KYIV, Ukraine — Prime Minister Stephen Harper will tug on the deep familial ties that bind Canada and Ukraine, in an attempt to pull that struggling republic’s attention back toward the friendly West and away from a less-democratically minded Russia.
Harper’s first visit to the former Soviet republic, which kicked off Sunday, will touch bluntly on some of the darkest points of Ukrainian history and the most sensitive subjects of its contemporary political landscape — a charged itinerary likely to resonate with the more than one million Canadians of Ukrainian descent.
Some of the advances made in Ukraine through the Orange Revolution of 2004 have been rolled back under the recently elected pro-Russian government, and incidents of human rights abuses including press and academic censorship are on the rise.
Harper arrived in Ukraine from The Francophonie in Switzerland, where he remarked that the organization is making progress in addressing some of the human rights problems that plague its membership.
The next Francophonie summit will be held in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the worst places on the planet for human security.
Human rights and trade will share the spotlight on the next leg of Harper’s trip in Ukraine.
Harper will also announce negotiations with Ukraine on a free-trade agreement, which both governments are hoping to seal by next year.
Three women in traditional Ukrainian dress offered Harper a gift of bread and salt as he walked on to the tarmac in Kyiv.
He promptly tore off a piece before meeting a series of local officials. Canadian flags hung from lampposts on some of Kyiv’s grand boulevards.
“We have good relations with Ukraine, we’re there to celebrate that good and strong relationship. It’s a people-to-people relationship as well as a government-to-government relationship,” Harper said.
“There are issues that are of concern to Ukrainian-Canadians and to the government of Canadians involving issues of human rights and the rule of law and I’ll be raising those with President Yanukovych.”
When current president Viktor Yanukovych came to power, mentions of the Ukrainian genocide-by-famine perpetuated under Stalin in the 1930s were promptly removed from the presidential website.
Yanukovych’s government has allowed a debate to arise again over what actually occurred during that period, despite declarations from historians, and from Canada and other nations that it was clearly a genocide. Estimates of how many died are as high as 11 million.
Harper is scheduled to tackle that question head on, with a visit to a Holodomor memorial, his first item of business in Kyiv. He will also travel to one of the world’s most heartbreaking sites at Babyn Yar, where more than 33,000 Jews were gunned down by the Nazis in a matter of days. Up to 150,000 more, including tens of thousands of Roma, were also eventually buried in the ravine.
Harper will meet at length with Yanukovych, but also with his chief rival Yulia Tymoshenko. He is also expected to meet personally with the rector of a university who found himself threatened recently by Ukrainian police because of protests undertaken by his students.
And Harper is also expected to visit a prison memorial that had been set up by former president Victor Yushenko to commemorate the anti-soviet resistance movement. The memorial has been open sporadically, and state security services have harassed archivists there.
Reporters Without Borders published a report last month citing cases of journalists being harassed and their work obstructed. One investigative journalist has been missing since August, and two independent TV stations have had their licenses blocked.
“There’s real concern from the perspective of the Ukrainian community in Canada and around the world,” said Paul Grod, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.
“Our dream is to see a progressive, democratic European country develop. Regrettably, what we’re seeing is a real attack on human rights and democracy.”
Grod notes that the Canadian government seemed to have no real difficulties organizing Harper’s trip, an indication of the respect that Canada still garners in the former Soviet republic.
“Constructive engagement is important,” says Grod.
“The aim is to influence the current government and ensure they feel the doors are open to the West and they are not part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
“Without a democratic Ukraine, there will never be a democratic Russia.”
Harper is also expected to sign a youth mobility agreement with Ukraine, to allow young people from both countries to work, study and travel more easily.