OUR SECRET ROLE IN UKRAINE

Published Wednesday, April 18 2007

Agent orange:

OUR SECRET ROLE IN UKRAINE
 

MARK MacKINNON unearths evidence that Canada isn't always diplomacy's Walter Mitty

Mark MacKinnon

KYIV -- Andrew Robinson is unassuming and bookish, the sort of man who seems better suited to the cocktail circuit than to toppling governments. But on the streets of Kyiv, he is revered by some as a revolutionary.

The bespectacled Mr. Robinson, 60, now teaches international affairs at Carleton University, but in 2004, during the wild and dramatic Orange Revolution, he was Canada's ambassador to Ukraine and played a key role in events that changed the country forever.

"Andrew Robinson is a hero of the revolution," Vladislav Kaskiv says with a smile, using a term the old Soviet Union reserved for the Bolshevik leaders of 1917.

Mr. Kaskiv would know. As head of Pora, a radical youth group that occupied central Kyiv for five weeks in the winter of 2004, he played a bigger part in the uprising than almost anyone other than its leader, Viktor Yushchenko, and his firebrand deputy, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Pora was just a gleam in his eye when Mr. Kaskiv, then 31, met Mr. Robinson in the spring of 2004, just months after another youth group, Kmara, had helped to overthrow Eduard Shevardnadze in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Mr. Robinson recalls being "very impressed" by the would-be revolutionary and made a decision uncharacteristic of Canadian foreign policy: He gave $30,000 (U.S.) to Pora through a special embassy fund. The first money Pora received, it "was there . . . right when the movement started," Mr. Kaskiv recalls.

Today, little orange remains on the streets of Kyiv. The country is once again in the midst of a political crisis, and even the souvenir stalls near Independence Square can't flog the paraphernalia that was once visible everywhere.

"The orange is popular only with foreigners," says vendor Viktoria Biloshtan. "Here, orange has lost its credibility."

It's a far cry from just 21/2 years ago, when orange was the colour of hope and optimism -- and Canada was at the centre of the action.

The embassy's bold decision to back Pora -- Mr. Kaskiv says he spent the money on "infrastructure" and training -- was just one way in which Canada's government, as well as its vast Ukrainian diaspora, intervened in Ukraine's disputed 2004 election,

All told, the embassy spent a half-million dollars promoting "fair elections" in a country that shares no border with Canada and is a negligible trading partner. And Mr. Robinson acknowledges the effort helped the pro-Western Mr. Yushchenko to prevail over Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich.

The United States also played a leading role, as it came to see the Ukrainian election standoff as a major battle in a new cold war that it was fighting with a resurgent Kremlin for influence across Moscow's old empire. The Bush administration was particularly keen to see a pro-Western figure as president to ensure control over a key pipeline running from Odessa on the Black Sea to Brody on the Polish border.

The outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, had recently reversed the flow so the pipeline carried Russian crude south instead of helping U.S. producers in the Caspian Sea region ship their product to Europe.

Even though U.S. investment in the uprising eventually surpassed Canada's, Mr. Robinson says the Canadian role "was really quite significant and deserves to be known."

Beginning in January, 2004 -- soon after the success of the Rose Revolution in Georgia -- he began to organize secret monthly meetings of Western ambassadors, presiding over what he called "donor co-ordination" sessions among 28 countries interested in seeing Mr. Yushchenko succeed. Eventually, he acted as the group's spokesman and became a prominent critic of the Kuchma government's heavy-handed media control.

Canada also invested in a controversial exit poll, carried out on election day by Ukraine's Razumkov Centre and other groups, that contradicted the official results showing Mr. Yanukovich had won. Thirty months later, Razumkov director Yuriy Yakimenko maintains the poll was impartial and scientific -- but also boasts that it brought Yushchenko supporters into the streets.

After that, hundreds of Ukrainian Canadians travelled to Ukraine and spread out across the country to watch over the deciding third round of elections. Despite their proclaimed neutrality, many arrived at Kyiv's Boryspil Airport decked out in the opposition's signature orange. Since then, some of the Ukrainian Canadians who have now made the "old country" their home sometimes call the uprising the "Canadian Revolution."

The key to Canada's intervention was Boris Wrzesnewskyj, a Liberal MP of Ukrainian descent who had the ear of then-prime minister Paul Martin. His sister, Ruslana, is close to Mr. Yushchenko's wife, Katerina Chumachenko -- a pipeline that ensured Canada, first to recognize Ukraine's independence in 1991, once more led the international community .

