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

Celebrating winter heritage with Griz Days

Mark your calendars, start doing your snow dance and get ready for… Continue reading

Red Apple hosts kid’s shopping day

On Sunday December 1, Red Apple in Fernie opened its doors for… Continue reading

Lilac Terrace receives $25,000 donation

Lilac Terrace, a senior’s supported living complex owned by the Elk Valley… Continue reading

Support the Cause proceeds assist children with cancer

There were plenty of smiling faces at Western Financial Group on Friday… Continue reading

Second Avenue location home for Coal Town Goods

Fernie’s own Coal Town Goods moved to a new location on Second… Continue reading

VIDEO: Merriam-Webster declares ‘they’ its 2019 word of the year

Declared word of year based on a 313-per-cent increase in look-ups on the company’s search site

Truck with body inside found at bottom of lake near Kootenay ferry

Investigators believe no foul play is expected but are unsure how the vehicle ended up in the Arrow Lakes

VIDEO: Calgary man narrowly escapes from avalanche while running at Lake Louise

Bryon Howard caught the entire wild experience on camera

PHOTOS: Competitive Christmas light display takes sarcastic turn in Princeton

Heather King of Princeton took a creative and stress-free approach to her holiday display this year

RCMP asks Kootenay cannabis shop to remove image of famous Mountie from storefront

Owner happy to comply with RCMP, but wants more information first

BC Ferries adds 170 extra sailings for the holidays

6 a.m. and 10 p.m. sailings added for busy season

Anti-money laundering agency warns casinos to watch gamers playing with bank drafts

Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, known as Fintrac, issues operational alert

Strata rental bans escape B.C. speculation tax through 2021, Carole James says

Vacant home tax won’t apply to cabins accessible only by water

Most Read