National Post | 26Jan2014 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn: Ukraine needs Canada’s help

Ukrainian protestors, organized under the banner of “Euromaidan,” want the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych out. To win, the protestors need help from the world’s democracies. Will it come?

President Yanukovych precipitated the ongoing crisis late last year. In November, instead of signing, as promised, a trade agreement with the European Union, he aligned Ukraine’s future with Russia. The reversal enraged Ukrainians, who had expected the deal with Europe to be enacted quickly. They had had enough of his dysfunctional rule, even worse, they had had enough of Russia. Ukraine’s history with its Russian neighbour is an unhappy one: Across the 20th century, many millions died under Soviet rule. Many see much in Russian President Vladimir Putin that reminds them of that dark era and want nothing to do with his increasingly heavy handed regime.

What Ukrainians do want is to live more like we do in the West. And despite its flaws, European integration offers the promise of the rule of law, freely elected government, just courts, free political opposition, independent media, and an economy where the average person doesn’t have to survive on roughly $4,000 a year while the rulers make richest-in-the-world lists. They want the rights and freedoms that citizens in the West take for granted. The Yanukovych-Putin deal moves Ukrainians in the wrong direction.

The deal should also worry the West. It integrates Ukraine’s defence into Russia’s. The Russian fleet gains access to the coveted Kerch peninsula whose warm-water ports enhance Russia’s presence in the Black Sea (and the Mediterranean beyond). Russia is also keen to access Ukraine’s large shipyards and their skilled workers. The last thing Ukrainians want is to be on the wrong side of a new cold war.

As peaceful protests against the “selling of our children’s future” continue, the Yanukovych regime -- now guided by Russia -- is cracking down. Earlier this month, Yurij Lutsenko, a key opposition associate of Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned opposition leader and potential alternative to President Yanukovych, was severely beaten in front of a courthouse where extreme sentences were issued against innocent protesters, now called “terrorists.” After a midnight car-chase, Tetyana Chornovol, a feisty journalist exposing the president’s financial assets, was beaten and left for dead. The state militia, nearby, did nothing. Scores of demonstrators are in custody, or have disappeared, as police apply new anti-demonstrator laws. Many have been abducted from hospitals while seeking treatment. At least three are dead.

Democracies are crying foul. Canada’s Foreign Affairs’ Minister John Baird promised to “forcefully oppose all efforts to repress their (demonstrators’) rights and freedoms.” But if anything, recent weeks have seen government efforts to repress the demonstrations get worse, not better.

Despite the possibility of some progress (the government offered political concessions over the weekend), Euromaidan needs meaningful help from the global community. Black listing offenders makes a good start. Here, the U.S. Senate is leading. It has put Ukraine’s interior minister Vitaliy Zaharchenko, responsible for the violence against demonstrators, and others, on a draft sanctions list. Similarly, Canada should create a list of Ukrainians leaders whose financial dealings are suspect, then, investigate and where warranted apply punitive measures to keep the spotlight on offenders. (Euromaidan already has done much of this work and has been following the money. At the top of the list of financial offenders: the president, the prime minister and the chief of the security apparatus.)

Moving forward, Ukraine will also need help establishing stronger democratic institutions. Canada can help by offering guidance to both government and opposition leaders. It might call on former premiers like Roy Romanow and Ed Stelmach -- both of Ukrainian descent -- to assist, and make sure future generations of Ukrainians never again have to contend with a crisis like this one.

But in order for that future to be realized, it is critical that democracy -- Euromaidan -- wins today. Ukraine needs help now, and fast -- there are fears that the government will crack down after the Olympics in nearby Sochi conclude. Canada has long been a good friend to Ukraine, and was the first Western power to recognize its independence. Millions of Ukrainians want their country to be as a good a friend to the West as Canada has been to Ukraine. But they need help. Let’s hope they get it.

National Post

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn is the former president of U*CAN Ukraine Canada Relations Inc., specializing in Canadian-Ukrainian relations.