RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The president of Ukraine is acting defiant against its much larger neighbor Russia, which has fueled the conflict there. And he made a risky play last month. He named a flamboyant politician from Georgia to lead one of Ukraine's most unruly regions. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The politician is Mikheil Saakashvili, former two-term president of the Republic of Georgia. He made an international name for himself and won many admirers in the U.S. government for bringing reforms to a corrupt post-Soviet economy. Saakashvili also led Georgia in the brief war with Russia in 2008, a war it lost. Now at 47, he's reinventing himself in Ukraine as the governor of Odessa, Ukraine's fabled port city on the Black Sea. He sees his new job as a continuation of the fight against Russia and for Western values.
GOVERNOR MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI: Ukraine is in a very peculiar situation. It's not just another country. It's a country where the fate of Europe is being decided right now.
FLINTOFF: Saakashvili says Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to destroy Ukraine by cutting it off from the Black Sea.
SAAKASHVILI: So this project of his war cannot be complete until Odessa is under his full control.
FLINTOFF: Russia has already seized Crimea and is fueling a separatist war in Ukraine's eastern provinces. The Odessa region borders another breakaway area, Transnistria, where Russian troops are stationed. So Saakashvili sees Odessa as threatened from all sides.
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FLINTOFF: But, Odessa's biggest threat may come from within. Take it from someone who knows the city well, 80-year-old Galina Mazourenko, who makes her living playing old Soviet tunes on the accordion in a pedestrian underpass at the port.
GALINA MAZOURENKO: (Through interpreter) Odessa is a seaport - smuggling, theft, prostitution, black-market trading - all bad stuff. What's good about this place? People are frank, open, willing to help. But at the same time, they're thinking, what kind of money do you have, and what can I do to make it to come to me?
FLINTOFF: You can see the money that's flowed through the city in the pastel colored 19th-century mansions on the hills above the harbor. But that crime that the accordionist spoke of has siphoned off much of the city's wealth. And that, says Ukraine's finance minister Natalie Jaresko, is why Saakashvili was appointed, his experience in Georgia.
NATALIE JARESKO: Fighting corruption, eliminating bureaucracy. And if we can show in Odessa an example of that kind of quick success, quick cleanup, that will be very, very helpful as a symbolic effort going forward for the rest of the country.
FLINTOFF: Analyst Thomas de Waal agrees Saakashvili did eliminate bribe-taking among the traffic police and most important, among customs officials. Odessa could be a major cash source for Ukraine if its customs were cleaned up. But, de Waal says, the appointment of Saakashvili could backfire.
THOMAS DE WAAL: He's a very provocative figure, he's very unpopular in Russia, and Odessa has a large Russian-speaking population. So it's very much stirring up a hornet's nest by putting such a controversial figure there.
FLINTOFF: De Waal, an expert on the region at the Carnegie Endowment, says there's also an element of danger to Saakashvili, who'll have to protect himself in a criminalized environment where Russian agents have free rein. Saakashvili is defying the risk by riding on public buses and mixing with crowds. For advice, he says, he's meeting with civil society groups so that he can avoid the city's shady power brokers. He's relying on these groups that he says are producing new ideas.
SAAKASHVILI: And amazing number of new young recruits for our cause. And that's basically our troops.
FLINTOFF: Saakashvili marshals his troops from a walled business center in Odessa, where he gave his interview to NPR at nearly midnight. A large man, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, he slumped, obviously tired, but energized by one more chance to sell his program to the public. For him, he says, this job offers a chance to repeat the successes of his past but make fewer mistakes, a way to redeem himself. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.
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