"Canada had a lot of influence in soft ways that are difficult to quantify," Mr. Wrzesnewskyj says. "Behind the scenes, we played quite a significant role."

He and Conservative MP Peter Goldring were observers for the Nov. 21 second round of elections, and made headlines by condemning flaws at polling stations. Two days later, as the protests on Independence Square were growing, Mr. Wrzesnewskyj made Canada's sympathies clear.

"It's quite clear to me that Viktor Yushchenko is, in fact, president of Ukraine," he shouted from the stage the opposition had erected on Independence Square. Elated, the crowd responded with a cheer and chants of "CA-NA-DA." The next day, Canadian flags started appearing amid the sea of orange.

Unknown to the crowd, Mr. Wrzesnewskyj had already played a giant role in ensuring the disputed election would be rerun. While observing the Oct. 31 first round of voting, the MP for Etobicoke Centre had met Yaroslav Davydovych, deputy head of Ukraine's Central Elections Commission

When Mr. Wrzesnewskyj started listing all the violations he had seen, Mr. Davydovych signalled that the room was bugged. So Mr. Wrzesnewskyj wrote his mobile phone number on a piece of paper, and several hours later, Mr. Davydovych called and asked to meet under a pine tree near his offices, already being fortified in anticipation of unrest. Inside, the vote counting was finished, but no official results had been announced. Expecting fraud, the opposition was poised.

As night fell, the two men stood under the tree not speaking, until "I told him that in these historic circumstances, when good people do the right thing, I can make sure that Canada will guarantee them safety," Mr. Wrzesnewskyj recalls. "A big smile broke out on his face and he told me that Yushchenko had won the first round."

After consulting Karl Littler, deputy chief of staff to Mr. Martin, Mr. Wrzesnewskyj promised Mr. Davydovych and his family safe passage to Canada should publicizing the true results put his life in danger.

The election commission eventually released results showing Mr. Yushchenko had indeed narrowly won the first poll, bringing about a second-round showdown with Mr. Yanukovich. Three weeks later, Mr. Davydovych was to play a fateful role, refusing to sign off on tainted official results showing Mr. Yanukovich had won the rematch.

As the crowds poured into the streets to protest, Mr. Davydovych's act of defiance emboldened others in the electoral commission and judicial system to refuse orders to certify Mr. Yanukovich as president. Instead, the Nov. 21 election was annulled and a rerun ordered for Dec. 26. Mr. Wrzesnewskyj says Mr. Davydovych made his call knowing his family would be safe in Canada if things turned against him.

Mr. Wrzesnewskyj also invested some of his own fortune, funding election observation missions to Ukraine through the University of Alberta with $250,000 from his family foundation. He opened his spacious apartment in central Kyiv so those sleeping in tents could get an occasional shower.

Perhaps most important, he acted as an conduit between Mr. Martin and Mr. Yushchenko, whom he had introduced in Canada several years earlier, and persuaded the prime minister to read a dramatic statement in the House of Commons condemning Russia's meddling in Ukraine.

In the end, the millions in Western money invested in the Orange Revolution was a pittance compared with the $600-million Russia is said to have poured into the Yanukovich campaign through Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant. But the Western cash was far better spent and had a dramatic effect on the streets of Kyiv.

Other American and European democracy promotion groups invested in Pora and a host of other organizations across Ukraine. The NGOs rallied voters to Mr. Yushchenko's side, and Pora was the backbone of the protests that paralyzed Kyiv Jan. 23, 2005. In doing so, Canada and other Western countries borrowed from an approach that had already worked twice: As well as Georgia's Kmara movement, Pora was modelled on Otpor, the youth group that helped to topple Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic four years before. Likewise, the West-backed Committee of Ukrainian Voters was based on Georgian and Serbian groups. until Mr. Yushchenko was sworn in on

The similarities between what had happened in Belgrade in 2000, Tbilisi in 2003 and Kyiv in 2004 did not go unnoticed in Moscow, where the uprisings were seen not as expressions of popular will, but as peaceful Western-backed coups.

The Orange Revolution "was a well-organized street rally which had been based on the experience of the Serbian and Georgia revolutions," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin strategist sent to Kyiv in 2004 to aid the Yanukovich campaign.

"I call them NGO revolutions -- Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, all of them," and their aim was to push back a Russia that had grown more assertive since President Vladimir Putin had come to power in 2000.

Erasing the Kremlin's influence certainly motivated the returning expats. Most of Canada's million-plus ethnic Ukrainians have roots in western Ukraine, which is predominantly Catholic, Ukrainian-speaking and far closer to Hungary and Poland than Russia.

