei Eisenstein filmed the famous baby-carriage scene in his masterpiece, “Battleship Potemkin”. Ms Zguladze was swearing in the first cadre of Odessa’s newly established patrol police. “We must show that our dream of the rule of law is not a Utopia. The battle taking place is not about east and west, north and south,” she told them. “It is a battle for law against lawlessness.”