Ukraine is making front-page news around the world once again with thousands of people protesting against the government. Canada has already shown to be one of Ukraine's strongest allies during this time, but more needs to be done to build stronger economic and political links in the next few weeks and months.
Last month, thousands of protesters poured onto the main square in the capital city Kyiv, and are staying there indefinitely. They are concerned citizens who want Ukraine to be in the European Union. Yet, the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, abruptly refused to sign a major agreement with the EU in late November. An outraged public took unprecedented steps to blockade the main square demanding the president reverse his decision.
Additionally, President Yanukovych declared his intentions to build stronger links with the Customs Union, which consists of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. All of these countries have poor records in tackling corruption, allowing freedom of speech and ensuring judicial independence. According to Transparency International's website, Russia is ranked 127th out of 177 in the perception-of-corruption index, 142nd out of 179 in the press-freedom index and 123rd out of 142 in judicial independence. The other two partners in the Customs Union have similar rankings.
Government officials ordered police to brutally disperse the protesters at night -- a move that resulted in bigger protests calling for the president and the cabinet to step down now.
Russia's government is using a carrot-and-stick approach with Ukraine, and so far the EU has only used a carrot. A few months ago, Russia blocked the import of goods from Ukraine, but this month they offered a $15-billion loan and cheaper gas prices to bail out Ukraine's government.
That being said, U.S. Sen. John McCain is considering introducing targeted sanctions against Ukraine's leaders if they continue to use excessive force. This proposal will force the Ukrainian elite to rethink their current political strategy toward the West unless they want to spend all of their vacations in Sochi in the future.
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and the members of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress, which represents Ukrainian organizations in Canada, recently travelled to Ukraine to meet with Ukraine's foreign minister, leaders of the opposition and the protesters. Canada's message was heard loud and clear -- a crackdown on protesters is unacceptable and suspension of the negotiations with the EU is disappointing.
Canada should play a major role in brokering a deal between the EU and Ukraine in the coming weeks. Canada recently signed a major agreement with the EU and is negotiating a free-trade agreement with Ukraine. Ukrainian Canadians, including Winnipeggers, have rallied across Canada in support of Ukraine's EU integration and welcome support of fellow Canadians.
Canada has a strong history of bridge-building, so the federal government could appoint a special envoy who will work with the EU, Ukraine and Russia to achieve Ukraine's EU integration, while taking into consideration Ukraine's historical and economic ties with Russia.
A majority of the press stay silent on the religious and cultural ties between citizens in eastern and southern Ukraine and Russia. Millions of people don't necessarily support the president, but they also don't want their country to cut ties with Russia completely.
Ukraine's share of trade between the two sides is slightly in favour of the Customs Union, with 30 per cent of exports going west and 40 per cent of imports going east. However, the EU has a bigger and more transparent market that plays by the rules, not with the rules.
Canada's envoy should demand prosecution of those who are responsible for ordering the police to beat up protesters. No one should be charged for peacefully protesting against the government.
Canada has to establish a road map for the EU integration of Ukraine that will include not only economic incentives, but plans to ensure freedom of press and free elections. Ukraine's opposition needs to be at the table during these negotiations.
As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt recently tweeted, "We believe free trade between Ukraine and Russia is good. But Ukraine should have the right to have free trade with the EU as well."
If all of these efforts fail, Canada should work with the U.S. and the EU on plan B, i.e. the stick.
Denys Volkov is a political analyst on Ukraine and holds a Masters degree in public administration from the universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg.