Odessa leads Ukraine's battle to reform

Image copyright Tom Burridge, BBC
Image caption Odessa is a major Black Sea transport hub and tourist destination

The West is determined that Ukraine can reform and succeed as a modern, independent state.

Nowhere is that fight in sharper focus than in the southern region of Odessa, where the former president of Georgia, and arch critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mikheil Saakashvili is leading a self-styled crusade against corruption, writes the BBC's Tom Burridge.

Question: What do an anti-fraud officer from the City of London police, an EU border agency official and a Scottish-born businessman have in common?

Answer: All three were present at the Black Sea Economic Forum in the city of Odessa.

It is symptomatic of the support from the West for Ukraine's current political class.

Also at the forum was Yuriy Gubankov, a local businessman who says he was kept awake at night when his grain storage business in the city's lucrative port was the subject of a criminal investigation.

Mr Gubankov claims the probe was politically motivated because he wouldn't pay bribes to corrupt officials.

He alleges that under previous Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych the tax authorities, public prosecutors, the courts and the police were only "working in one direction: how to take money from businessmen".

Yuriy Gubankov lived in London for 10 years and is part of a new, internationally minded group of Odessans which is already singing the praises of the region's new flamboyant foreign-born governor Mikheil Saakashvili - barely four months since he took charge in Odessa.

Image copyright Tom Burridge, BBC
Image caption Image makeover: The new Odessa public administration office

'The California of Europe'

Given the current economic problems in Ukraine, some will consider one of the forum's organisers, Bate Toms, to be wildly optimistic.

However, this American-born lawyer and chairman of the British-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce believes Odessa has the potential to be "one of the richest cities in eastern and central Europe".

In farming terms, he says, Ukraine could become "the California of Europe" because of increased irrigation.

And a new automated, electronic customs system at Odessa's port will, he argues, not only stamp out opportunities for bribes, but will also mean that shipping containers can travel through the port at the same speed "as in Rotterdam or Hamburg".

Odessa, he believes, could become the main transit point from Central and Eastern Europe to Asia.

Even if you don't buy this sales pitch for Odessa, the region clearly has huge potential, and is crucial for Ukraine's future.

'Reform or die'

And with Vladimir Putin's Georgian-born nemesis Mikheil Saakashvili now running the region, Odessa now feels like a focal point of Russia's and the West's dispute over Ukraine.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mikheil Saakashvili has pledged to eliminate corruption in the Odessa region

A bright, shiny office in Odessa full of 20-something, smartly dressed female government workers is Mr Saakashvili's vision for the future.

He promises voters that they will soon be able to register a home or a business, or pick up a passport there, in a matter of hours or days, not weeks or months.

Partly funded by money from the US government, the electronic system here, he argues, will eliminate opportunities for corruption, which he describes as 'Ukraine's number one problem".

With the country's economy in dire straights, he believes the stakes are high.

"Either it (Ukraine) reforms, or it dies as a state."

'Curbing corruption will make Ukraine more stable' - Saakashvili

Super rich and super powerful

However, Ukraine has a club of very rich and powerful individuals, known as the oligarchs, who Mr Saakashvili describes as a "shadow government".

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Odessa is now the main base of the Ukrainian Navy, following the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014

These entrenched non-state power structures mean that implementing radical state reforms is anything but straightforward.

And in Odessa, like in the rest of Ukraine, there are powerful individuals who are linked to the old guard.

Sergey Kivalov was a deputy in Ukraine's parliament for the party of Mr Yanukovych.

He is head of the city's law school and says that, if anything, levels of corruption have got worse since Mr Yanukoyvch left office.

Mr Kivalov has himself been investigated for alleged corruption, which he denies.

And his opponents also accuse him of election fraud. He was head of Ukraine's election commission when Mr Yanukovych claimed victory in Ukraine's disputed 2004 presidential election.

Anti-Putin stance

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko personally appointed Mr Saakashvili as governor of Odessa this summer, at the same time granting him Ukrainian citizenship.

It is still too early to judge his success.

Back home in Georgia Mr Saakashvili faces criminal charges for allegedly exceeding his authority as president, as well as charges linked to the break-up of a protest in 2007 in the Georgian capital Tbilisi and a raid on a television station.

His supporters say he is the victim of a political witch-hunt.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The city was scarred by clashes in May 2014 in which dozens of people died

But this politician, who knows how to court the media, and who fought a war with Russia (and Vladimir Putin) in 2008 when he was president of Georgia, is now a key member of Ukraine's new political order.

Their backers in Washington and Western European capitals know that Ukraine needs to regain the confidence of foreign investors to rescue the war-ravaged economy.

And the Saakashvili reform agenda in Odessa - whether it can improve people's lives, unite the region and kick-start the economy - is a key test case for the rest of Ukraine.

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