Throughout much of the post-socialist world, real estate developers maintain an extremely cosy relationship with political decision-makers. You’d be hard pressed to find a place where this cosiness is more blatantly manifest than in the Black Sea port and resort city of Odessa, the maritime capital of Ukraine.
In the capitalist heartland of West Europe and North America, realtors’ influence on politics has tended to be subtler (if no less far-reaching and pervasive). This may be about to change, however, following the election of Donald Trump, the world’s first property developer president.
Given Trump’s close interest in East Europe, and his ties to Odessa’s former Governor Mikhail Saakashvili (not to speak of Vladimir Putin), what can we learn by exploring the relationship between money, power and architecture on the Ukrainian seaside? Does Odessa offer us a glimpse into the aesthetics, politics and economics of the Trumpitectural urban future?
Odessa is a city of one million people on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. Following its foundation by Empress Catherine the Great in 1794 on territory conquered from the Ottoman Empire, it swiftly became the most celebrated seaside metropolis in the Tsarist Russian Empire. It retained and even consolidated this function throughout the entire period of the USSR, no other southern maritime city in the Soviet Union being able to compete with it for glamour, charisma or economic importance.
Immediately to the south of the hectic city lies a district named Arcadia, historically a bucolic out-of-town hideaway for wealthy (during Tsarist times) and bohemian (during Soviet times) Odessites and holidaymakers. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, Arcadia has been transformed beyond recognition. Today it is a high-decibel mega-resort and a property developers’ playground. Its sandy beaches, once pristine, are overrun with vacationers and piled high with rubbish. The section of Odessa’s beachside promenade running through Arcadia is built up on both sides by supersized nightclubs (“Ibiza”, “Itaka”) and plastic aquaparks. Its skyline is dominated by speculatively built outscaled highrises housing hotels, condos and apartments for rent (or simply standing derelict). Fires periodically break out in these vast newbuilds, sending gigantic plumes of smoke into the sky. The fires are sometimes caused by shoddy gas or electricity installations, installed in a hurry or on the cheap. Sometimes, however – say Odessites – they are started by arsonists hired by developers seeking to sabotage a competitor’s investment or make a quick buck from an insurance payout.
It’s a murky October afternoon in 2016 in Arcadia. Mikhail Saakashvili, the charismatic then-Governor of Odessa Region and disgraced former President of Georgia, clambers clumsily onto a pile of rubble, accompanied by aides and camera crews. He starts shouting, and continues to do so for eight minutes. He points at the pile of rubble and says, “This is what, at dawn today, was committed by the criminal bandit administration of Mayor Trukhanov and his friends”. Mayor Trukhanov and his developer friends are enriching themselves, murdering the city and destroying its heritage, says the Governor. “They will destroy the whole city, and instead they will build this, this stuff will be all that is left of the city”, shouts Saakashvili, gesturing at a 25 storey glass, steel and marble residential highrise looming overhead.
The previous afternoon, Saakashvili had recorded a video at the same spot, in front of a 19th century sandstone Italianate villa, one of the last surviving pre-Soviet monuments in Arcadia. He held up an official document to the cameras, a signed decree expediting the villa’s inclusion onto the regional register of historical monuments. Saakashvili had signed the decree in response to news that Mayor Trukhanov and the Odessa City Council had approved a request to demolish the villa to make way for another large-scale real estate investment. “This is not the property of Trukhanov. This is not the property of the city council. This is not the property of some Greek or other”, he said (the latter reference being to a prominent Odessa property developer). “I do not want to find that this building just fell down ‘by accident’. This has already happened with numerous buildings here. They fell down ‘by accident’, and then ‘by accident’ they began erecting in their place these horrendous multi-storey deformities, which disfigure Odessa.” The effect of Saakashvili’s stunt, however, was only to quicken the implementation of his opponents’ scheme. The demolition squad moved in at dawn. The bulldozers and heavy diggers had almost completed their task by the time Saakashvili arrived later that morning. They ground to a half only as they spotted the Governor and his retinue approaching.
A little over a week later, on 7 November, Saakashvili announced his resignation as Governor, citing frustration over corruption, cronyism and banditry. This time, he publicly and explicitly implicated Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko – a billionaire chocolate magnate and one of the country’s wealthiest oligarchs – as a key player in the corruption scandal. He announced his resignation from a podium erected outside the main building of the passenger terminal in Odessa’s seaport, a notorious eyesore in the heart of the city, where a major architectural reconstruction project was long overdue. “The reconstruction hasn’t happened, and the money for it has been stolen”, shouted the Governor.
