Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, along with a small entourage of Conservative MPs and Ukrainian Canadians, began a tour of the country’s scarred capital Kyiv this morning, paying respects to the dozens who died in demonstrations last week against recently ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, and meeting with Ukraine’s new political leadership.
The visit underlines Canada’s absolute support for the new authorities in Ukraine, and for the revolution that brought them to power—even as Yanukovych, now in Russia, claims he remains Ukraine legitimate president, and as Russia denounces and threatens the new government by deploying troops outside their permitted base in Crimea and drilling thousands more near Russia’s border with Ukraine.
“Canada is not a referee in the world,” Baird said, when asked if his strong backing of Ukraine’s revolutionary government might hinder Canada’s ability to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv. “We are standing up for freedom, human rights, and the rule of law.”
Baird’s visit began with a walk through Kyiv’s Independence Square and surrounding streets, which are still crisscrossed with barricades and heaps of rubble. Wearing a scarf with the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine, he placed flowers where sniper fire killed several, including a 17-year-old boy, and examined trees and lampposts still pockmarked with bullets.
He spoke with men guarding a barricade, and told them their courage was inspiring. One, worried about possible Russian designs on Ukrainian territory in the east and in Crimea, mentioned the 1994 Budapest Security Memorandum in which America, Britain and Russia pledged to respect Ukraine’s existing borders and to refrain from using or threatening force against its territorial integrity and political independence. Baird said Canada would “fight for that.”
A woman, tearful, wandered nearby among the flowers and debris. “Yanukovych … Yanukovych,” she said, gesturing around her. She was quite upset. One can only assume she would have broken down completely, had been she been subjected to the callous humour of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau or the distressing moral ambiguity of the NDP. Fortunately, she was saved from such trauma by the Canadian government, which kept non-Conservative parliamentarians out of the delegation.
Leaving Independence Square, Baird stopped at another barricades and picked up a large hunk of broken brick. One of his guides said protester had hurled such missiles at the special police assaulting them. Baird weighed the brick in his hand, tossing it up and down a few times, and looking thoughtful. He kept it with him.
From there it was on to the headquarters of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party. Tymoshenko, one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution a decade ago, and a former prime minister, has just been released from prison where she was jailed on charges many believe were politically motivated. There was a small European Union flag at the entrance to the party’s headquarters and numerous very large photographs of Tymoshenko inside, smiling broadly and beautifully in every one. There she was with her arm around a small child, meeting supporters decked out in traditional costumes, being shown how to mould clay on a pottery wheel by a handsome man in straw hat. The latter looked how a still from the movie Ghost might have had it been made for children.
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In person, Tymoshenko is frailer. She has a severe back injury. When she spoke to the crowd in Independence Square immediately after her release, she was confined to a wheelchair. Today she managed to stand with help, hopping slightly to keep her balance.
“I would like, through you, to thank all Canadians. You have been among our strongest supporters,” she told Baird.
Baird again praised Ukrainian courage. Tymoshenko nodded. “What’s been done will change the history of Ukraine, and not just Ukraine,” she said.
Then it was to St. Michael’s Monastery, where the wounded and dead were brought. Out front, a work crew was unloading an enormous gold samovar that would be heated by a roaring fire and is big enough to provide tea for hundreds. Apparently the manufacturer had given it to Kyiv as a gift.
“Very nice,” Baird said. It was.
The wounded came here because they were afraid, with reason, of what would happen to them if they went to official hospitals where state security services could find them. Speaking privately, Baird described the targeting of wounded in hospitals and threats against those who treated them as “despicable” and said Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces did the same.
Baird met with a priest and thanked him for welcoming the delegation. The priest replied that he didn’t have much choice. “How could we not? The church is always open to all people.”
The priest said they did what they had to do during the fighting: comforting the afflicted, and praying for both sides to turn away from violence and provocation. There are still medical protesters’ tents and a medical clinic on the monastery grounds.
Baird said it was “by the grace of God” that more people didn’t die. He then announced $200,000 in medical aid for Ukrainians. The money will be funneled through the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Renaissance Foundation, a Ukrainian NGO founded by George Soros that focuses more on building civil society than emergency medical relief.
Canada is committed to standing with Ukraine, Baird said before leaving the monastery and walking past the giant samovar that was now being blessed by priests. Its future, he said, will be difficult.