Exporting help and hope From donated hockey gear to principled police training to national election monitoring, Winnipeggers are making a difference in Ukraine's struggle to free itself of Russia's influence

NOVOYAVORIVSK, Ukraine — Teenagers stand in a line at a suburban hockey rink, applauding by banging their sticks on the ice while an announcer hands out awards for the most-improved players.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/05/2019 (1227 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

NOVOYAVORIVSK, Ukraine — Teenagers stand in a line at a suburban hockey rink, applauding by banging their sticks on the ice while an announcer hands out awards for the most-improved players.

Ivan Sysak, 18, is one of the star players, having played defence since joining the Galician Lions Hockey Club in 2013. 

His family is part of the country’s fledgling middle class, fuelled by foreign firms slowly starting to invest in Ukraine, thanks to difficult anti-corruption reforms.

“It’s an interesting time to live in this country,” Sysak says with a wry smile. His club counts more than 200 players between the ages of six and 18. The jersey sleeves are adorned with the Ukrainian flag, but underneath many is equipment donated by Winnipeggers.

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Ivan Sysak, left, and Mykhailo Chikantsev relish their opportunity.

“In Canada, hockey is really developed. The gear, the training — everything Canada gave has really helped us.”

The team was founded in 2011 and, last year, a Winnipeg group — Canadian Friends of Hockey in Ukraine — gathered donations to help it expand. Thousands of Winnipeggers trace their roots to this area of western Ukraine, including former NHL players — and transplanted Edmontonians — Dave and Wayne Babych, who came to help with training last fall.

“We want to teach good sportsmanship, and help them reach their potential, especially girls,” said Vern Zatwarnicki, one of the group’s co-ordinators.

“We want to show them that someone from a small town, in Canada or Ukraine, can produce stars.”

Liudmyla Sayenko got her eight-year-old son, Tymofii, into the hockey program thanks to the free equipment.

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Liudmyla Sayenko enrolled her eight-year-old son Tymofii into the Galician Lions Hockey Club, thanks to equipment donated by Winnipeggers. She says team sports can help build character in youth.

“In our country, many different things can be happening, but it’s important to bring up our youth in a right way, to make them strong and conscious citizens,” she says.

“I think sports, and especially team sports like hockey, help shape young people and build their personality.”

The alternatives are far less palatable, both for the youths and for their fearful parents.

Ukraine has lost an estimated 13,000 lives in a war that began with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. And far-right groups have found a willing constituency for their extremist views in angry, violent teens who have little to fear from indifferent, often corrupt, authorities who turn a blind eye to the race- and religion-based mayhem.

Welcome to a country struggling to get out from under its long history of Russian — and before that, Soviet — control. A country where current and former Winnipeggers are working in myriad ways to help Ukrainians find their place in the world in a modern, successful, democratic state.

● ● ●

Marko Suprun compares his parents’ homeland to the Winnipeg Jets.

“Ukraine is an underdog, in my opinion. And I want to support the underdog,” he says.

Suprun and his wife Ulana moved to Kyiv shortly after the 2013 protests started. Thousands had occupied the city’s Independence Square over the government’s backsliding of plans to further integrate with the European Union, conceding to pressure from Russia.

Suprun was raised in Winnipeg’s North End, and Ulana grew up in Michigan; both had Ukrainian families who passed along their language and history. The couple spent the previous decade moving around Europe and the United States for his work in publishing and hers in medicine.

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Marko Suprun grew up in Winnipeg. He now works in Ukraine combating disinformation.

The two arrived in Ukraine the evening of Nov. 29, 2013, a turning point in the protests. Police dispersed young protesters with stun guns and tear gas, and tried blocking all mobile communications.

“Things changed drastically,” he says. “It started to turn out into the beginning of a real revolution.”

The move shocked the public and prompted anti-government demonstrations across the country. In three months, the Parliament ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych, who now lives in exile.

Suprun’s wife, a trained doctor, helped co-ordinate an underground medical system — office buildings and apartments were transformed into makeshift clinics — because protesters sent to hospital were often arrested for civil unrest.

Ulana eventually helped co-ordinate medical training and humanitarian donations from the Ukrainian diaspora. This first helped protesters, and then Ukrainian army units, when Russia invaded in February 2014.

