Axworthy urges renewed Canada-Ukraine ties despite concerns about new president

Lloyd Axworthy said the election represents a chance to redouble support

Supporters of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who have come to thank him for what he did as a president, listen to his speech in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, April 22, 2019. Political mandates don’t get much more powerful than the one Ukrainian voters gave comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who as president-elect faces daunting challenges along with an overwhelming directive to produce change. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

A former Canadian foreign minister who monitored Ukraine’s presidential election is urging Canada to “freshen” its relationship with the European country while expressing some reservations about its new leader.

Lloyd Axworthy, who led a team of 160 independent Canadian monitors for two rounds of voting, said the election of a new Ukrainian president represents a chance for Canada to redouble its support for a strategically important country.

READ MORE:Canada extends Iraq and Ukraine military missions to 2021 and 2022

Yet speaking to reporters on Wednesday following his return to Canada, Axworthy hinted at some concerns with new president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian whose only political experience is playing Ukraine’s president on TV.

Those included Zelenskiy’s appeal to populism, his refusal to engage with the media during the campaign, and questions over whether he will cave to Russia to end the five-year conflict ravaging eastern Ukraine.

After street protests drove Russian-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimean Peninsula and aggressively backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.

“(Zelinskiy) talked about wanting to find a peaceful solution to the border conflicts in two or three weeks,” said Axworthy, who cited some Ukrainians as being concerned about concessions. “That’s a pretty bold statement.”

Canada has long had an interest in Ukrainian affairs because of the large Ukrainian diaspora in Canada. More recently, Ukraine has been in the middle of a tug-of-war between Europe and NATO on one side and an assertive Russia under President Vladimir Putin on the other.

The 41-year-old Zelenskiy handily defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko on Sunday, securing 73 per cent of the vote in the second round of the presidential election despite offering little in the way of policies or positions.

At the same time, the media were cut off from him — meaning Zelenskiy was largely able to avoid questions about what he stood for or how he planned to deal with Ukraine’s many challenges.

While Axworthy said cutting off media access to leaders has become more common, including in the U.S. with President Donald Trump, his team nonetheless flagged tactics used by Zelenskiy’s campaign as a concern.

“We drew attention to the fact that there were some really disturbing trendlines in the media and news issue, comments about not really needing to have press conversations and briefings and so on,” he said.

“It sounds very familiar with what we are receiving south of us and from many other governments, who see limiting press freedom or access as one of the ways that they can gain greater control.”

And without mentioning Zelenskiy by name, Axworthy said with leaders backed by populist movements, “there is always a risk that they may end up trying to limit the constitutional and the democratic principles which we’re all interested in promoting.”

Despite these concerns — or perhaps because of them — Axworthy said Canada has a new opportunity to look at its relationship with Ukraine.

That includes working with Zelenskiy and his new team, whoever they are, and partnering with allies to broaden “the democratic agenda” before the Kremlin under Putin tries to dig its claws in.

“I think Mr. Putin has just one basic ambition, and that is to destabilize Ukraine and bring them under their orbit and also not have it as a frontline-border example of a democratic system working,” Axworthy said. “Canadians have to get mobilized around it as well. This could be a very important relationship for us to have in Europe, in Euro-Asia in fact, and to work together on a lot of joint issues.”

Much of the talk leading up to the election was over fears Russia would try to interfere, which Axworthy said was an issue, particularly during the first round of voting in March.

“I notice that some Canadian media are not paying attention to it much because they think it’s kind of crying wolf, but it isn’t,” he said. “There was certainly continuing outbursts of websites with hate and mobilization and protests.”

Those efforts did seem to be “phased out” during the second round of voting, Axworthy said, saying: “There was no real need to kind of prop up one candidate or another. I think the election was going the way they wanted.”

The former Canadian minister did not elaborate, but did praise Ukrainian officials, who have been dealing with Russian misinformation for five years, for having developed various measures to detect interference.

International observers have said Zelenskiy’s election was legitimate and the result of a free and fair vote, an assessment that Axworthy echoed, describing the conduct of the votes themselves ”a demonstration of a bona fide democracy at work.`”

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Sylvan Lake Yettis Junior B champions

The Yettis beat the Sherwood Park Titans to claim the provincial title Sunday

Sylvan Lake’s Accelerated Revolution Show and Shine raises more than $5,000

The annual show and shine is a Central Alberta fundraiser for the Strollery Children’s Hospital

Sylvan Lake replaces Jaws for even bigger shark at Jaws at the Lake Series

“The Meg” will play during this year’s event on Aug. 4 with a start time planned for 9 p.m.

Eckville area author gets publishing debut

Barbie Band-Aid by Lillian White is a collection of short stories about being an oil field medic

B.C. journalist named PPC candidate for Red Deer-Lacombe

Laura-Lynn Thompson is running against Blaine Calkins in the federal election this October

VIDEO: Calgary, Flames agree to terms on new NHL arena

The proposed 19,000-seat facility would replace the Saddledome at an estimated cost of $550 million

VIDEO: Missing teens named as suspects in three northern B.C. killings

Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky are wanted in the deaths of Lucas Fowler, Chynna Deese, unknown man

Alberta ahead of average tornado count at 17 so far this year

The province’s average over the past 30 years has been 12 tornadoes per year

The Beaverton’s sharp satire thrives in polarized political climate

Canadian TV series’ third season to air Tuesday on CTV after “The Amazing Race Canada”

VIDEO: Bystander training gains traction as tool to prevent sexual harassment, violence

Julia Gartley was sexually assaulted after an event, and no one stepped in to help

Sexual assaults, extortion on the rise even as crime rates stay low: Stats Canada

Rates of police-reported sexual assault rose for the fourth year in a row

A year later, ceremony commemorates victims of the Danforth shooting

It’s the one-year anniversary of when a man opened fire along the bustling street before shooting and killing himself

Ottawa fights planned class action against RCMP for bullying, intimidation

The current case is more general, applying to employees, including men, who worked for the RCMP

Alberta judge denies B.C.’s bid to block ‘Turn Off the Taps’ bill

He said the proper venue for the disagreement is Federal Court

Most Read