The following post is a personal account of series of trips to Odessa
Odessa Odessa. Someone pointed out recently that I might spend too much time in the city. A lot of things happen in Odessa, I replied. Yet it is true that a lot of things happen in Ukraine in general; The difference is that what happens in Odessa highlights what does not happen in the country. Whether one likes it or not, the wind of radical change that the Saakachvili team blows over the region is exactly what many Ukrainians were waiting for right after the Revolution of Dignity. Radical, in-depth and fast changes rather than committee-seatings, round-tables, discussions and endless procedures. As a result: a dramatic lack of changes. Yes, of course, the war… But. How long can it be used as a pretext not to reform the judiciary system, to say the least?
For a few months already, Odessa captures this revolutionary energy that used to be felt in Kyiv. Kyiv now is all about back-door deals and incomplete reforms. One of the signs that such an energy is the influx of volunteers into officials’ cabinets and public Soviet-era buildings. Out if a sudden, it feels as if these buildings opened up and dusted themselves off. It is actually possible to get in without submitting a written request a week in advance. It is relatively easy to meet the ones who are now in charge. Not all of them come from Georgia. They come from different regions of Ukraine, they come from the private sector, they come from international institutions. They have decided to initiate serious changes. While Kyiv disappoints; Odessa seems to be the best place to start.
Such an energy brings its share of frustration and disappointments, too. Some of these volunteers already feel tired and used or – even worse – useless. A growing sentiment is that different reformist groups have different and competing agendas. Many also understand that Odessa is too small to push for effective changes on a national scale. Kyiv’s meddling is both seen as a way to entertain the dynamics of change (in allowing Saakachvili to be loud beyond Odessa) and to contain it (in playing with old elites and bureaucrats).
No one knows for how long it shall last. Late dirty local elections stroke quite a blow to the hopes for reforms in the city. But for now there is something at play here that one cannot feel anymore in the rest of Ukraine. It was actually never felt in many parts of the country, to tell the truth. Lviv follows a pre-ordered path of economic development that has not been disturbed by the war. Kharkiv was, is, and will be Kharkiv. Dnipropetrovsk is a battlefield. And Kyiv is the competing playground where all of these diverse regional dynamics meet and fight each other. And that makes for an ugly game. In Odessa, there are some simpler and cleaner logics of change, which are ongoing. For the worse and the better, Odessa is the place where Maidan lives on.