KIEV (Reuters) - Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, was appointed on Thursday to a senior role at an advisory body on reforms chaired by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The move marks another political comeback for one of the post-Soviet world’s most recognisable politicians, although it was not immediately clear how much influence Saakashvili would be able to exert over Zelenskiy’s administration.
He joins as Ukraine faces a recession caused by a nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic, and the government is trying to secure aid from the International Monetary Fund that is contingent on Kiev’s reform performance.
According to a decree published by Zelenskiy’s office, Saakashvili will head an executive committee at the National Reform Council.
“Several bottles of excellent Georgian wine from my village broke through the lockdown and reached me today. In principle, today there is something to celebrate,” Saakashvili wrote on his Facebook page.
The former Georgian president had been sounded out for the post of deputy prime minister in April, but that move petered out after he held talks with lawmakers in Zelenskiy’s party who would have needed to confirm his appointment.
Saakashvili also served for a brief but turbulent spell under Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, and became an outspoken critic of Poroshenko’s government.
The council was set up by Poroshenko in August 2014 to drive reforms but it has not met since Zelenskiy’s election last year.
Former Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, who served under Zelenskiy, said the council had become a decorative institution and the significance of Saakashvili’s appointment would depend on whether the body would be given more heft.
The role in the council could bring Saakashvili closer to Zelenskiy and also allow him to speak his mind, Honcharuk said.
“In the national council, he is closer to the president. Moreover, as the deputy prime minister, Saakashvili would not have been able to criticise the prime minister. Now it will be much easier for him to do this,” Honcharuk told Reuters.
Under Poroshenko, Saakashvili was brought in to run the southern Odessa region of Ukraine in 2015, based on his track record of fighting corruption as president of Georgia after the 2003 Rose Revolution.
But he resigned a year later, accusing Poroshenko of corruption, which Poroshenko denied.
The Ukrainian authorities stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship when he was abroad, but he barged his way through a checkpoint at the Polish border to get back into Ukraine in September 2017. He was deported five months later.
Saakashvili returned last year after Zelenskiy restored his citizenship in one of his first official acts as president.
News of Saakashvili’s prospective appointment as deputy prime minister drew an angry reaction from Georgia’s current government, which said it would withdraw its ambassador to Kiev for consultations if it went ahead.
A Georgian court sentenced Saakashvili in absentia to six years in prison in June 2018 for abuse of power and seeking to cover up evidence about the 2005 beating of an opposition member of parliament when he was president.
Saakashvili, who has denied all charges against him, was sentenced to a separate three years in prison in January 2018 after he was convicted of seeking to cover up evidence about the murder of a Georgian banker.
His supporters said the verdict was politically motivated,
Reporting by Ilya Zhegulev; Editing by Matthias Williams and Peter Cooney