Suprun helped translate for foreign journalists. But he was troubled by reporters asking questions that echoed Kremlin talking points, which he says didn’t reflect the reality on the ground.

For example, reporters conflated politicians who wanted to put quotas on Russian-language broadcasts with violent, far-right groups.

Suprun wasn’t alone in that concern. By March 2014, journalism students at a local university convinced their department to launch Stop Fake, a website and online broadcast debunking Russia propaganda. Suprun helps run the fact-checking agency.

The website dissects news reporting in Russian, Ukrainian and English, linking to primary sources to verify and challenge the information presented.

In July 2014, Russian media aired a report of Ukrainian troops crucifying a three-year-old boy in the public square of Sloviansk, a city of 100,000, because of his family’s support for Russia. But Russian newspaper reporters couldn’t find anyone in the town who witnessed it.

“There’s this very big discordancy between what is being fed in the Russian narrative and what the reality on the ground is. That’s how I got here,” Suprun says, speaking inside a Kyiv office that is crammed with books, first-aid kits and broadcasting equipment.

The idea is to undercut inaccurate messaging within Ukraine’s borders that could incite Russian-speakers to take action against their own country. Stop Fake also tries to push back on false information presented to audiences in the West that could impact policymakers.

In the leadup to the European Union lifting visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens, news sites started inferring that sex workers would be fanning out across the continent. Despite little evidence, Suprun fears such reporting is enough for bureaucrats to delay policy changes, as they try to conduct more research.

“The truth has really been taken hostage in this gulag of disinformation,” he says. “We’re the ones that now have to fight for the truth to set it free.”

“The truth has really been taken hostage in this gulag of disinformation…We’re the ones that now have to fight for the truth to set it free.”

Sometimes the propaganda takes jabs at Canada.

In January, the channel Russia One aired a nine-minute prime-time segment on Canadians “meddling” in Ukraine.

The report started with a photo of Manitoba MPs MaryAnn Mihychuk and James Bezan clutching a Ukrainian flag.

Suprun warns Russia will ramp up divisive, fake news stories as the Canadian federal election nears in October.

“Canada’s being hit; they’re already setting up the main narratives,” he says citing Russia’s effort two years ago to publicize the family history of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose grandfather worked for a newspaper that was taken over by the Nazis.

“They say the government is under control by a rabid Ukrainian diaspora, which is just ridiculous,” Suprun says.

His wife went from grassroots medical support to working within the reformed Health Department. Former president Petro Poroshenko gave the couple Ukrainian citizenship, and made her the acting health minister in July 2016.

Ukraine’s future is deeply personal for Suprun, whose parents emigrated from the country and died before the protests began.

“Part of me was actually happy that my parents passed away, because they didn’t have to live through seeing another Russian invasion. But then another part of me was sad that they weren’t around to see the reaction and the consolidation of Ukrainians, to prevent it from happening again,” he says, fighting back tears.

“If we don’t put everything into this, we’re going to lose big — and not just Ukraine, but the world.”

● ● ●

Not far from the hockey arena outside Lviv, a group of teenagers killed a young man last June.

Police say a group of seven youths, all aged 16 and 17 years old and part of a neo-Nazi group, attacked a Roma family using knives, pipes and chains. A 24-year-old man later died in hospital.

Roma, members of an ethnic group that lives on the margins of society, are frequently victims of discrimination, prejudice, and hate in many parts of Europe, particularly in the east. They are often referred to as gypsies.

Dylan Robertson / Winnipeg Free Press Swastikas at public school in Kyiv.

The leader of Ukraine’s national police force noted the attack came after a handful of incidents in which teens claiming allegiance to far-right movements had been arrested for setting fire to Roma tent encampments.

The local mayor blamed police for not taking those previous arsons seriously enough, despite warnings from groups such as Human Rights Watch.

The knife attack took place in the village of Sokilnyky, where residents say those longstanding tensions remain.

“Of course it can happen again,” phys-ed teacher Yura Kovalyk says, watching children run around on a field covered in artificial turf.

The attacks are a warning sign of a society where anyone can fall through the cracks, he says.

Dylan Robertson / Winnipeg Free Press Phys-ed teacher Yura Kovalyk says the lack of opportunity and a weak social-safety net drive people to crime.

“People aren’t protected enough, whether it’s the economy or the cops,” he says. “It triggers things.”

