ODESSA, Ukraine (AP) — Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, has brought his corruption-fighting record to his job as governor of the Odessa region in Ukraine.
So far, however, the pace has been dismally slow. His stifled efforts in Odessa show the systemic problems still facing the entire country two years after it broke with Moscow and aligned itself firmly with the West.
Odessa, Ukraine's largest port, is known not only for exquisite theaters and museums but for its organized crime, which Saakashvili said resembles Chicago at the time of Al Capone. Saakashvili blames the lack of progress on the preservation of the old system of backroom deals and the pervasive power of politically connected businessmen.
"I think the patience of Ukrainians is running out," Saakashvili said inside a sweltering canvas tent with European Union and Ukrainian flags flying overhead. "This corrupt system cannot continue."
Saakashvili recently set up the tent along the potholed road that leads to EU member Romania to express his frustration at the obstacles he's faced in cleaning up this notoriously corrupt region and helping Ukraine move closer to the 28-nation bloc. He then moved his office inside, the wooden chairs resting in the mud.
He did this to demand that the government come through with promised money to repair the strategically important highway.
The funds have been allocated, but Saakashvili said only about 10 percent had been received. Although he refused to directly accuse government bureaucrats of corruption, he hinted they were waiting for him to agree to operate according to the "old scheme," a reference to a system of kickbacks for state contracts that by many accounts remains in place.
Saakashvili passionately described plans for European-style reforms, including restructuring the police force and customs service, which he said will determine the future not only of Ukraine but of the entire post-Soviet region.
In Georgia, Saakashvili's main achievements as president from 2004 to 2013 included a significant reduction in corruption and a crackdown on organized crime. He completely reformed the police force, ending its long-held tradition of taking bribes.
Saakashvili was appointed Odessa governor in 2015, a year after President Petro Poroshenko came to power following mass protests against corruption and demanding closer ties with the West. Poroshenko made the appointment to promote greater integration with the EU.
In an example of the corruption Saakashvili is trying to fight, Estonian businessman Marcel Vichmann was forced to stop a project to build a 12-kilometer (seven-mile) promenade in the beach resort of Zatoka after the construction permits were stolen, his lawyer was attacked and the town administration reconsidered its decision to lease him the land.
"We may be able to win in court, but we are powerless to resist the criminal structures," Vichmann said at a news conference.
Saakashvili has fired the heads of 24 of the 27 districts in the Odessa region, but critics say it has had little impact on corruption. Saakashvili blames the resistance of local elites and his limited powers as governor.
This is particularly true with respect to Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov, a member of the party once headed by Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-supported former president who was ousted in 2014.
Trukhanov figured in the so-called Panama Papers. The leaked documents from the Panamanian law firm showed he owned more than 20 companies registered offshore and had identified himself as a Russian citizen.
Trukhanov has denied being a Russian citizen and responded to the report of 20 offshore companies by passing it off as a "crude joke."
In Odessa, companies affiliated with him continue to win most city tenders.
"You can talk about the fight against corruption all you want, but actually it is much more difficult to defeat," Odessa businessman Oleg Minayev said. "The old system in Odessa has not changed."
Minayev's company bid on a contract to reconstruct a dam whose failure could flood parts of Odessa, but lost out to a company associated with Trukhanov even though that company's bid was significantly higher.
"Hopes for Saakashvili and a new type of management have begun to evaporate, while the oligarchic influence on politics and business in Odessa has not gone away,"Minayev said.
To spearhead the fight against corruption, Saakashvili set out to reform the police force and the customs service in Odessa.
Associated Press journalists unexpectedly were witness to a special operation to detain two police officers accused of taking bribes. A chase involving patrol cars with flashing lights and a shootout in the center of Odessa ended with the suspected police officers in handcuffs.
The customs service in Odessa says that businesses no longer need to wait weeks or even months for goods to clear, now that shadow schemes have been eliminated and procedures have been simplified.
"We have managed to create a healthy alternative to the corrupt system," said Yulia Marushevska, the head of Odessa's custom service.
She acknowledges, however, that businesses are able to get around paying full duties by bypassing Odessa and clearing customs elsewhere in the country where corrupt practices still operate.
In a show of his frustration, Saakashvili has joined calls by Poroshenko's critics for early parliamentary elections.
"I do not see a situation where this parliament and the oligarchs who have really taken the country hostage can hold out for three more years," Saakashvili said. "Any progressive bill concerning customs, tax reform, local self-government or the fight against corruption instantly gets stuck."
And he is creating an organization of his own with the potential to play a role in national politics and catapult him into the top leadership. The organization is holding forums around the country that have attracted thousands and it has drawn support from more than 20 of the groups that played key roles in the 2014 protests.
Saakashvili insists he is not creating a political party. But he has been mentioned as among the most likely candidates to become prime minister.
"I have no claims on specific political structures, but I feel an urgent need to support young people in changing the political elite," he said. "Without this, Ukraine cannot move forward."