By John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail Update
Stephen Harper left for his trip to La Francophonie and Ukraine under a cloud.
His Conservative government’s “principled stand,” as the Prime Minister liked to call it, on human rights had lost it so many friends that Canada was shunned in its bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The timing of the subsequent visit to Ukraine was coincidental, but fortuitous. Mr. Harper used the opportunity to showcase Canada’s concern with the increasingly heavy-handed regime of President Viktor Yanukovych.
He earned the gratitude of Ukrainians – at least those few who heard him.
Things are not good here. At Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Father Borys Gudziak, the university’s rector, told of visits by government officials, warning against student demonstrations. Educators are seeing “practices that we haven’t seen since Soviet times,” he told journalists.
“The fear is subcutaneous,” he told reporters. “You scratch the skin and it’s under the surface.”
Since Mr. Yanukovych, who favours much closer ties with Russia, was elected last February after the Orange Revolution collapsed in internal disarray, arrests and harassment of dissident voices have increased by the month.
“The regime pushes constantly, everywhere, to see if there is a reaction. If there is no reaction, they push harder” said Frank Sysyn, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian studies. He is in Lviv on sabbatical.
In an address to a gathering of students, Mr. Harper reminded them of the evils their country endured under the domination of Soviet Russia. “It is a past that must not be forgotten, that must never be swept under the carpet,” he reminded them.
“Remember that in Canada you have friends,” he concluded, “friends who respect and admire Ukraine’s heart for freedom, its spirit of national self-determination, and the courage of its people, a courage that has never deserted you, even in the darkest nights of your long history.”
Mr. Harper toured a museum housed in a former prison in Lviv where thousands were interrogated, tortured and many killed by the Soviets and the Nazis. But the new government seems determined to suppress the files that were being researched and released.
“This all means we’re going back to the Soviet practice,” said Ruslan Zabilyj, the museum’s director. He has been detained by internal security police and may be facing criminal charges for revealing state secrets.
Then the Prime Minister toured St. George’s Cathedral, nearby. The Church was severely repressed during the years of Soviet occupation.
Most of Europe is quiescent as democracy in Ukraine erodes. The continent is dependent on Russian oil and gas, and looks away as Russia seeks to increase its influence over Ukraine. Only the Baltic and Nordic states, Britain, the United States and Canada are taking notice, Prof. Sysyn said.
“This is one country where what Canada says gets noticed,” he observed, because of the 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent.
Mr. Harper’s strong stand in the wake of the fiasco at the United Nations bolsters the Conservative argument that promoting human rights is worth the cost.
And notwithstanding the implied criticism of the regime, Mr. Harper signed several initiatives with the Yanukovych government, and pursues free trade negotiations even as Mr. Harper pointedly reminds the regime about the importance of human rights and freedoms.
It doesn’t seem to matter. Every person interviewed here, in Kiev and Lviv, expressed their appreciation for the Prime Minister’s approach.
“Harper has struck exactly the right tone,” said Prof. Sysyn.