Mr. Chair, I am pleased to rise this evening to add my voice to those who have expressed their deep concern about recent developments in Ukraine, in particular the apparent political motivation behind the trial and conviction of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
My deep concern for the unfolding of recent events in Ukraine led me, as a member of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, to recently call for a committee study on the geopolitical realities of Canada-Ukraine relations today. As former chair and executive member and now vice-chair of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group, I have expressed concerns at many levels. It is important to raise our deep concerns when we officially can.
For Canadians who have followed Ukraine's development so closely since 1991, these latest developments are deeply troubling. How have things gone so wrong since the heady days of the Orange Revolution, and what can Canadians do to help Ukraine get back on a democratic track?
What happens in Ukraine is of particular interest to Canadians, for our ties with that country are strong: there are 1.2 million Ukrainian Canadians who have helped make Canada the successful, secure and democratic country that it is today.
My wife's family, the Taschuks, came to northern Alberta from Ukraine in the early 1900s. My wife Lorraine, my two daughters, Corinna and Kristina, and my three granddaughters, Katelin, Alexandra and Eleanor, are all of Ukrainian heritage.
Canada was the first western country to recognize Ukrainian independence in 1991. The transition to an open and democratic society after 70 years of Soviet rule, to say nothing of the years of the Tsarist regime before that, has been difficult. Almost from scratch, not just institutions but whole cultures of dialogue and trust have had to be developed, and that development is not yet complete. Ukraine suffers from the weaknesses of civil society, and governance structures remain fragile.
I was in Ukraine as a monitor for the failed election of November 2004 and personally witnessed and photographed massive electoral ballot box stuffing. I stayed on, on my own funding, as the only Canadian politician to report on the Orange Revolution and was constantly followed and intimidated. I was there to see the end of the discord of the revolution in a burst of fireworks over Independence Square, signalling an agreement, success and hopefulness for the future.
I have returned to Ukraine six times since then, five times as an election monitor and once to take part in the annual parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE, and I witnessed the growing political frustration and discord. While many positive changes did take place, such as increased media and political freedom, many of the population's hopes were not met. Corruption, for example, was not tackled and continued to permeate all levels of government and society.
In the 2010 presidential elections observed by myself for the OSCE and judged to be free and fair, Yanukovych became president, and while democratic development had failed to move forward under the previous president, under Yanukovych's administration it is being forced back.
As we all know, elections in and of themselves are not enough to allow a democracy to grow. A vibrant civil society and active and independent media are essential components of democracy. The current Ukraine administration has been hampering democratic development on all fronts. It has been arresting former members of the opposition, ostensibly on charges of corruption, but those charges consistently change as the judicial process progresses.
An open and democratic society invites thought, innovation, enterprise and investment. A closed society can only feed on itself, and eventually there is nothing left but a hollow shell that can only implode. After 70 years of Soviet rule, Ukrainians know this better than most. We must engage with Ukrainians to support their desires to build a democratic and free society. This cannot mean, however, that we sacrifice our principles for the sake of engagement.
Canada will repeat its criticisms of shortcomings that threaten the building of a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ukraine. It is through this type of critical engagement that Canada can most effectively support the Ukrainian urge for freedom and democracy.