Axworthy urges renewed Canada-Ukraine ties despite concerns about new president

OTTAWA — 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.

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.

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