By Laura Mills
MOSCOW -- Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili resigned from his post as governor of the Ukrainian region of Odessa, accusing the country's leadership of unbridled corruption despite promises of government reform.
In a video posted to his official Facebook page, Mr. Saakashvili lashed out Monday at the Ukrainian elite as "corrupt filth" and said that efforts to implement government and economic overhauls in the Black Sea region had been stifled by unscrupulous politicians. He singled out President Petro Poroshenko, saying he had been complicit in obstructing various reform projects in the region.
A spokesman for Mr. Poroshenko's office declined to comment on Mr. Saakashvili's remarks other than to point to a Twitter post from the Ukrainian president's administration, saying the reason behind the resignation "will be reviewed in an appropriate manner."
Mr. Saakashvili, known in his native Georgia for his anticorruption drive as well as a disastrous 2008 war with Russia, was appointed governor in Odessa last year. He was one of several high-profile foreigners appointed to head efforts to overhaul Ukraine's economy -- in which well-connected businessmen and the state continue to have close ties in many sectors -- and root out government corruption after a pro-democratic revolution in 2014 swept a pro-Russian president from power.
But the anticorruption effort has stalled in Ukraine, which still faces a conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country. A $1 billion tranche from the International Monetary Fund meant to shore up the country's fragile economy was released in September after delays of over a year, as Western leaders have often rebuked the government for lagging anticorruption efforts.
Mr. Saakashvili said he had been held back by individuals "who capitalize on the deaths of our soldiers...who betrayed the idea of the Ukrainian revolution, and whose only motivation in life is to fill their pockets and strengthen their clans, and to rob Ukraine to the end."
Last week, Ukraine's top officials were compelled to release information about their income to the public as part of a new online declaration system, a prerequisite for IMF funds and visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the European Union. The documents stoked public outrage in this relatively poor country, as they revealed officials who held millions of dollars and euros in cash and eye-opening collections of luxury goods.
Mr. Poroshenko declared more than $26 million in bank accounts. Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman declared $870,000 and EUR460,000 ($508,000) in cash, and 12 luxury watches. National Bank of Ukraine chief Valeria Gontareva, who had urged Ukrainians to save in the local hryvnia rather than buy hard currency, declared $1.8 million in a bank account.
Mr. Saakashvili said that the declarations had been the final straw leading to his decision to resign. Other key overhauls, such as an effort to privatize major state-owned companies, have also stalled, and other foreigners appointed to head the government overhaul, including the Lithuanian economy minister and a top Georgian prosecutor, have also resigned from their posts, citing ongoing corruption.
The majority of top Ukrainian politicians are vastly unpopular. In a poll conducted on behalf of the International Republican Institute in June, 71% of the 2,400 Ukrainians surveyed said they had a very or somewhat unfavorable opinion of Mr. Poroshenko. While Mr. Saakashvili has sought to portray a hands-on image by riding around the Odessa region in cramped commuter buses to speak to voters, he is also viewed negatively by 62% of the public, according to the poll.
In Brussels, European and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials acknowledged the continuing problems of corruption in Ukraine, but noted that they saw Kiev taking some significant strides to address the problem.
European officials said that while Mr. Saakashvili's criticism of corruption was a shared concern, his resignation probably reflected more the former Georgian leader's personality than new revelations about Ukraine's governance challenges.
Both NATO and European officials cited Ukraine's steps to establish an anticorruption office, strengthen the independence of the prosecutor general and publish information on officials' wealth. One senior European official said those steps have helped counter a growing sense, earlier this year, that Ukraine was losing control of the problem.
"Six months ago, they were in a much worse position than they are today, " the senior official said. "Clearly, though, no one is pretending that we are a step away from seeing the end of corruption in Ukraine."
In that context, Mr. Saakashvili's resignation and criticism of the president won't greatly undercut support for Kiev within the EU.
Mr. Saakashvili is "something of a sensationalist," the official said. "He would be tricky for anyone to keep under control."
Separately, EU finance ministers are expected to sign off Tuesday on targeted sanctions against a handful of Russian officials connected to Crimea and Sevastopol -- Ukrainian territory which Russia annexed in 2014 -- two diplomats said Monday evening.
They include people elected as lawmakers for the annexed areas in September's Russian parliamentary elections. The EU and the U.S. have pledged not to recognize the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol and have placed sanctions restricting Western investment and business dealings in the two areas.
Write to Laura Mills at Laura.Mills@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 07, 2016 17:03 ET (22:03 GMT)
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