Ex-Georgian president's Ukraine ambitions suffer blow

Dmitry Zaks
A handout picture released by the Ukrainian presidential press service on June 1, 2015 shows President Petro Poroshenko (L) shaking hands with newly appointed Odessa governor and former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili in Kiev (AFP Photo/Mykola Lazarenko)

Kiev (AFP) - Ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili's nascent but ambitious career in Ukraine got off to a stuttering start Wednesday when his candidate for mayor of Odessa was beaten by a pro-Russian in the historic port.

The 47-year-old foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin was voted out of office in ex-Soviet Georgia after losing a brief but disastrous 2008 war that saw his tiny Caucasus nation lose disputed regions to Moscow's control.

But Saakashvili was a prominent member of Ukraine's three months of protests in 2013-14 that swept a Kremlin-backed leadership from power and appeared to set the EU-neighbouring country on its current westward course.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko rewarded Saakashvili in May by appointing him as governor of Odessa -- a Black Sea region that remains under firm government control and enjoys a rich cultural history as well as a thriving port.

Saakashvili's approval ratings in the war-scarred nation soared thanks to his local anti-corruption drive and history of being able to transform Georgia's notorious bribe-taking police into a transparent force that won the public's trust.

The fluent Ukrainian speaker soon began attacking Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk for his alleged ties to criminal oligarchs and was frequently mentioned as a future cabinet chief himself.

But Odessa's mayoral election commission said Wednesday that incumbant mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov -- allegedly tied to the vast business interests of Saakashvili's foe Igor Kolomoyskiy -- was re-elected with 52.9 percent of Sunday's vote.

Saakashvili-backed candidate Sasha Borovik placed a distant second by picking up just 25.7 percent of the ballots cast.

The former Georgian leader denounced the vote as grossly mismanaged and marred by violations.

"All the exit polls clearly showed that the acting mayor did not cross the 50-percent threshold," Saakashvili said in televised remarks.

"We have records from more than 80 precincts and there are violations in almost each of them."

Some of the cast "ballots were changed in favour of the acting mayor," he said.

Odessa's police said they had already launched a pre-trial investigation into the cheating charges.

They also confirmed that election "commission members appeared to be fixing the official protocol figures in favour of one of the candidates."

Trukhanov was a member of the now-disbanded Regions Party that brought Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych to power in a tightly fought 2010 race.

He also supported pro-Kremlin protests in the ethnically mixed city after Yanukovych’s fall from power and subsequent flight for safety to Russia.

- Poroshenko's 'wake-up' call -

Analysts called the loss of Saakashvili's candidate not fateful but certainly harmful to Poroshenko's pro-European drive.

The president has spent months trying to sever Kolomoyskiy's indirect control over big energy and other companies that technically belong to the state.

Both he and a clutch of other tycoons saw their fortunes swell under the ousted president -- a sign of what many saw as the corruption that reigned over Ukraine over much of its recent history.

Poroshenko views Saakashvili as a fresh but experienced face who can bring new ideas about how to loosen the grip big business enjoys over both local and national politics.

"The situation with the Odessa mayoral elections is a wake-up call for the Ukrainian president's administration," independent political analyst Vitaly Bala told AFP.

"It is time for them to understand that they must actually demonstrate the results of their reforms instead of simply talking about them all the time."