The treacherous six-hour drive from Odessa to Bolgrad, the rural town where Petro Poroshenko was born, helps explain why in May the Ukrainian president entrusted the job of regional governor to Mikheil Saakashvili, the maverick reformer and former president of nearby Georgia .
In these agricultural heartlands, impoverished locals struggle to get produce to markets. With deep potholes and dirt tracks, roads are more torn up than in Ukraine’s war-torn breakaway east.
After years of neglect, the 244km ride from the cosmopolitan regional capital and Black Sea port hub of Odessa to this southwest corner of Ukraine is like navigating a minefield.
“We feel abandoned, cut off and left for despair . . . Leaders from Kiev, including Poroshenko, aren’t welcome any more,” said Viktor, a resident in the largely ethnic Bulgarian town. “But we like Saakashvili so far,” he added.
Last year’s clashes in Odessa city between pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine forces fed fears that the Moscow-backed separatism fomented in the Donbas region could spread to Odessa, which has a high proportion of Russian speakers and is an ethnic melting pot.
Some feared the arrival of Mr Saakashvili, a foreigner and pro-western politician who in 2008 clashed with Russia over control over two Georgian separatist enclaves, could stoke fresh geopolitical tension.
Kiev’s hope was that he would repeat his success in Georgia, where he helped turn the economy around, and thus neuter support in Odessa for Russia.
So far, the arrival of the straight-speaking Mr Saakashvili, who studied in Kiev and speaks Russian, Ukrainian and English, has injected fresh energy and hope into a region that faces some of the same challenges Georgia did when he took over more than a decade ago. He is now exiled from his country by criminal charges that he says are politically motivated.
In Odessa, road reconstruction has accelerated and Mr Saakashvili has sacked corrupt regional officials and promised investment and new jobs, swiftly winning over desperate locals.
Hopping into a crowded and sweaty Odessa minibus last week, with no notice and without bodyguards, Mr Saakashvili made one of his regular trips around the region to get a glimpse into what works and what doesn’t.
At first his presence stunned his fellow passengers, tourists and residents alike. But the locals quickly made their feelings clear, pleading for reforms.
Mr Saakashvili told them his top priorities are fixing infrastructure and boosting business and tourism, tasks that will be financed by a crackdown on corruption.
“The old system is collapsing,” he said, as the minibus bounced erratically over potholes. “Revolutionary reforms are the answer and we need to act fast.”
“We know Putin is plotting to foment separatism here,” he added. “Without Odessa, there will be no Ukraine. It will be cut off from the Black Sea . . . its exports will be choked.”
As the bus rolled into the resort town of Serhiyivka, residents launched into accusations against a once-feared mayor who has controlled the city for more than a decade. They took Mr Saakashvili on a tour of dilapidated infrastructure, pointing out the luxurious estates built by local officials.
Sergei Lutenko, a 26-year-old who hopes to challenge the mayor in forthcoming elections, said Mr Saakashvili’s presence had “broken fear and offered hope”.
Hours later, in the governor’s office, Mr Saakashvili called in the heads of anti-corruption departments for a televised cabinet meeting.
He swiftly fired them and their staff after one admitted he had brought no officials to justice for corruption since the beginning of the year.
“Have you not seen the roads?” said Mr Saakashvili. “Where did the money go? I’m firing you for doing nothing.”
The ruthless accountability demanded by Mr Saakashvili has regional officials in a panic: many have started repaving roads at their own expense.
“They know I will come to their town next, and they are trying to hold on to their jobs by covering up their wrongdoings,” Mr Saakashvili said.
Broader plans include streamlining local government from about 8,000 to 3,000 staff and clamping down on the rampant evasion of customs duty at regional ports.
This, he says, will free resources to improve governance by replacing fat-cat bureaucrats with more motivated — and often western educated — young people. His flamboyant style strikes a chord in a region known for its sense of humour.
“We need to move fast . . . It will be messy; mistakes will be made,” he said. His combative approach may yet anger entrenched mafia interests and even put him in danger.
“First they will try character assassination, to discredit me. After that they will come after me with other methods,” he said.
Echoing the views of residents across the region, Viktor, from Bolgrad, said:
“It was strange at first to have a former president from another country as our new governor, but in one month we see him doing more than anyone did for us in years.”