Hooligans can go after any minority, in this case when people believe stereotypes about Roma people stealing, and police turning a blind eye, Kovalyk says.

“People are paid a pittance and they get resentful,” he says, a point made by several other residents. 

Kovalyk says he ran his own business, until he injured his leg four years ago. He went from making $1,350 a month to a teacher’s salary of $335. The average monthly wage in Ukraine is about $475.

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Construction worker Mykhailo Chyzhevskiy, outside a restaurant in Sokilnyky, says about 40 per cent of his peers have left for Poland for work.

Outside the local restaurant, construction worker Mykhailo Chyzhevskiy says about 40 per cent of his peers have gone to Poland to find work over the past five years. Ukraine is trying to get its economy on track after cutting some economic ties with Russia. Poland’s booming labour market has welcomed an estimated two million Ukrainians, everyone from factory hands to doctors.

“The army seems like it’s helping with unemployment,” he says cynically, with a shrug.

● ● ●

The head of the country’s security service says the fatal knife attack could have been engineered by Russia as a means of revving up ethnic tensions within Ukraine, though he provides no evidence.

Far-right violence is politically explosive in Ukraine. Authorities tread carefully when they talk about the issue, for fear of playing into Russian propaganda.

Russia’s TV networks largely ignore documented human-rights abuses in Crimea and other regions. But they’ll link events such as the fatal stabbing to Ukrainians who collaborated with Nazi forces in the Second World War.

The hardline nationalist Azov Battalion, whose logo resembles a swastika, is now part of the national army. The volunteer militia helped recapture a major city from Russian soldiers, and the government welcomed how effective the unit was at the start of the conflict, though welcome has worn off as international observers documented torture and war crimes.

Canada and other countries have refused to work with the group in military-training operations.

Yet polling by the Pew Research Center shows Ukraine has some of the most tolerant attitudes toward minorities among Eastern European countries.

Suprun says media should instead focus on the war Russia started five years ago.

“So, 13,000 people have lost their lives and we’re being fed this construct that (far-right violence) is the biggest threat,” he says. “When journalists start to say stuff like that, I start to equate it with yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.”

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS According to Roman Waschuk, Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, the two countries remain deeply connected. ‘Canada actually plays a disproportionate role here, given geography and other considerations.’

Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, says his office has helped the country’s police force train officers about minority communities. He notes that in this spring’s presidential vote, hardline candidates got single-digit support.

“This is not where people’s minds are at. It’s more of a societal-tolerance and law-enforcement issue at this point,” he says. “Ukraine has obviously international commitments. But societies need to evolve, as well. We’re trying to help that evolution. But we’re not seeing a kind of rightward lurch as a society.”

● ● ●

Tom Monastyrski gasps for air as he mounts the stairs of a drab concrete office building. On his way to the sixth floor, he passes a line of young men and women in bullet-proof vests, gripping the stairway railing as they they peer at the floor above. A few of them smile and wave.

Of all the things Ukraine has changed in the past five years, its police force is likely the most successful, says Monastyrski, who hails from East Kildonan and now oversees Canada’s Police Training Assistance Program.

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Members of the police training program in Kyiv.

“We could’ve installed an elevator,” he says, catching his breath. “But there are better ways to use that money.”

During the 2014 protests, riot police cracked down on pro-Western demonstrators, firing rubber bullets and, occasionally, live ammunition. For many, it was the culmination of years of widespread police corruption, along with documented human-rights abuses.

When Ukraine’s president fled to Russia and a new government took hold, one of its first reforms was to reboot the police force.

Virtually all frontline, urban officers were laid off, with younger ones invited to re-apply. With the help of Canada and other Western countries, the government formed a value-based curriculum, which launched in July 2015.

“The three pillars we teach are: honesty, professionalism and selflessness,” says Pavlo Kulishenko, deputy director of the Patrol Police academy.

He’s welcomed officers from across Canada to help teach Ukrainians everything from securing a homicide scene, to dealing with intoxicated people, to bicycle policing.

An outdoor shooting range has been replaced with a high-tech simulation room, where trainees practise how to respond to active-shooter situations using pistols equipped with lasers.

A community-policing model aims to have officers become known to residents, to spot signs of conflict and intervene before tensions escalate. The model of checking in with community leaders stands in stark contrast to the old practice of officers shaking down passersby for small bribes.

