Democracy in Ukraine

Paul Wells on the Harper government’s decision to exclude opposition members from its delegation
Ukraine’s opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk (C) addresses anti-government protesters during a rally in Kiev February 18, 2014. Ukrainian riot police advanced on the heart of 12-week-old protests against President Viktor Yanukovich on Tuesday and security forces set a deadline to end disturbances after at least five protesters were reported killed in a day of clashes. REUTERS/Andrew Kravchenko/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTX192AG
Ukraine's new leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk. (Andrew Kravchenko/Pool/Reuters)
Ukraine’s new leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk. (Andrew Kravchenko/Pool/Reuters)

Ukraine government. It probably won’t last long: If presidential elections are held as scheduled on May 25, the results might influence the composition of the government. If elections aren’t held on May 25, it’ll probably be because some kind of bigger trouble has reared its head. But meanwhile, it’s the government members of Canada’s Conservative party will be meeting tomorrow.

I like what Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the new PM, has been saying since he got the job yesterday. He calls membership in his cabinet “political suicide” and has announced that he has no intention of running for the presidency. This is the tough talk of somebody intent on pushing through the kind of democratic and pro-market reforms that have made Poland’s GDP growth far more robust than Ukraine’s. But he’s young and prickly, his country is badly divided, Russia will be making mischief, and his government is very far from ideal. Another opposition party has declined to participate in the government while its leader, Vitali Klitschko, runs for president. Some cabinet ministers are members of far-right nationalist parties. The agriculture minister made close to $2 million in agriculture in 2012, which, in Eastern Europe, is not an encouraging portent for corruption-free government.

Still, it shows many of the signs of serious people engaged in serious business. Heroes of the Maidan demonstrations are elevated to cabinet rank despite limited political backgrounds. And, of course, the government is multi-partisan, because now is not a time for faction. This is why the Harper government’s thuggish and pouty explanation for excluding opposition MPs from this weekend’s Ukraine trip by foreign minister John Baird is so galling. 

Justin Trudeau made a joke, and suddenly no Liberal deserves to dirty a proper Conservative airplane, says the PM’s latest spokesman, Jason MacDonald. “This is not a laughing matter. Mr. Trudeau’s comments about Russia and Ukraine were neither helpful nor did they contribute positively to Canada’s efforts to assist the Ukrainian people, and as a result there’s no role for the Liberals in this government mission.”

As for the NDP, Paul Dewar made some inept comments about John Baird choosing European over pro-Russian sentiment, back in December, so Jason MacDonald won’t let them into the champagne room either. “The NDP wouldn’t pick a side, unlike our government, which has been steadfast in the support for the Ukrainian people. Until they decide on what they stand for, they, like the Liberals, shouldn’t be part of this government delegation.”

The least offensive thing here is the phrase “on what they stand for,” which is already enough to have English grammar pleading for mercy. It’s also worth noting that if MacDonald’s test is “deciding on what they stand for,” the NDP would pass that test by asking to join the delegation. So if the PMO’s message meant anything more than “Stick it in your ear,” then its own logic, to the extent any can be discerned, would defeat it.

The insult here is not to the opposition parties, as such. The government is not obliged to take Chrystia Freeland and Paul Dewar anywhere, and could simply have said, “We’re taking government MPs for this trip, because that’s easier logistically, but we welcome every Canadian’s interest in ensuring democracy and freedom spread as far as they can go on this Earth.” And the Conservatives are not the only players here who should be judged harshly if they cannot keep their eye on the ball. Ukraine has most of the infrastructure of a modern European country. If any New Democrat or Liberal wants to see it more than they want to complain about being left behind, they can be there by Monday.

But MacDonald’s stated rationale — the prime minister’s stated rationale, because of course he’s the one for whom MacDonald was speaking — is a depressing and all too characteristic stew of resentment, false piety, guilt by association and jumped-up, arrogant gatekeeping on behalf of people who actually weren’t asking for Stephen Harper’s help as their doorman. Ukraine’s opposition politicians and ordinary citizens, thrown together by fate and an extraordinary run of good luck that could end any minute, are doing the best they can. They are reaching across boundaries of ideology and clan, putting stale fights behind them, bracing for hard times in hope of better. Success will mean a country larger than France with a population larger than Poland’s will one day take its rightful place among Europe’s most prosperous and powerful nations. Failure will mean blood and poverty in a land that has already seen far too much of both. Ukrainians have no time to waste on asinine grudges, and Stephen Harper insulted them this week by exporting his own.