Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy waves to supporters following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine Apr. 21, 2019. (Viacheslav Ratynskyi/REUTERS)

Axworthy urges Ottawa to engage with new Ukrainian president

Canada needs to redouble its diplomatic engagement with Ukraine amid some concerns over the country’s newly elected populist president and Kyiv’s possible drift back into Moscow’s orbit, says former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy.

Axworthy, who led a 160-strong Canadian monitoring team in Ukraine during the presidential election that saw comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy elected president on Sunday, praised the vote.

Speaking to reporters during a teleconference call on Wednesday morning, Axworthy said Kyiv deserves a lot of credit for organizing and conducting a nearly flawless election amid an ongoing conflict with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and a massive “hybrid” effort by the Kremlin to influence the vote.

Zelenskiy, 41, who played the president of Ukraine in a widely popular satirical TV series Servant of the People, won nearly 73 per cent of votes in a run-off election Sunday, beating the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko.

“He has certainly won the expectations of the three-quarters of the population and so it really is an astounding mandate to work with,” Axworthy said. “But it also will have the quandary of how to meet those expectations.”

‘An interesting rollercoaster’

Former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy (left) looks on before being presented with the 30th Pearson Peace Medal during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. (Fred Chartrand/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Axworthy said he expects to see “an interesting rollercoaster” as Zelenskiy, with no previous political experience and confronted by an unruly parliament, grapples with the issues facing Ukraine – corruption, sluggish economy, powerful oligarchs and most of all, the conflict with Russia.

The upcoming parliamentary election in Ukraine in fall may result in pro-Russian parties holding 15 to 20 per cent of seats in the new Rada, Axworthy said.

“The reaction of Russia and Putin is clearly going to reset a lot of the conventional wisdoms we had about our relationship with Ukraine,” Axworthy said.

And it’s up to Canada and its Western allies to think whether it’s “time to kind of freshen up our act as well,” he added.

“I think this really is an important opportunity for Canada – with a new president coming in, with clearly a demonstration of a bona fide democracy at work – to become really a very strong allied relationship,” Axworthy said.

Facing off with Putin

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine Apr. 21, 2019. (Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet to congratulate his Ukrainian namesake on his victory, but Axworthy said he expects the Kremlin to “make a move in the next two or three weeks.”

Zelenskiy, who hails from eastern Ukraine and is more fluent in Russian than Ukrainian, has said his priority for the presidency is to end the war in the east that has claimed more than 15,000 lives.

“People we talked to – from veterans’ associations and the families of the people fighting on the front and others – they are afraid that there might just be a negotiation with too much given away to have a solution,” Axworthy said.

Zelenskiy has talked about wanting to find a peaceful solution to the Donbas conflict within two or three weeks after being sworn in next month, Axworthy said.

“That’s a pretty bold statement. Is Mr. Putin apt to respond to that?” Axworthy said. “I think Mr. Putin just has a one basic ambition and that is to destabilize Ukraine so that he can bring them under the [Moscow’s] orbit and also not have them as a frontline, border example of a democratic system working.”

In fact, in Putin on Wednesday signed a decree to expedite applications for Russian citizenship by Ukrainians living in separatist-held areas in Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The move by Putin was interpreted by many experts as a challenge to Zelenskiy.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on Wednesday called Russia’s decision “a new stage of the occupation of Donbas.”

In a Facebook post, Zelenskiy’s team labelled Russia “an aggressor state which wages war against Ukraine”.

Concerns over media access

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a news conference at his campaign headquarters following a presidential election in Kiev, Ukraine Apr. 21, 2019. (Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS)

At the same time, Axworthy raised some concerns with Zelenskiy, including his appeal to populism, his refusal to engage with the traditional media during much of the election campaign and relying instead on a carefully managed social media strategy to engage with voters.

“With governments that are elected with these very large populist movements behind them, I think there is always a risk that they may end up trying to limit the constitutional and democratic principles, which we are all interested in promoting,” Axworthy said.

There are concerns about media freedom in Ukraine, where most of the media are owned by oligarchs who use them for their own interests, Axworthy said.

“The Ukrainians have really got it right about the vote and how important it is and how it got to be based on trust and integrity,” Axworthy said. “But democracy isn’t just a vote, it’s also discussion and debate, and access to information.”

At the same time, Canada has a lot to learn from the Ukrainian experience of resisting Russian interference in its elections, Axworthy said.

“They have developed a very good system of early warning, pre-emptive assessment of where there might be upsets or disturbances in the election and they were able to have pretty much an event-free activity,” Axworthy said. “I think there is lot of that kind of preparation that could be done [in Canada].”

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