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Would the real Maria Gaidar please stand up

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Maria Gaidar, Russian opposition politician and daughter of a former prime minister, has found a new job – in Ukraine. What’s it all about?

Ivan Zhilin
30 July 2015

The appointment of Maria Gaidar as deputy governor of the Odessa Region has whipped up a storm in both Russia and Ukraine. Russians call her a traitor; Ukrainians suspect her of being in the Kremlin’s pocket.

But people who have worked with her see this uproar as uncalled-for: Gaidar, it seems, has no interest in the conflict, and has come to Odessa with quite a different idea in mind.

On 17 July, Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia (and governor of Odessa since May this year), announced that he had chosen Gaidar as his deputy. ‘Maria is one of the brightest stars of Russia’s democratic movement’, Saakashvili said in his welcome speech. ‘She is an economist by profession, and a very good one. We are asking the president of Ukraine to make her a Ukrainian citizen’.

Gaidar then took the floor herself. She explained that she had took the position because Saakashvili and his team were not only talking about reform, but they were carrying it out.

The Russian reaction

‘I think that since Saakashvili appointed her, there is nothing left for Gaidar in Russia, and it would be only right for her to take Ukrainian citizenship and renounce her Russian nationality’, was the reaction of Duma CIS Affairs Committee member Ilya Drozdov.

‘Everyone knows that Saakashvili is no lover of Russia, and personally I don’t know how any Russian could work with such a ‘character’. Although, of course, there were some people who collaborated with the enemy during the Second World War – Generals Krasnov and Vlasov, for example. It’s the same thing here.’

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July 2015: Maria Gaidar giving a press conference in Kyiv. (c) Inna Sokolovska / Demotix.

Drozdov’s colleague Yevgeny Fyodorov, a member of the Duma Budget and Taxation Committee, went even further and suggested the Prosecutor General’s office investigate Gaidar for separatist tendencies after she stated that Crimea was part of Ukraine. Fyodorov stated that he had already started this process in regard to another Russian opposition figure, Mikhail Kasyanov, who also refused to acknowledge Crimea’s reunification with Russia. 

And if that wasn’t enough, Vitaly Milonov, a prominent member of St Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly, believes Gaidar is committing high treason. ‘When she worked as deputy governor of Russia's Kirov region in 2009-11’, he said, ‘she could have had access to state secrets, which she could now pass on to a foreign government.’

Gaidar’s appointment has even been criticised by her fellow democrats 

Gaidar’s appointment has even been criticised by her fellow democrats. Ella Pamfilova, Russia’s human rights commissioner, who was a member of Yegor Gaidar’s (Maria’s father) short-lived government in 1992, has called for the NGO Social Demand to have its presidential grant of 2.8m roubles (£30,000) frozen.

‘It would be ridiculous to continue funding Gaidar and her foundation’, said Pamfilova. ‘I believe the money should be reallocated to NGOs that defend the rights and interests of Russian citizens inside Russia, and not left in the hands of someone who has abandoned her colleagues for the sake of a dubious political adventure elsewhere.’

Gaidar was also slated by her previous boss in Kirov, Nikita Belykh: ‘To go to work for people known for their negative attitude to our country has to be regarded as taking up a position which is not only anti-government but anti-Russians in general’, blogged Belykh on his Live Journal page.

‘And even the problems she had in Russia, including those connected with her professional fulfilment, are not an adequate excuse for taking this step.’

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May 2008: Nikita Belykh and Maria Gaidar at birthday party for Echo Moscow. (c) Ekaterina Chesnokova / VisualRIAN.

Gaidar has, however, had her defenders. Duma member Dmitry Gudkov, for example, wrote on his Facebook page that, ‘in the first place, Gaidar has never been accused of involvement in any corruption. All that pro-Kremlin trolls have been able to blame her for is a traffic accident – and it has now been accepted that the real guilty party was a police officer, so this is pure slander.’

‘In the second place, such appointments of Russians in Ukraine will help maintain contact between our two countries in the future. And when the present war ends, it will be people like Maria that will help us re-establish good relations.’

It is telling that the Kremlin itself has remained silent on Gaidar’s new position. Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press officer, has said that the administration will not make any comment, though this is probably a gesture of respect for the memory of Maria’s father.

The reaction in Ukraine

Most Ukrainian politicians have also tactfully refrained from commenting on Gaidar’s move to Odessa. Only the radicals have spoken out: Ihor Mosiychuk, a Rada deputy from Ukraine's Radical Party, has said he is sceptical about the appointment because Gaidar is ‘woolly-minded’, although he stressed that she was not an out and out enemy.

‘It’s clear she shouldn’t have been made deputy governor, but even if she were appointed as an unpaid adviser, my faction and I would still demand the resignation of Mikheil Saakashvili himself’, said Mosiychuk.

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Odessa is Ukraine's largest port. (c) Velar Grant / Demotix.

Ukraine’s voluntary sector has also reacted negatively to Gaidar’s appointment. At a demonstration held on 20 June in front of the regional administration building, activists protested against her working in Odessa, and in particular complained that at her welcoming ceremony she had three times ducked the question of whether Russia and Ukraine were at war.

