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)

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.

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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

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