So Canada's election-monitoring efforts focused heavily on the east. Mr. Wrzesnewskyj secured government funding to send 500 observers, the largest official delegation from any country, and another 500 Ukrainian Canadians came independently. Even before they landed, they made it plain that their goal was not just to monitor an election, but to keep Mr. Yanukovich from reaching the presidency.

An e-mail circulated among those monitoring the final vote suggested that observers be redeployed at the last minute to catch the Kuchma and "Yanu-NO!!-kowych" camp off-guard.

"If we aren't as cleaver (sic) as the Kuchma camp we won't win!!!" read the message, signed by Vlodko Derzko. "Don't forget, this isn't a picnic . . . for Kuchma it's a war of survival . . . See you on Maidan [Independence Square] on the 28th!!! The biggest street party in the world when Yushchenko wins."

Mychailo Wynnyckyj served as an observer and admits "we were told not to arrive wearing orange, but there was no doubt who everybody was supporting. Of the 500 observers supported by the Canadian government, maybe 100 were, in their hearts, truly impartial."

Now a sociology professor here at the prestigious Kyiv-Mohilo Academy, Mr. Wynnyckyj also lobbied to ensure the international media would be in Kyiv -- a heavy journalistic presence often cited as a reason force wasn't used.

Despite all this, Mr. Robinson, the former ambassador, and Mr. Kaskiv of Pora are among those who argue that the West had a limited impact. No one was paid to stand in the streets of Kyiv for those five weeks in 2004, and the fact that so many did demonstrated how deep the desire for change was. All Canada, the U.S. and Europe did was help to provide an outlet for that emotion.

But to the victors go the spoils. Viktor Yushchenko was sworn in as President, Ms. Tymoshenko became his prime minister, and Mr. Kaskiv was made a special presidential adviser. Anatoliy Gritsenko, a former head of pollster Razumkov, was made defence minister, responsible for deepening Ukraine's co-operation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

And the new government announced its intention to reverse the flow of the Odessa-Brody pipeline.

And so far that's about it.

The political marriage of Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko didn't last; in just eight months, they discovered that they shared little beyond a desire to see the end of Mr. Kuchma. The sky-high popularity Mr. Yushchenko enjoyed disappeared just as quickly, as post-revolutionary disenchantment set in.

Despite the promised change, Ukraine today is much like it was in 2004, a charming country plagued by economic problems that force scientists to drive taxi cabs and keep the villages around the rapidly growing capital mired in poverty.

Most Ukrainians are tired of politics, but the intrigue never stops. In January, 2006, the Kremlin struck back hard, briefly switching off Ukraine's flow of natural gas and forcing Mr. Yushchenko to accept a harsh price hike or risk shivering. In the process, the Putin government reminded Ukrainians that they still live next to a giant.

The Kremlin denied a political motivation for cutting the gas, but in parliamentary elections two months later, Mr. Yanukovich staged an improbable comeback, forcing Mr. Yushchenko to make him prime minister.Since then, the Yanukovich camp has been trying to undo what remains of the Orange Revolution. Even though he already has a majority in the 450-seat Rada, he has been luring pro-Yushchenko deputies (allegedly using multimillion-dollar bribes) into his camp. With 300 seats, he can overrule the President, amend the constitution and effectively claw back what the revolution took from him.

Two weeks ago, with his back to the wall, Mr. Yushchenko dissolved parliament and called fresh elections, a move that caught many Ukrainians off-guard and sparked the renewed crisis.

Now there are thousands of Yanukovich supporters camped on Independence Square, deliberately mimicking Pora's tactics in what has been dubbed the "Blue Revolution," after the colour used by Mr. Yanukovich's Party of Regions. Claiming the President had no right to dissolve parliament (something the constitution is unclear on), they're demanding that he either back down or put his own job on the line as well.

Clearly, this isn't what Ukrainians thought they were getting, and Canada thought it was supporting, in 2004. Mr. Robinson now lives in Ottawa but keeps a close eye on Kyiv, hoping that despite the current unrest what he and other Canadians did has put Ukraine on an irreversible course to democracy.

"The Orange Revolution is incomplete," he says. "Democracy is something you have to struggle for. Ukraine is in a situation where that struggle . . . is not over."

Now based in the Middle East, Mark MacKinnon covered Ukraine's Orange Revolution while he was The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Moscow. His book, The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union, is to be published this week by Random House Canada.