“We want to be the guys people look up to,” Kulishenko says.

His office is strewn with police crests from visiting officers and a few souvenirs from abroad. He grabs a Regina Pats hockey puck; he saw the WHL team play during a visit to the RCMP’s central training division. A Mountie hat sits above his workplace cabinet.

A colleague’s office has a tattered Ukrainian military flag, taken from the Russian war front.

In the hallway, a blown-out shell from the front hangs on the wall, with a rope hanging down the middle. When a recruit is removed from the program, the displacing head rings the shell three times, one for each of the three principles.

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Kyiv officer Pavlo Kulishenko, left, and Winnipeg’s Tom Monastyrski work on police reform.

Police also leave messages at trainees’ lockers. Those who are expelled for breaching the three principles have their lockers sealed with a strip of red tape.

“You have to set an example, and consequences,” Kulishenko says.

Twice a month, the academy graduates a class of roughly 20 officers. At the ceremony, a valedictorian is given a hammer to make a single strike on a large rock — it symbolizes the slow chipping away at corruption.

Public trust in the police has gone from single digits to between 40 and 67 per cent, according to various polling agencies. The hope is that instilling these values in the officers will help keep those numbers up, along with some fancy gadgets.

At a computer lab, recruits in black shirts and pants take notes on how to use breathalyzers. New officers are given tablets at the end of their six-month training, to review concepts and get updated on new laws and tactics. Ukraine channelled its Kyoto Protocol credits into buying a fleet of hybrid patrol cars.

“The whole point of training is that they’re not sitting around, they’re learning through scenarios,” Monastyrski says.

The $8.1-million, three-year mission uses a “train-the-trainer” model, so that other countries can step back and let Ukrainians take charge. The program’s been so successful that some graduates have taken higher-paid jobs in other countries, such as Hungary.

“I feel very proud because you can see this reform in action,” says Monastyrski, whose development career has taken him to Jordan and Albania.

“When you see the police maintaining public order at the Pride parade or at a football match — all of that is partly because of this reform that Canada’s contributed to.”

Other reforms are less clear.

A partnership with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities aims to move governance beyond a top-down federal system, where regional grievances fester and foreign dollars dissipate as they work through layers of bureaucracy.

It has helped improve how cities across the country operate, though some have faced pushback, with town executives purged in dodgy council votes.

Canadian judges have visited Ukraine as part of judicial reform efforts, but the courts remain heavily influenced by politics.

“When you see the police maintaining public order at the Pride parade or at a football match– all of that is partly because of this reform that Canada’s contributed to.”

Ukraine has shaped its elementary-school curriculum using Ontario’s. The ritzy Novopecherska school in Kyiv is based on Manitoba’s learning standards and is awaiting approval to issue Manitoba high-school diplomas.

A health reform has reduced drug prices and simplified paperwork for patients, but hospitals remain extremely inefficient. Still, donated ambulances from Manitoba and Saskatchewan fly the Maple Leaf in some of the regions hardest hit by clashes with Russia.

“Ukraine matters to many Canadians — and Canada matters now to many Ukrainians,” says Ambassador Waschuk.

“Canada actually plays a disproportionate role here, given geography and other considerations.”

● ● ●

Lloyd Axworthy strolls into an austere, three-storey high school in Kyiv, and shakes hands with a middle-aged woman in a floral vest.

It’s election day, and residents are enthusiastically turning up at the polls. Elderly women in headscarves grasp the arms of their adult children, as they walk up to student desks with their ballot.

Volunteers carried a clear, locked ballot box around the neighbourhood, to homes of people registered as having severe disabilities.

“If they go to the apartments and no one answers, they must bring back the ballot,” explains the woman, who’s overseeing one of thousands of polling stations across the country.

Some are being watched by 156 Canadian election observers who, under Axworthy’s direction, keep track of everything from waiting times to whether voting booths are sufficiently shrouded by blue curtains.

Supplied Lloyd Axworthy at election day polls

In a few hours, Ukraine will complete its first election with no major discrepancies since its 1991 independence, with a turnout rate of 62 per cent.

Axworthy, the former foreign affairs minister from Winnipeg, speaks with scrutineers about the flow of voters, whether the police have been following the protocol of standing away from the polling stations and how many people had issues with identification.

