Ukraine president appoints ex-Georgia leader Saakashvili regional governor
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Saturday appointed fiercely pro-Western former Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, who once fought a war with Russia, governor of the strategic Odessa region.
Poroshenko made the annoucement at a televised event in the Black Sea port alongside Saakashvili, calling the former Georgian president a "great friend of Ukraine".
"There remain a large number of problems in Odessa: preserving sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and peace," Poroshenko said.
The controversial announcement of the flamboyant Saakashvili as head of the southern coastal region is a pointed signal from Kiev to Moscow that it remains set on its pro-European course despite a bloody separatist conflict in the east blamed on the Kremlin.
"Our main aim is to leave behind the artificial conflicts that have been artificially imposed on this amazing society," Saakashvili said after his appointment.
"Together with the president and his team we are all going to build a new Ukraine."
During his time at the helm in Georgia, reformist Saakashvili, 47, became an arch-nemesis of the Russian leadership as he dragged his tiny ex-Soviet homeland out of Moscow's orbit and closer to the West after taking power in a popular revolution in 2003.
The collapse in relations spiralled into open conflict in 2008 when Russian defeated Georgia in a five-day war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Saakashvili -- a charismatic polyglot who speaks five languages, including Ukrainian -- was already working as an advisor to Poroshenko and was granted Ukrainian citizenship just ahead of his appointment.
Saakashvili -- who left power in 2013 -- ruffled a lot of feathers with his radical reforms and clampdown on corruption in Georgia and is a deeply divisive figure there.
He has recently been living in exile after authorities last year issued an arrest warrant for him on abuse of power charges that he insists are politically motivated.
Since the deaths of some 50 mainly pro-Moscow protestors last May, Russian-speaking Odessa has remained firmly under government control and untouched by the conflict that has killed over 6,300 people in two regions further to the east.
But a string of unexplained explosionds targeting pro-Ukrainian groups has stirred fear that Moscow could be trying to stoke unrest in the country's largest port, which lies some 200 kilometres west of the Crimea peninsula seized by Russia last year.
© 2015 AFP