Evidence of meeting #7 for Foreign Affairs and International Development in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was ukraine.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Jillian Stirk  Assistant Deputy Minister, Europe, Eurasia and Africa Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
  • Taras Zalusky  Executive Director, National Office, Ukrainian Canadian Congress
  • Lisa Shymko  Executive Director, Chair, Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Centre, Canadian Friends of Ukraine
  • Taras Kuzio  Senior Visiting Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, As an Individual

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

I'd like to welcome everybody to meeting number seven of the Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs and International Development and, pursuant to the orders of the day and Standing Order 108(2), our briefing on the situation in Ukraine.

I want to take time to once again thank our officials from DFAIT for taking time out of their busy days to come and give us a quick briefing. We have with us Jillian Stirk, who is the assistant deputy minister, Europe, Eurasia, and Africa bureau.

Welcome, Jillian.

We also have with us Leigh Sarty, director of the institutions, policy and operations division.

Welcome to you as well.

I believe that one of you has an opening statement.

Jillian, why don't we turn the floor over to you? You know how it works here, so we'll let you get started and then we'll try to get in a couple of rounds of questions. Thank you once again for being here. We are going to turn it over to you now.

8:50 a.m.

Jillian Stirk Assistant Deputy Minister, Europe, Eurasia and Africa Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Thank you, Mr. Chair and honourable

committee members.

Thank you for your invitation to appear this morning.

Our discussion about Ukraine is timely.

The political nature of the charges against former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the conduct of the judicial proceedings, and the sadly inevitable guilty ruling in that trial have brought into focus long-standing concerns about where Ukraine may be headed, particularly with respect to freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. These, as you know, are key priorities in Canada's principled foreign policy.

Canadian concerns about Ukraine's current trajectory are rooted in the deep historical links between our two peoples and the special partnership we have enjoyed since 1991, when Canada was the first western country to recognize a newly independent Ukraine. Canada has supported Ukraine throughout its independence and its efforts to transition into an open and democratic society. Canada's vibrant Ukrainian community now numbers 1.2 million members, and recent developments risk shattering the dream of these people for their ancestral homeland.

We should not lose sight, however, of the serious systemic challenges that independent Ukraine faced from the very first as the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s. More than 70 years of Soviet rule have proven to be an extremely difficult legacy to overcome. To this day, Ukraine does not have a truly effective civil society network. Governance structures remain weak and corruption persists at all levels of government and society.

The Orange Revolution of 2004-05 was seen at the time as a turning point for the Ukrainian people. Through the power of grassroots actions, the result of a flawed and unfair election was overturned. Hope abounded that Ukraine would overcome its authoritarian legacy and develop into a modern European country.

The 2005 constitutional compromise, which attempted to restructure relations between the executive and legislative branches of government, supported this hope. Positive developments in the form of new freedoms continued until 2010. However, the political system remained somewhat dysfunctional, progress on reform was halting, and democracy was not fully institutionalized.

Unfortunately, the politicians of the Orange Revolution were unable to overcome both systemic obstacles and their own internal differences to meet the expectations of their supporters.

In February 2010, Ukrainian voters, through elections that were deemed largely free and fair, placed the current President, Viktor Yanukovych, in power.

President Yanukovych has so far markedly changed Ukraine's domestic and foreign policies. The resulting political stability was a welcome change to the frenetic infighting and policy gridlock of the previous administration. Some specific, though limited reforms have been carried out.

Over time, however, it is clear that this has come at a cost. Through means that many Ukrainian legal experts consider illegal and inappropriate, President Yanukovych has enticed opposition parliamentary deputies to join his Party of Regions, pushing constitutional bounds to form a coalition and thereby gain a governing majority. He overturned the 2005 compromise constitution that had removed some of corruption-laden mechanisms of the Kuchma era. He has limited certain freedoms and forced through changes to electoral laws, which benefited his Party of Regions in the lead-up to local elections in October 2010.

The continued pervasiveness of corruption has also had an impact on the human rights situation. Journalists report increased harassment by the Security Service of Ukraine. Reporters Without Borders lists Ukraine at 131 out of 178 countries in its current press freedom index, and the NGO Freedom House downgraded Ukraine from “free” to “partly free” in its 2011 report.

Under the guise of fighting corruption, the government has arrested or detained members of the opposition. For example, Yuri Lutsenko, former Minister of the Interior, has been held in remand since December 26, 2010, on charges of misuse of budgetary funds. Fleeing charges, the former Minister of the Economy, Bohdan Danylyshyn, sought and acquired political asylum in the Czech Republic. Heorhiy Filipchuk, former Minister of Environment, was arrested in December 2010 for alleged abuse of power.

Then, of course, there is the case of Yulia Tymoshenko. As you know, on October 11, Madam Tymoshenko was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison and a $200-million fine to cover alleged losses inflicted on Naftogaz, the national gas company, due to the gas pricing agreement Madam Tymoshenko signed with Russia in 2009.

Canada is deeply concerned by the treatment of Ms. Tymoshenko and other Ukrainian opposition members, which sends a disturbing signal about the current state of Ukraine's judicial system. It would appear that that system is not appropriately independent and is therefore subject to interference in the service of apparently political goals.

