Former Georgian President and current Odessa Governor Mikhail Saakashvili says he would be prepared to take on the premiership of Ukraine in order to turn the country into a bulwark against Kremlin expansionism in Europe.
"I would like to take part in big changes and reforms, and in whatever capacity I can do it - I can do it," he told POLITICO when asked about a potential prime ministerial campaign.
Speaking as regional elections revealed the crumbling powerbase of the country's western-friendly government, he argued that only a strong and stable Ukraine could prevent Moscow from devouring more territory across the region.
"If Ukraine doesn't contain Russia, I think Russia can easily wipe Georgia and the Baltic states from the map," Saakashvili said during an exclusive interview in his new role as governor of Ukraine's Odessa region. "A strong Ukraine is the biggest check on Russia."
Ukrainians expressed widespread disillusionment with their political leaders at the recent elections, allowing pro-Russian candidates to win mayor and council positions across central and eastern Ukraine.
By contrast, a recent opinion poll found Saakashvili was the most popular politician in Ukraine. A petition calling for him to be made prime minister has gathered more than 30,000 signatures.
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Working characteristically late on the top floor of a deserted regional administration, he stressed that leading the cabinet was not a position he "aspired to," and that he would not be joining any political parties as long as they maintain ties to the country's billionaire businessmen.
"It's not the job I am dreaming of. I refused to run on a party list, I don't want to have anything to do with oligarchs," he said. "I want to be a standard-bearer for reforms."
But he delivered a withering indictment of current Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his decision not to participate in the elections.
"It's not a normal thing for the prime minister's party not to run in local elections - if you don't want to test your popularity I don't think you have a mandate to make reforms," said Saakashvili.
He accused Yatsenyuk of bypassing ministers and creating a "shadow cabinet" that represents vested business interests, including those of Mykola Martynenko, a lawmaker wanted for questioning in Switzerland over bribery allegations.
"We need to reset this government. We should crack down on the shadow government … shadow figures who run the government's oil and gas companies. Recently they did a huge reshuffle in the oil and gas sector and it's all according to the blueprint of Martynenko, not the energy minister."
As president of Georgia from 2004 until 2013, Saakashvili led his tiny post-Soviet nation to war with Russia in 2008 over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. Defeated in that round, Russian soldiers have continued to slowly shift the South Ossetian border towards Georgia's capital.
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Now he finds himself fighting Moscow's interests on the cobbled streets of Odessa, a pro-Russian heartland on Ukraine's Black Sea coast and home to the embattled country's largest port.
The picturesque city has become a haven for gunrunners, drug smugglers and sex traffickers since the collapse of Soviet rule in 1991. When pro-European demonstrators ousted the Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, Odessa's mob turned against the new government in Kiev.
Saakashvili, an early supporter of the demonstrations, asked post-revolutionary President Petro Poroshenko to let him clean up Odessa as regional governor in May this year.
He arrived with formidable credentials. A political dynamo who dominated Georgian government for the best part of a decade, Saakashvili is widely credited with turning his country from a corruption-riddled rump state into a functioning democracy. But by the end of his tenure that dominance was veering towards authoritarianism. He left Georgia with criminal charges looming after his second term in office.
As a regional governor in Ukraine, he is far less powerful than he was as president of Georgia, though he competes with similarly entrenched interests. Last week Odessa's electoral commission announced the return of the city's mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, a former Russian army captain accused of having ties to mobsters.
Officials claimed Trukhanov had beaten Sasha Borovik, the Saakashvili candidate, taking more than 52 percent of the vote and doing away with the need for a second round of voting. But with exit polls putting the incumbent's vote at only 47 percent and observers reporting numerous incidents of ballot stuffing and counting fraud, the governor and his team have been challenging the result - in the courts and on the streets.
On Thursday they began a series of demonstrations against the mayor. The result will be unpredictable, Saakashvili cautioned.
"No one has ever tested this mafia, they have been so fixed in place. We're running into unknown territory. But in the nineties here there were lots of killings, when they were dividing up the city."
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Sprawled out but constantly shifting in his chair, the new governor rarely finishes a sentence before he jumps into the next. His energy and drive have attracted a swelling of youthful support, from which he has handpicked a group of idealistic young lawyers prepared to take on the region's gangsters for a pittance.
"We can't give them much money … but a first job, they don't have to look after children, working in a nice office and a position they can be proud of," he said. "We're opening cases against Kivalov, the main boss - an MP but also a guy deemed to be untouchable. We already opened cases against all his right hand men, including local council members."
Oligarchs despise the Georgian for upsetting the status quo. Their media outlets rarely give him airtime. On Tuesday, a broadcaster took him off the air mid-interview when he suggested the country's tycoons should be locked up. But Saakashvili's team constantly updates supporters with YouTube videos and Facebook posts. It's had a knock-on effect in his native Georgia, where his party has edged ahead of their rivals in power.
Georgia's ruling party has responded by releasing wiretaps of his telephone conversations and accusing Saakashvili and other party leaders of plotting a coup - allegations he dismisses as "schizophrenia."
With next year's Georgian parliamentary elections drawing closer, I asked whether the Odessa job was simply a springboard back into politics in his homeland.
"I'm deeply involved in Ukraine and I don't think I should jump ship and swim back to Georgia," Saakashvili responded. "Georgia is just my retirement plan," he said, smiling.
Maxim Tucker, POLITICO
Maxim Tucker is a Ukraine-based journalist. He is a former news editor of the Kyiv Post, previously worked as Amnesty International's Campaigner on Ukraine and the South Caucasus, and has spent most of the past six years working on and in the former Soviet Union. Follow him on Twitter: @MaxRTucker.