KYIV – The Ukraine that Canadian Ambassador Roman Waschuk knew while serving as political counselor for his country’s diplomatic corps in 1994-1998 has outlived its legacy.
Back then, Leonid Kuchma was in his first of two terms as president and starting to build the corrupt, oligarchic economic model that the nation’s post-revolutionary government inherited in 2014 and has been replacing incrementally ever since.
Then, as the country was emerging from 70 years of totalitarian Soviet rule, Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine said many Canadians of Ukrainian descent got “burned” trying to do business in what was supposed to become one of Eastern Europe’s largest markets.
One of them was Canadian multi-millionaire James Temerty, a native of Donetsk Oblast. Still a generous donor to Ukrainian causes, he saw an estimated $100 million investment disappear in a Kyiv heat and power plant during the 1990s through corrupt schemes, according to news reports by the Kyiv Post.
Today, however, people in the West “need to modernize their view of the country” because “Ukrainians are able to feel they are owners of the cities in which they live,” Ambassador Waschuk said in an interview with The Ukrainian Weekly on November 29. “They help codify the space. They’re not takers, they’re also makers. That, for me, if you compare the 1990s to now, that’s a huge difference.”
Since early 2014 when a popular uprising saw Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych flee to Russia, Kyiv is “doing fairly well under the very complicated circumstances in which it has found itself… there’s been a lot of change.”
A congenially down-to-earth and constant promoter of Canada in person as well as on social media, Mr. Waschuk, 55, a first-generation Ukrainian Canadian, said that Ukrainians expect too much when it comes to eradicating corruption and moving the country forward towards its stated goals of integrating with the West.
He recalled Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s words after his 2016 visit. Quoting him, Mr. Waschuk said: “the situation in Ukraine is a bit like… as if in North America someone had invaded and taken over Manitoba, cut off our trade with the U.S. – and at the same time we need to change everything in the way we run our country.”
Sitting back in his chair at the Canadian Embassy, the diplomat added: “That’s tough, that’s complicated.”
That attitude applies to the rule of law, an area that Mr. Waschuk said broadly is Ukraine’s “biggest problem.” A former Plast scout from the Toronto area, Canada’s envoy said that “anti-corruption… can’t be the be all and end all of the country’s existence.” Otherwise, Kyiv risks becoming obsessed with the issue to the exclusion of all others – “you can’t be a Manichean absolutist either,” he said.
Referring, for example, to the new Supreme Court that was created in which it emerged that about 25 percent of judges have questionable pasts, Mr. Waschuk said if “you set the expectation that not a single problematic person will end up in one of Ukraine’s institutions or else then stop the project, that is not realistic.”
A special bilateral relationship
That’s why Canada, where 3 percent – or 1.3 million people – identify as Ukrainian, has devoted more than $700 million in much-needed assistance to Kyiv since 2014. Fifty-seven percent of that has gone towards providing low-interest loans to help Ukraine stabilize its economy.
The latter is tied to one of the ambassador’s favorite projects. Canada’s technical assistance arm, known as CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency), has enjoyed success with building co-ops among small- and medium-sized farms to help the much-touted industry become competitive and gain better access to markets.
One example he gives, which one could “touch, taste and smell,” is a western Ukrainian couple that used the money they earned while living in Italy to set up a dairy farm with a loan from the project.
The wife makes mozzarella cheese and used the borrowed money to build a modern barn for their cows. Their enterprise helps the village by stimulating the rural economy, employing people along the way in what Mr. Waschuk called a “virtuous cycle.”
Another less “visible,” yet equally effective, project is EDGE, or Expert Deployment for Governance and Economic Growth. Its main premise is to parachute experts into Ukraine to help with reform in a particular field.
It draws on foreigners as well as qualified Ukrainian experts who can offer “advice on cracking policy issues,” said the diplomat, who first served in Moscow in 1987 as second secretary for politics.
In one case, Chicago-born ex-Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko received two experts who helped show her how to run her ministry. She was widely credited for restructuring Ukraine’s external debt with foreign Eurobond holders.
“Right now, we’re working on deinstitutionalizing Ukrainian orphanages,” Ambassador Waschuk said. “We’re finding a way of dismantling the system and moving to foster care and smaller group homes. We’re funding a policy unit that’s doing just that.”
Another beneficiary is the State Fiscal Service, which has a team helping it make tax collection easier and fairer.
Canadian experts were also vital in rolling out the nation’s new police patrol with experts, some of them from the diaspora, and by providing what the native Torontonian calls “aftercare” with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Canadian armed service units have also trained their Ukrainian counterparts at the tactical level and are helping elevate the importance of non-commissioned officers and making them more interoperable with NATO armies.
Aside from the Yavoriv training base in Lviv Oblast, Canada has or is geographically branching out to train Ukrainian military personnel in Desna near Kyiv, the Odesa Military Academy, and unexploded ordinance and demining experts in Kamianets-Podilsky.
Commenting on Ukraine’s military, Mr. Waschuk said that a lot of the “things at the tactical level have advanced a lot.”
He added: “A lot of the internal systems are still old school. That’s where we’re looking to see where the Ukrainians are who want to change. Part of it is having people here on rotations long enough… so that they could get to know people and identify who are the change agents and work with them and not at them.”
Given the role that Ukrainians in Canada had in building the country makes the ethnic group one of the most visible of any in a Western country, according to Ambassador Waschuk.
“It’s a huge asset… it’s a driver of political interest in Ukraine,” he said.
There are Ukrainian Canadian members of Parliament, the foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, is of Ukrainian extraction. The House of Commons speaker’s wife has a Ukrainian background.
Across the ocean, Torontonian Daniel Bilak, a lawyer, heads Ukraine’s investment promotion office under the prime minister, and one of his deputies, Lubomyr Markevych, also a trained lawyer, hails from Canada as well.
“In a way, people with a diaspora background here are cultural interpreters,” the Canadian envoy said. “They know about not only the successes but the failures of the past 25 years.”
Many in the diaspora are often prone to what he calls the “panakhyda culture” given Ukraine’s turbulent history up to the recent unprovoked war with Russia that has killed more than 10,220 Ukrainians in the easternmost regions of Donbas, according to United Nations data.
“I would say that people were able to compartmentalize it. Whereas, victimhood can be a driver, it can’t be what about all you’re. Ukrainians obviously have gone through very difficult times… but… they got to be creators, they got to be doers, they got to be subjects, not objects,” Mr. Waschuk said.
Canada’s 97 percent
Yet the diplomat emphasizes the larger part of Canada that is forging ties with Ukraine, especially since a bilateral free trade agreement that usually totals about $300 million in annual trade volume went into force this year.
“So, Ukrainians are really impressed by the significant contribution Ukrainians have made to the building of Canada. But they shouldn’t allow that to blind them to all the other opportunities our country offers,” he said.
Fairfax Financial Holdings is one Canadian institutional investor making headway in Ukraine. Its run by someone the Canadian media call the country’s Warren Buffet – Indian-born Prem Watsa, whose first employer upon emigrating to Canada was of Ukrainian descent.
Fairfax owns a third of Ukraine’s Astarta, the nation’s largest sugar and milk producer. It bought a Ukrainian insurance firm and is mulling other investment opportunities in the agricultural and food industry.
“That’s the kind of butterfly-wing ripple effect that you have in Canada of people who have come into positive contact with Ukrainians or Ukrainian Canadians at some point, then they apply that in looking at the country itself,” the diplomat said.
Noting that 97 percent of Canada’s population of 37 million aren’t of Ukrainian extraction, Ambassador Waschuk emphasized: “we’re drawing on all of Canada” in fostering relations between the two countries.