Ukraine president appoints ex-Georgia leader Saakashvili governor

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Odessa (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Saturday appointed fiercely pro-Western former Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, who once fought a war with Russia, as governor of the strategic Odessa region.

Poroshenko made the announcement at a televised event in the Black Sea port alongside the reformist Saakashvili, calling the ex-Georgian president a "great friend of Ukraine".

"There remain a large number of problems in Odessa: preserving sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and peace," Poroshenko said.

"But maybe the biggest challenge is another war -- a war against corruption, a war against injustice, a war against the unreformed economy."

The controversial announcement of the flamboyant Saakashvili as head of the southern coastal region is a pointed signal from Kiev to Moscow that it remains set on its pro-European course despite a bloody separatist conflict in the east blamed on the Kremlin.

"Our main aim is to leave behind the artificial conflicts that have been artificially imposed on this amazing society," Saakashvili said after his appointment.

"Together with the president and his team we are all going to build a new Ukraine," he said.

During his time at the helm in Georgia, Saakashvili, 47, became an arch-nemesis of the Russian leadership as he dragged his tiny ex-Soviet homeland out of Moscow's orbit and closer to the West after taking power in a popular revolution in 2003.

The collapse in relations spiralled into open conflict in 2008 when Russia defeated Georgia in a five-day war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Saakashvili -- a charismatic polyglot who speaks five languages, including Ukrainian -- was already working as an advisor to Poroshenko and was granted Ukrainian citizenship just ahead of his appointment.

Saakashvili -- who left power in 2013 -- ruffled a lot of feathers with his radical reforms and clampdown on corruption in Georgia and is a deeply divisive figure there.

He has recently been living in exile after authorities last year issued an arrest warrant for him on abuse of power charges that he insists are politically motivated.

- Russian scorn -

Russian officials have already lashed out at the appointment as rumours swirled ahead of the official announcement.

"Saakashvili -- accused of numerous crimes against the Georgian people -- gets appointed governor of Odessa" senior foreign ministry official Konstantin Dolgov wrote on Twitter.

"This is deeply symbolic of Kiev's style of democracy."

Since the deaths of around 50 mainly pro-Moscow protestors last May, Russian-speaking Odessa has remained firmly under government control and untouched by the conflict that has killed over 6,300 people in two regions further to the east.

But a string of unexplained explosions targeting pro-Ukrainian groups has stirred fear that Moscow could be trying to stoke unrest in the country's largest port, which lies around 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of the Crimea peninsula seized by Russia last year.

Poroshenko has already appointed pro-Western reformers from abroad to key positions in a bid to help him push through vitally needed reforms to bolster his crisis-hit nation.

US-born Natalie Jaresko is currently serving as finance minister, Lithuania's Aivaras Abromavicius economy minister and Alexander Kvitashvili from Georgia is health minister.

"Saakashvili is quite a well known politician of worldwide renown," said analyst Taras Berezovets told AFP. "It will be very difficult to criticise the president for this move."

The appointment of Saakashvili to the role of regional governor comes as Poroshenko -- a billionaire chocolate baron -- is battling to curtail the power of Ukraine's hugely-influential oligarchs.

Saakashvili is replacing millionaire Igor Palitsa in the post, a close ally of banking magnate Igor Kolomoisky who has been at loggerheads with Poroshenko over control of state assets.

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