OTTAWA, Canada – The announcement in September that Andriy Shevchenko would become Ukraine’s new ambassador to Canada, came as a surprise to many, and not least to the man himself.
Shevchenko, 39, had no background in diplomacy. A former journalist and a seasoned lawmaker, he hesitated to accept. But nine months after relocating to Canada, Shevchenko, an interview with the Kyiv Post in his office in Ottawa, looked to have settled comfortably into his new role, calling it “fascinating.”
Even though he believes he was an “unorthodox” pick, he understands why he was picked: his experience in communications outweighed his lack of diplomatic experience.
“Diplomacy is changing. Especially nowadays, when we have to foster international support for Ukraine… communications are key,” Shevchenko says. “My mission here in Canada is to tell the truth…find powerful, persuasive, candid words to explain what is going on in Ukraine.”
Those skills were honed during Shevchenko’s 12 years as a journalist. But his experience in politics comes handy too, he says.
“Politics is the art of forging coalitions. And this is exactly what Ukraine needs right now: building a broad coalition among different interests to support Ukraine’s fight for freedom and sovereignty,” Shevchenko says.
Though it might seem he’s been in politics forever, in fact he took this path only in 2006. Before that, he spent 12 years as a journalist and media manager. He worked as a reporter for TV news services, including Voice of America and several major Ukrainian TV channels. In 2003, Shevchenko co-founded Channel 5, Ukraine’s first 24/7 TV news channel, owned by President Petro Poroshenko, and came up with its slogan: “The channel of honest news.”
In the early 2000s, Shevchenko led the anti-censorship movement of Ukrainian journalists. He participated in the 2004 Orange Revolution of 2004, and the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution.
He was elected to parliament in 2006 on Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshyna Party list and has stuck with the same party ever since.
But the media continued to be Shevchenko’s main interest. For five years, he was either head or deputy head of the parliament’s Committee for Free Speech, until lawmakers loyal to then-President Viktor Yanukovych removed him.
In 2011, he authored the Bill on Access to Public Information – a crucial law for journalists that opened up data of state agencies.
Ukraine as priority
Canada, which boasts the largest Ukrainian diaspora and which has been a stalwart ally of Ukraine since the country’s birth in 1991, has changed since a new government came to power with the Liberal Party’s victory in the 2015 election.
While the previous government marshaled Western efforts to pressure Russia to pull out of Ukraine, newly appointed Foreign Minister Stephane Dion said he wants to restore a “true dialogue between Canada and Russia.” Dion’s statement and has been perceived by some as betrayal of Ukraine.
Dion’s opposition to the Sergei Magnitsky Law appears even more alarming. The law, named after the lawyer who died of maltreatment in a Russian prison in 2009, imposes sanctions on Russian officials responsible for human rights violations.
Shevchenko said, however, that Canada will remain a staunch supporter of Ukraine, despite despite Dion’s view. Shevchenko also notes that Canada shares a long unprotected border with Russia, just like Ukraine. Russia’s ambitious territorial claims in the Arctic, coupled with its increasing military presence, create a threat to the national security of Canada.
One of the key challenges for Shevchenko is that half of Canada’s parliament is now comprised of newly-elected members, who are still shaping their priorities. “We need time to create connections and ensure Ukraine stays high on their agenda,” Shevchenko said.
Shevchenko said he succeeded in “getting Crimea back into the conver sation.” He recalls the latest G7 meeting, where Canada insisted on including in the final statement a reference to possible expansion of sanctions because of Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
Canada’s special relationship with Ukraine is based upon the ties of 1.2 million of Ukrainian-Canadians with their ancestral homeland. Civil society organizations, like the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, are powerful lobbying forces.
In a recent Vyshyvanka Day flashmob organized by Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program interns on May 17, dozens of MPs and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau celebrated Ukrainian culture by wearing traditional embroidery shirts – vyshyvankas – to work.
Boosting business ties
A priority area Shevchenko is trade and investment relations. His major objective is the signing of the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement. The agreement will eliminate 98 percent of existing tariff barriers. IT and agriculture will be among the first industries to benefit. The deal is expected to be signed during Trudeau’s Kyiv scheduled for July 11-12.
Although an immediate boost in bilateral trade and investment is expected, Shevchenko noted that many Canadian companies will still have to be won over. Several firs had a negative experience with Ukraine in the 1990s and 2000s.
“We have to find strong arguments to persuade them it’s worth giving Ukraine a second chance,” Shevchenko said
In anticipation of the trade deal, several hundred Ukrainian and Canadian business representatives and government officials gathered in Toronto on June 20-21 for the “Canada and Ukraine: Open for Business” business forum. The event focused on IT, agriculture, logistics and infrastructure, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.
A possibility of Canada canceling visas for Ukraine came onto the agenda this year when Ukrainian Canadian Nick Krawetz initiated a House of Commons petition calling for Ukrainians to be granted visa-free travel for up to 90 days.
Krawetz has managed to secure the support of 118 members of parliament and Canadian senators for a resolution calling for visa cancellation.
Shvchenko, however, takes a more realistic view of Ukraine’s chances to gain visa-free travel, estimating that “it will take years, if not decades to achieve.
“But we need to start somewhere,” Shevchenko said.
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