A curly-haired woman who appears to be in her 20s hears a mention of Canada and strides up to him.

“We are having our first free election and it feels so good,” she says in nearly perfect English. “We want to thank Canada for this.”

A short time later, in a van headed to his next meeting with officials, Axworthy takes stock of the past four weeks.

Dylan Robertson / Winnipeg Free Press Lloyd Axworthy: election observer

“The vote from them has become the instrument for them to build this country stronger. They are committed to a democratic vision,” he says.

Axworthy had concerns about Volodymyr Zelensky evading media interviews in the run-up to his presidential win, echoing a trend across democracies worldwide.

And he is most troubled by the OSCE reporting that Ukrainians living in Russian-occupied areas were prevented from casting ballots because of landmines placed at the side of main roads, causing bottlenecks. It’s particularly disappointing for Axworthy, the shepherd of the 1999 international treaty to phase out landmines.

“This is a frontline state, right where the action is,” he says, looking out the window as the van weaves past onion-domed churches.

He feels lifted by the scores of “ordinary Canadians” who volunteered to spend their vacation time in small towns.

“They feel that they’re doing something important there, helping to be constructive,” he says.

Supplied Lloyd Axworthy at election day polls.

● ● ●

Back in the village of Sokilnyky, Olha Dzhuman steps out of a shop with a bag of groceries. The grandmother has noticed the cost of food and heating oil rising in recent years.

“Times are difficult for young people,” she says, holding her flowered headscarf tight against wind gusts. “Many are working hard, but not everyone gets good opportunities.”

Last summer’s attacks shocked her, and the only explanation that made sense to her was Russia stirring up right-wing nationalism among people who would normally call themselves patriotic, instead of ultra-nationalist.

“More people have access to weapons right now because of the war,” she adds.

The conflict has pushed 1.5 million Ukrainians away from their homes, forcing them settle elsewhere.

Natalia Menshykova started a theatre troupe in Lviv, about 900 kilometres from her home in Crimea, for internally displaced people.

Supplied Natalia Menshykova started theatre troupe for those internally displaced.

The plays include absurd humour and romance rather than the real-life drama experienced when the television signals suddenly dropped and snipers appeared around town.

“I was in Crimea when everything had started, and no one can fool me,” she says, arguing that Ukrainians have done “titanic work” to show the world what’s happened to her country.

One of the young actresses, Lina Sivura, grew up in Donetsk, which her parents fled when war broke out.

“Some people around us support Russia, and everything that happened to us. And you start to think a lot: who are those people, and why their eyes so closed? They’re in front of you, but they cannot understand you,” she says.

“You lose the half of the people you believed in. It’s probably the most difficult aspect for me.”

To Dzhuman, the grandmother in Sokilnyky, Ukraine is afloat — drifting slowly toward a modern, European democracy despite headwinds trying to push it back. Most people are caught in the middle, trying to eke out a decent existence.

“Five years ago, people wanted someone to solve their problems, but now we see that no one is actually doing that,” she says.

“We’ve had huge loses. But still, everything is getting better.”

● ● ●

Nobody knows what Ukraine’s new president will mean for the country. Zelensky, a former comedian, ran with no firm policies on how to drive down high living costs and rampant corruption. One of his ads had the slogan, “No promises, no apologies.”

His message of an optimistic, unified country attracted 73 per cent of Ukrainian voters.

Dylan Robertson / Winnipeg Free Press Polling station on election day.

One of them, Violeta Moskalu, 39, says she wanted a modern voice to run her country. She moved to France a decade ago, to study public administration and help with development projects abroad.

“He isn’t from the political class, but he has good intuition. People feel heard by him,” she says.

Moskalu believes Ukraine’s various reforms were at risk of collapsing because they’d been poorly managed and communicated. She believes Zelensky has surrounded himself with the right people who will empower citizens, root out corruption and avoid the populist backlash that has jostled governments across Europe.

Supplied Violeta Moskalu is hopeful of change.

Her hope is Zelensky’s charisma will motivate Ukrainians to stick with these difficult changes, instead of letting a sluggish economy and Russian propaganda wear them down. “If he doesn’t, we in civil society will step up and find politicians who can see this through.”

To her, it’s the final push of getting Ukraine on its own feet.

“Canada has been such a strong support for us, and we need that help more then ever,” she says. “Please don’t abandon us.”

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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