‘I think Maria Gaidar’s problem is that she has come to work in Ukraine while remaining a Russian politician’

‘I think Maria Gaidar’s problem is that she has come to work in Ukraine while remaining a Russian politician’, commented Donetsk journalist Denis Kazansky on Facebook.

‘She has been trying to please everyone but has instead ended up pleasing no one. She is ashamed to admit that her country is an aggressor, that Russia attacked Ukraine without warning, and that it occupied Crimea with the approval of 90% of Russians.

‘She can’t admit this because she is still a Russian politician, but wants to be a Ukrainian politician as well. She can’t have it both ways – either she takes Ukrainian citizenship, becomes a Ukrainian politician and defends the interests of Ukraine, or she stays in Russia, remains a Russian politician and defends Russia’s interests. End of.’

‘We collect donations every day to help our lads fighting in the war zone’, says businesswoman Irina Angelova. ‘We know they are under attack; they’re not getting enough sleep or food. And then we have to look after the bodies of those who are killed. And now this Russian politician arrives and tries to evade answering a question about this. She obviously has no idea of the pain her country has caused us.’

The protesters’ voices have been heard: on 20 July, it was announced that Gaidar would initially take up her post for a three-month probationary period.

‘She would also consider working in Belarus’

Former colleagues of Maria Gaidar from her Kirov days believe she has gone to Odessa because her career wasn’t going anywhere in Russia. ‘In 2011, when she decided to do a Masters in Public Administration at Harvard, she said that the extra qualification would get her a political job at the federal, and not just regional, level’, a source in the Kirov regional government told me.

‘She expected to get a job in the Ministry of Social Development, as she ‘knew people’ there. But when she returned to Russia a year later, it was a different country – a country that had seen 100,000 people out on the streets after a sham general election and whose new government was clamping down on any opposition activity. And there was no place for her there.

‘Her job as adviser to Leonid Pechatnikov, Moscow’s Deputy Mayor for Social Problems, didn’t suit her: an adviser can’t take decisions. She set up her own charitable foundation, Social Demand, but after working as a deputy governor in Kirov and a year studying in the USA she wanted something bigger.’

After working as a deputy governor and studying in the USA she wanted something bigger

Gaidar’s ex-colleagues at Social Demand, which she left, for the job in Odessa, have much the same take on her decision.

‘Before Maria left, we had a long talk’, says the organisation’s press officer Natalya Malysheva. ‘We talked about Social Demand’s future and her reasons for moving to Ukraine. She said that she thought her career could go further in Ukraine, and that if she were offered work in Belarus (provided the same political freedom was established there) she would be equally happy to work there.’

At her welcome ceremony in Odessa, Gaidar herself spoke of her reasons for working there with Saakashvili: ‘the eyes of the whole world and the whole of Russia are on Odessa. If we can carry out reform here, perhaps with time Russia will pay attention to us. But the main thing is that there is such a good atmosphere here, that I can get straight down to work.’

The record in Kirov

Opinions are divided on Maria Gaidar’s record as deputy governor of the Kirov Region, where she specialised in social issues.

‘During her time here, the focus of the region’s medical services changed from accessibility to economic efficiency’, staff at a district hospital told me. ‘And this led to a mass closure of rural hospitals.’

According to Marina Sosontova, deputy speaker of the region’s Legislative Assembly, 47 local hospitals were closed down on Gaidar’s watch, with a loss of 7,500 beds; they were replaced by larger medical centres, with up-to-date equipment; but with each one now serving a number of districts. Rural residents, however, were unhappy because they no longer had a doctor on their doorstep.

The bare facts, however, show that Gaidar’s reform had a positive effect. In 2008, before her appointment, the death rate from illness in the region was 17.6 per 1000 inhabitants. When she left in 2011 it had dropped to 15.8 per 1000. The changes were, moreover, successful in financial terms, with a saving of 250m roubles (£2.7m) over the period.

Gaidar’s healthcare reorganisation reduced death rates and saved £2.7m over three years

Gaidar and other members of governor Nikita Belykh’s team also brought a new idea to social policy: support for local initiatives. Residents of a neighbourhood would hold a meeting, decide what change they would like made and draw up a breakdown of the cost.

The locals would be responsible for raising a minimum of 5% of the necessary cash, the rest would be provided out of regional government funds. The rationale behind the scheme was simple: if the public had come up with a project themselves – a children’s playground, for example – and put their own money into it, they would look after it better than if it had been entirely government funded.

When Gaidar left Kirov in 2011, 382 projects had been completed: they included repairs to water pipes and roads; improvements to the built environment; the cleanup of beaches and creation of a new bathing area; and the construction of new sports centres and playgrounds.

‘A clever, proven good worker seeks work which matches her qualifications.’ This was popular TV presenter Kseniya Sobchak’s comment. ‘Is she to blame for the fact that, in the country where I’m sure she’d prefer to work, people with her political views are always unemployed?’

The people of Odessa have three months to come to their own conclusion about Gaidar’s work.

Postscipt: As reported on 4 August 2015, Maria Gaidar has received Ukrainian citizenship.

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