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

LETTER: Langley letter writers asks when can society stop saying sorry

A local man questions why City council feels the need to follow higher levels of government

Langley show jumpers help secure top five finish in Morocco

Canadian team includes one rider and the team’s chef d’equipe, who both hail from Langley

Langley volleyball player helps secure bronze in Puerto Rico

Women medal at NORCECA, while men’s team is playing the worlds in Hiroshima, Japan

LETTER: Fort Langley festival reminds us to be thankful

Heartfelt thanks go out to event organizers

VIDEO: Thanksgiving Day crash in Langley sent a few to hospital

UPDATE: No one believed seriously injured in head-on accident at 232nd Street and Fraser: Mounties

VIDEO: Trudeau plays defence in Maritimes today while Scheer fights for seats in Quebec

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party has been on the rise in recent polls, is campaigning in Toronto

Advance voter turnout up 25% for first two day: Elections Canada

Two million people voted Friday and Saturday

Okanagan principals told to confiscate vaping products from students

Vaping is up 74 per cent in youth over the last two years, according to one Canadian study

‘Rather mild’ winter expected in B.C. this year

Northwestern B.C. will be the worst hit

Court action in Trail acid spills may take years

B.C. court case involves a number of defendants and a number of plaintiffs

RCMP shoot dog in Surrey after it charges officer

Member of the public not seriously injured after dog bite

In the news: Sprinting to the election finish line and anger amid Manitoba storms

First Nations residents forced to evacuate their Manitoba homes after a recent snowstorm

VIDEO: Townhouse fourth Maple Ridge blaze in less than a day

UPDATE: Fire victims have much to be thankful for, despite loss of pets on Thanksgiving Day

BC Ferries sees steady traffic of post-Thanksgiving weekend travellers

Ferries filling up fast, sailing waits at some terminals

Most Read