Baird affirms Canada's commitment to Ukraine democracy development

OTTAWA – Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says Canada remains committed to long-term democratic development in Ukraine despite its recent tilt toward Russia and the violence that has spilled into its streets.

Canada will still send two dozen election monitors to the country’s byelections scheduled for next month, following last year’s contribution of a 500-member observer force.

The teams of observers are not solely a Conservative phenomenon; Former Liberal prime minister John Turner led a large team of international election monitors to Ukraine in 2004.

“We’re committed to work with the people of Ukraine in its democratic development and that’s a long-term commitment,” Baird told reporters Wednesday from Kyiv, the Ukraine capital, where violent protests were taking place.

“We’re engaged here because Ukraine matters, because Canada believes in the values of the Ukrainian people and we want to do all we can to support them in their aspirations.”

The minister was in Ukraine for a previously scheduled meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Baird noted that Canada was among the first countries to recognize Ukraine’s independence more than two decades ago after its split with the former Soviet Union.

Canada’s relations with the Ukraine are deeply rooted in successive waves of immigration that go back more than a century.

The protests began after President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned a major political and economic agreement with the EU to focus on Russia.

Baird met his Ukrainian counterpart, following up on a telephone call the previous week, to tell him that was a bad idea for his country.

“We believe the decision represents a significant lost opportunity in Ukraine’s path towards strengthened democratic development and economic prosperity.”

Canada recently signed an agreement in principle for a sweeping free trade agreement with the European Union.

Based on Baird’s account, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara, was not swayed.

“He relayed to me the government’s analysis and perspective on what had happened with respect to the protest.”

Baird encouraged Kozhara to ensure that those responsible for the violence, particularly against students and journalists, are brought to justice and face “an independent process to adjudicate” their crimes.

Baird also met opposition officials and civil society representatives. Baird said he was asked to consider an international effort to impose sanctions on Yanukovych, but he suggested that might be premature.

Baird said he’s urging both sides to engage in a constructive dialogue.

That’s the same approach being taken by the Council of Europe, a rights group which also met both sides on Wednesday.

Baird has also spoken to his counterparts from Sweden, Norway and Germany about possible next steps, but nothing concrete has been decided.

Three of Ukraine’s former presidents issued a written statement Wednesday that supports the protest movement and expresses their “solidarity with the peaceful civil actions of hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians.”