By Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press
LVIV, Ukraine – A Ukrainian historian and a university rector who’ve been pressured and intimidated by their government received the special backing of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday as he concluded a trip designed to highlight Canada’s support for freedoms in the wavering democracy.
Harper was greeted at the steps of the Ukrainian Catholic University by Rev. Borys Gudziak, an American priest who was recently approached by internal security police about the activities of his Ukrainian students. They pressed him to rein in those who were protesting policies of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government.
“Society needs to be vigilant about its principles and about its freedoms,” said Gudziak, a soft-spoken man in a long back robe.
“Time and history have thrust this university at the forefront of these challenges, and I have trust that the many different friends that Ukraine has and the gumption that people in Ukraine have in themselves will help them weather this challenge.”
Harper delivered a speech in the university’s auditorium where he repudiated the failed ideology of communist regimes. He reminded the audience it was the Canadian government that first recognized Ukraine’s independence in 1991, even before the Soviet Union had been fully dismantled.
“Besides the bonds of kinship that exist between Canada and Ukraine, there are important values and principles to promote,” Harper said.
“As Canadians, we believe that a government must work in the interests of its people, not the other way around. We believe that countries that respect the rights of their own people are more likely to respect the rights of other nations and to be good world citizens.”
Harper had raised rights issues with Yanukovych a day earlier in Kyiv during bilateral talks. Yanukovych’s seven-month-old government has been accused of rolling back democratic gains brought in through the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004.
Much to the chagrin of Canada and other western powers, Ukraine has leaned once again toward Moscow, even approving the expansion of a Russian naval base on its territory.
The director of a museum that chronicles victims of oppression going back more than a century also got a visit from secret police earlier this year. They arrested Ruslan Zabilyj and seized materials he had been collecting on the Soviet resistance movement in Ukraine of the 1960s.
Harper toured the museum with Zabilyj, a stark, crumbling building with claustrophobic empty cells that had been used by successive authoritarian regimes until 1991. Here in 1941, 1,681 prisoners were executed by the Nazis and dumped into an adjoining courtyard.
Zabilyj said his file had become declared secret, and his ability to defend himself severely curtailed.
“Of course I was not ready for it, in fact I was quite astonished that in the 20th year of Ukraine’s independence such things would ever have happened because everywhere this country declares that we are building a legal state…. It’s an irony,” Zabilyj told reporters later.
Harper was trailed through his visit by members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community, which alerted the Canadian government to many of the issues the prime minister raised.
Frank Sysyn, of the University of Alberta’s Institute of Ukrainian Studies, said Harper’s trip was important.
“Ukraine is a society and a structure with a declining level of democracy,” Sysyn said.
“And so, if anyone cares about the future, not only of Ukraine but of the surrounding idea — and I would argue the future of Russia — the maintaining of Ukrainian democracy is extremely important.”