Saakashvili’s makeover saw Batumi’s tourism economy refocus around casinos and semi-legal sex tourism
“When I became Governor, I wanted Odessa to have the same tempo of development as Batumi”, Saakashvili went on to declare, referring to another Black Sea port city, in his native Georgia. Indeed, Batumi’s architectural makeover and touristic rebirth was a pet project of Saakashvili’s from the start to the finish of his abortive Georgian presidency. Saakashvili’s makeover saw Batumi’s tourism economy refocus around casinos and semi-legal sex tourism, primarily geared towards visitors from neighbouring Turkey. Real estate speculators moved in en masse, and the sleepy low-rise cityscape of old Batumi (population 150,000, one-sixth of Odessa’s) became studded with glass-and-steel high-rises (a number of them, like those in Odessa, currently standing derelict or unfinished), including a seven-star Kempinski Hotel. A lavish beachside promenade was laid out, ornamented with outlandish public sculptures, “Spanish-style” plazas and “Italian-style” piazzas, and an ill-fated liquor fountain. Numerous historical buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries were demolished.
Ground was even broken on a $250 million, 47-storey Trump Tower Batumi (another one was planned for Tbilisi as well). During a succession of joint press conferences in 2011 and 2012 at Trump Tower Manhattan and on site in Batumi, Saakashvili and Trump lavished praise on each other. Ominously enough (given his own globe-hopping political career as well as the outcome of the US presidential elections), Saakashvili suggested that Trump would have a good shot at ruling Georgia if he wanted to: “If he decides to run for president in Georgia, he might win”. “New America is built by him”, he went on to say of Trump, even more ominously.
‘I think Donald Trump has amazing intuition’, Saakashvili declared
“I think Donald Trump has amazing intuition”, Saakashvili declared on another occasion. Trump availed himself of the opportunity to demonstrate his amazing intuition during the groundbreaking ceremony for Trump Tower in Batumi in April 2012. “The most amazing of all is the job the President has done in Georgia… everybody in the world, they speak of Georgia and the great miracle that is taking place and that is led by the President.” As Trump spoke these words, Saakashvili – the anti-corruption President, who instituted a programme of building all-glass police stations throughout the country to underscore his commitment to transparency – was dogged by multiple allegations of corruption, incompetence, political violence and human rights violations, the latter stemming in part from a failed 2008 war with Russia. Several months later, in October 2012, he suffered a disastrous parliamentary election defeat. The following year, he was ousted from power and went into exile, a wanted man in his native country.
Georgia’s new rulers had little interest in implementing Saakashvili’s failed grand projets and both Trump Towers fizzled out before construction could get under way. For better or worse, however, many elements of Saakashvili’s pet project to turn Batumi into what he himself described (apparently without irony) as “Las Vegas on the Black Sea” panned out more or less as planned. And after two years of “hipster exile” in Williamsburg, President Poroshenko gave Saakasvhili the chance to repeat his “Las Vegas on the Black Sea” experiment on an even grander scale: in Odessa.
Saakashvili adopted a new mantle for himself during the dying days of his Governorship: as passionate defender of the city’s architectural heritage
In Odessa, however, precious little went to plan. His authority was constitutionally limited, his patronage networks were thin, and he wasn’t even elected. There were just too many entrenched interests for somebody like Saakashvili to overcome. In Odessa, then, Saakashvili was resigning, because entrenched interests had prevented him from being able to turn the much larger Ukrainian city into another Las Vegas on the Black Sea – a Las Vegas, which, to some extent, it already was. Frustrated at his failure to implement this plan of turning Odessa into Odessa-on-steroids, it would appear, Saakashvili adopted a new mantle for himself during the dying days of his Governorship: as passionate defender of the city’s architectural heritage and outspoken campaigner against realtor greed.
None of my Odessa interlocutors have any doubt that Saakashvili’s daring leap onto the architectural heritage bandwagon was anything but a cynical political manoeuvre, probably the start of an effort to launch a grab for nationwide power in Ukraine. The idea was to disassociate himself from his Ukrainian political father and former student pal, the morbidly unpopular President Petro Poroshenko; and to tarnish Poroshenko by association with a number of other unsavoury figures, including Mayor Trukhanov and his developer cronies in Odessa (chief among them the above-mentioned “some Greek or other”).
Given Trump’s recently outspoken pro-Putin sympathies, and the fact that Saakashvili styles himself as “enemy number one” of the Russian President, it seemed unlikely to me – as I was completing this article on U.S. election day – that a Trump Tower Odessa was on the cards. Unlikely but not impossible. Following Trump’s victory, however, Saakashvili immediately changed his Facebook cover image to a picture of himself with the President-elect at the ill-fated Batumi groundbreaking ceremony four years previously. “We have known each other more than twenty years, we are friends”, read the opening line of the caption.
Saakashvili resigned as Governor of Odessa just two days before Trump’s election victory. Perhaps, then, Odessa was spared a Trump Tower by a hairier margin than we know. If Donald Trump’s many failed attempts at real estate ventures in the former Soviet Union – including several bids at a Trump Tower Moscow — are anything to go by, however, this still seems unlikely. Indeed, Odessa is already brimming with a deafening cast of Trumpesque characters – eccentrics, megalomaniacs and machos – stamping their mantle on and throwing their weight around its built environment. Trump may have succeeded in dispatching the American political establishment; but he would likely find the entrenched interests populating Odessa’s built environment a little tougher to uproot.