We now understand new charges will be added, reinforcing questions about the independence of the judicial system.

While the policy of the government to date has been to build on our special partnership with Ukraine, to engage with the government and to cooperate with Ukrainians who seek to build a peaceful, democratic and prosperous society, this has not precluded delivering strong messages and constructive criticism when necessary.

On August 6, Minister Baird spoke out about the arrest of Ms. Tymoshenko, indicating that Canada was concerned by the appearance of politically motivated persecution, asserting that the appearance of political bias in judicial proceedings undermines the rule of law, and urging the Ukrainian government to strengthen judiciary independence.

In a statement to the House of Commons on September 29, Minister Baird once again urged the Ukrainian government to strengthen judiciary independence, underlining Canada's continued commitment to support efforts to build a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous society in Ukraine.

Both Minister Baird and the Prime Minister have also written letters to President Yanukovych in regard to the conduct of the Tymoshenko trial, expressing Canada's deep concern about the process and the appearance of political motivation.

Most recently, on October 11, Minister Baird issued a statement in reaction to the guilty verdict in the Tymoshenko trial, indicating that Canada intends to review our bilateral engagement with Ukraine. We are not alone in taking this approach. Both our U.S. and EU partners have indicated in strong terms that the outcome of the trial is indicative of deeper problems in Ukraine and will result in some reflection on the future of their respective relationships with Ukraine.

The EU is in the midst of finalizing an association agreement with Ukraine, the ratification of which members of the European parliament have indicated has been jeopardized by Ukraine's actions. The approach of our partners has been largely to favour engagement over isolation, an approach similar to Canada's.

We draw on our special partnership with Ukraine to access the highest political levels to ensure that our concerns are noted and taken seriously. Engagement with Ukraine takes place not only at official levels, but also with civil society organizations that exist in Ukraine. During Prime Minister Harper's visit to Ukraine in October 2010, he met with universities and church officials to demonstrate Canadian support for community efforts to make positive change.

During my own visit to Ukraine in June 2011, in meetings with civil society figures, I saw the positive dynamic these Ukrainians are making in their community and society. While political frustration exists, Ukrainians increasingly understand that they must take the future into their own hands, and they are doing so through civic involvement.

The longer-term impact of recent events remains to be seen, however; the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade will continue to monitor developments closely, including the expected appeals process in the Tymoshenko trial. Officials will develop the best possible advice to our ministers and conduct future relations with Ukraine in accordance with the guidance and direction we receive.

Ultimately, it is our Ukrainian friends themselves who must make a choice about their future: whether to accept the status quo and all that entails, or whether to reinvigorate efforts to build a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine. We, of course, hope they will take the latter path, on which they can be assured of Canada's continued strong support.

With that, I am happy to take questions.

Thank you once again for your invitation this morning.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you very much.

Just for the committee, we don't have any committee business planned for next Tuesday or Thursday. I was hoping we could take a little time, just as we wrap up here, to offer a few suggestions. Is that all right?

We do have time for two rounds, so let's start with Madame Laverdière. Then we will move along. We have time for two rounds.

Madame.

8:55 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Thanks as well to Ms. Stirk for her presentation, which was very interesting.

I wonder what opportunities there are for bringing diplomatic pressure to bear. What steps could we consider in order to put pressure on the Ukrainian government while maintaining this commitment and dialogue?

I'd also like to know to what extent we are trying to coordinate our efforts with those of the NGOs in the field and those of other countries, either bilaterally or through international organizations.

Thank you.

9 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Europe, Eurasia and Africa Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Jillian Stirk

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you for this interesting question.

It really goes to the heart of issue, which is how we balance, I would say, incentives with deterrence and the question of what kinds of avenues we have to continue to

put pressure on the Ukrainian government while maintaining open relations with the Ukrainian people.

As I previously mentioned, Canada has demonstrated leadership by sending stern key messages to Ukrainian authorities. Our ambassador is very active in the field and is taking part in the process.

He assists or participates at the trial of Madam Tymoshenko.

He has delivered messages directly to her informing her of our support during this process.

Of course, as the minister has indicated, we will be examining our bilateral relations and looking for further opportunities to signal our concern to the Ukrainian authorities. It will be really on a case-by-case basis.

If the objective is to support democracy, human rights,

the rule of law and so on, the question is how to find opportunities to do that, whether it's through statements or re-examining some of our bilateral cooperation as it warrants.

9 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Regarding coordination with other countries or consultation in other countries so that everybody speaks with the same voice, either bilaterally or in multilateral organizations, are there any other discussions? Do we have discussions with the U.S. or...?

Also, do we work specifically with NGOs on the ground?

9 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Europe, Eurasia and Africa Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Jillian Stirk

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Yes, we are in frequent contact with our American partners and with the European Union. We have consulted them and still consult them regularly, as well as other European countries. We have partly coordinated the messages that our ministers have sent and we are discussing the opportunities that we will have to show our dissatisfaction with the situation.

In terms of civil society, I would say that we have very good contacts on the ground. I think part of that is a result of the support that Canada has provided by helping some of these organizations develop their capacity over the years, through various technical assistance programs and so on.

