Queen In Disgrace: Canadian Task Force in Ukraine

Once she was the face of the Orange Revolution.With a peasant-braided hairstyle that she wore as a crown, Yulia Tymoshenko led mass protests that swept Ukraine in 2004. She was a leader of the Fatherland Party. In 2005, Forbes magazine pronounced her the third most influential woman in the world. Tymoshenko served twice as Prime Minister of Ukraine. In 2010, she became the first female to run in presidential elections. But shortly after losing to Victor Yanukovich, the queen of the Orange Revolution has fallen into disfavor, to put it mildly.

Today, Tymoshenko is a prisoner and a patient at a hospital in Kharkiv.

Shortly after Yanukovich became president, Tymoshenko was arrested and charged with allegations of abuse of her office in striking a gas deal with Russia in 2009. Analysts claim the deal was doomed because of market fluctuations and the country’s economic crisis – it was a political error, not a criminal offense. The court nevertheless found Tymoshenko guilty, also charging her with tax evasion and embezzlement.

She was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Many European countries and the United States condemned these actions against Tymoshenko; human rights organizations called them politically motivated, as other members of the opposition were also prosecuted.

In April, Tymoshenko went on a two-week hunger strike protesting her inhumane treatment in jail. Tymoshenko, who suffers from chronic back pain, said she was beaten by guards. As pictures of a bruised Tymoshenko emerged on TV screens and in newspapers, European leaders have been putting more pressure on the Ukrainian government to relent.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to attend a European summit in Yalta. Merkel went as far as calling Yanukovich’s regime “a dictatorship.” The leaders also halted the Association Agreement with Ukraine – an agreement aimed at bringing economic benefits to Ukraine. Earlier, some leaders threatened to boycott the EURO 2012 soccer championship to be hosted by Ukraine and Poland, but later withdrew their threat.

The members, however, are clear: EU doors will be shut to the Ukraine, as long as Tymoshenko remains in prison.

Why Canada Cannot Remain Neutral

While turmoil over Tymoshenko is broiling in Europe, Canada cannot afford to remain neutral.

To Canada, the Ukraine is more than just a faraway Eastern European country. Canada is home to 1.2 million Ukrainians, who settled in Western Canada 120 years ago. Today’s foreign policy is mostly built on bilateral trade agreements, too valuable for both countries to put at risk.

In 1994, Canada proclaimed Ukraine a “special partner.” Over the years, after signing several trade agreements, Canada has become one of the major exporters of fish, seafood, pork, pharmaceutical products and aircrafts; and importer of mineral fuels, oils, fertilizers, iron and steel. In 2010 alone, trade between the two countries totaled $252.2 million. In 2011, this number exceeded $507 million, according to Ukrainian embassy statistics.

This week, a Canadian delegation is paying a visit to the Ukraine to conduct hearings on economic, political and judicial issues, upcoming fall parliamentary elections as well as human rights.

Tymoshenko is in the limelight of Canada’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development hearings, led by Mississauga-Erindale MP Bob Dechert.

Taras Zalusky, an executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and a member of the delegation, said the committee has a busy schedule. Zalusky said that they have already met with Tymoshenko’s lawyers, as well as officials from the prosecutor’s office and of the ministry of justice. It’s a four-day visit, and the committee will present a report of their findings on Thursday.

Canada, Free-Trade Agreement and International Pressure

Canada and the Ukraine are in the process of round table talks on signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that will give Canadian businesses even broader access to the Ukrainian market without tariffs. The Foreign Affairs and International Trade website states that the FTA will be “consistent with Canada’s foreign policy objectives, which support Ukraine’s democratic transformation and economic reforms.”

Even though Rudy Husny, spokesman for Minister of Free Trade Ed Fast, said the government is “concerned by the apparently arbitrary and politically-biased nature of judicial proceedings against Ms. Tymoshenko, and other individuals, which undermines the rule of law;” Canada will still proceed with the FTA. Unlike Europe, Husny said, Canada does not believe in the politics of isolation. In fact, according to Husny, signing the FTA will foster economic growth in the Ukraine, which in its turn will help to “secure democracy where human rights are respected.”

The Ukrainian Stand

Marco Shevchenko, a chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of Ukraine, said he isn’t be able to comment on Tymoshenko’s case, claiming that neither diplomat or politician should interfere with the judicial process. Shevchenko only hopes that both governments won’t become hostages of political situations in their economic decision-making.

“We separate political and economic content,” Shevchenko said. “Both sides consider business above all.”

Shevchenko said Tymoshenko is planning to appeal her case to the Supreme Court of Ukraine.

Asked how the country could have fair parliamentary elections when the leader of the official opposition party is in prison, Shevchenko said, as a citizen of the Ukraine, he would never vote for a party that can’t survive without its leader.

On May 9, Tymoshenko ended her two-week fast and was transferred to the clinic to treat her back pain and the effects of her hunger strike. A German doctor was brought in to treat her. According to the latest news, after Kharkiv’s hospital made her treatment schedule publicly available, Tymoshenko refused to undergo any further treatment. The opposition leader says it is private information that is not to be shared.

It’s still unclear what the future holds for the Ukraine, a country that is torn between Europe and Russia. It’s unclear whether President Yanukovich will remain autocratic or make necessary democratic reforms before Europe turns its back on him. But what’s certain now – the disgraced queen of the Orange Revolution will still keep drawing the world’s attention.