Many of these NGOs have looked to Canada for advice and support over the years, so we maintain close ties with them. Certainly our embassy speaks to them and seeks their views on a regular basis.

In fact, as I mentioned, when I visited Ukraine earlier this year, in June, a good part of my program was spent meeting with NGO representatives to talk about the human rights situation, to get their perspectives on what was happening, and to talk about ways in which Canada could continue to support their efforts, which are of course aimed at strengthening Ukrainian institutions.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Hélène Laverdière Laurier—Sainte-Marie, QC

Regarding the free trade agreement we are negotiating with Ukraine, how will the current situation affect these negotiations?

9:05 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Europe, Eurasia and Africa Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Jillian Stirk

That's a very good question.

I think free trade agreements are important in the sense that they open new markets and they increase international trade and investment. I think they can help foster growth and prosperity--and free markets, which is of course an important objective.

Economic prosperity can also help a country acquire democratic institutions and support human rights.

As I've already said,

the challenge is balancing the incentives with the deterrents. The government will be watching the situation closely and we'll consider what would be the best way to proceed in the ongoing negotiations.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you.

We are going to move to Mr. Goldring.

October 20th, 2011 / 9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Goldring Edmonton East, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

My thanks go out to all the committee members and you, Mr. Chairman, for considering this very important issue.

Thank you to the witnesses for appearing here today. It's very timely.

I have to go back to the period of the Orange Revolution. At that time, there was a culture of intimidation, and I was there for the whole 10 days of it. I was there for the failed election. I saw the ballot box stuffing, and I actually have pictures of that ballot box stuffing, which is pretty incredible.

There was a sense, at that time, of not taking the election process seriously. It was, I suppose, the remnant of the Soviet style of dealing with elections, and so was the culture of intimidation. I was personally very, very intimidated. Attempts were made to scare me, to have me removed from the country. There were various methods: blood in my room, things delivered to me.... There were various issues that were pretty outrageous, but I took it in stride at the time because of the importance of what was going on.

What was going on, was this very real scenario of the citizens of the country were rising en masse and speaking out for their democratic freedom. This was real. When I would speak to them on that stage in Independence Square, the resounding roar that would come back when I would say to them that Canada was with them in their interests of improving and regaining their democratic institutions, that was very real.

But at that time, we had various media concerns. TV, of course, could broadcast pretty readily. The press seemed to be able to function and do their reporting, but the telephones wouldn't work. There was control over the telephones. They would click-click, or fail, or fade in and out. There were attempts to control that.

Could you characterize today, because of these committee meetings, and because of the take note debate in the House of Commons too, whether this is coming through to the citizens of Ukraine? Ultimately, it is up to the people of Ukraine: we can share all the concern we want here in these committee meetings, but ultimately, it's the people of Ukraine who have to express their concern. Are they expressing this concern today on the streets of Kiev or is there some holdback through the media? Is this coming through? Are they as concerned as we are?

9:05 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Europe, Eurasia and Africa Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Jillian Stirk

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

The honourable member I think puts a very important question before us. Indeed it's a complex issue. I would say that certainly there have been demonstrations associated with both the Tymoshenko trial and the overall situation in Ukraine--the loss of freedom, the continued abuse of human rights, the loss of press freedom, and so on. So there certainly are groups in Ukraine who continue to speak out, to question, who are trying to bring change to the country.

I think there is also a strong desire on the part of many Ukrainians for closer ties with the west. We see that in terms of their engagement with Canada. The pursuit of a free trade agreement and an association agreement with the EU is of course very much directed towards binding Ukraine to the western community of nations.

I would say there are conflicting forces at work in Ukraine. On the one hand, you see pressure on the judicial system. You see erosion of freedom and human rights and respect for the rule of law. One the other hand, I think there are important forces in Ukraine and many Ukrainians who seek a better future and are very much committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. I think they certainly look to countries like Canada for support in their efforts, seeking that brighter future.

That, of course, is one of the reasons why the government has been so active in delivering these kinds of messages, both publicly and privately, either during the Prime Minister's visit or in recent ministerial statements and so on. These are all I think an important element in supporting those democratic forces.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Peter Goldring Edmonton East, AB

We all know the history of Ms. Tymoshenko. She was very much involved in the Orange Revolution, very much one of the two principals of the revolution. The follow-up, of course, was that in the last presidential election she was in the final round with the president. Of course, the president was the president-elect in the failed election that started the Orange Revolution. So really he has been there in one form or another.

Is there a sense that this is politically based, this trying to do something particularly to prevent her from being a primary contender in the next go-round of elections? How is the media reporting this in Ukraine? What are the backgrounds to this? Or is this simply perceived to be a criminal charge about actions while in office?

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Ms. Stirk, I'll just let you know that you have about a minute.

9:10 a.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Europe, Eurasia and Africa Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Jillian Stirk

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I would say there's a very clear sense that this trial is politically motivated. I think that's understood in both Ukraine and abroad. Indeed, I think all of the statements that our government has made, and other governments have made as well, focus on the political nature of these charges and allegations and see this very much as interference with the judiciary.