Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is headed for a meeting with Ukraine’s newly appointed Prime Minister, as Canada stakes out its strong support for the interim pro-Western government that has taken power in the divided nation.
Besides speaking directly with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Mr. Baird will spend time with Yulia Tymoshenko, the polarizing Orange Revolution figure, as well as representatives of Ukraine’s Crimea region, where tensions are at fever pitch since Moscow put its troops on high alert at the border and masked gunmen raised a Russian flag on a government building they seized.
Despite an apparent threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty over Russian-speaking Crimea, and with Moscow flexing its muscles preparing for a war games exercise, Mr. Baird’s program was slated to go ahead on Friday.
In journeying to Kiev, and in determining who will and will not be on his agenda, Mr. Baird is sending a message – to the new leadership, to the 1.3 million Ukrainian-Canadians, to Ottawa’s allies and, inevitably, to Moscow: Canada stands firmly with the post-revolutionary government in a diplomatic contest between Russia and the West.
Mr. Baird was expected to begin his day in Independence Square, where he planned to pay respects to those who died in police clashes. At midday, he planned to visit a nearby hospital, possibly one of the makeshift clinics that treated injured protesters.
The rest of his schedule includes predictable choices, but some less obvious ones. There are the leaders heading the technical government before the May elections. But also those from Crimea, including a former defence minister who recently resigned as an MP, and those from a centre-right party that some have labelled extremist. There’s also, perhaps, the activist who says attackers essentially crucified him while he was missing for eight days last month, and is now Minister of Youth and Sport.
Government officials said Mr. Baird was expected to meet with Mr. Yatsenyuk, the new Prime Minister and leader of the main opposition party, Fatherland. His appointment on Thursday got a lukewarm reception, and protesters booed him at times during speeches from the stage at Independence Square, the symbol of the popular uprising that ousted Viktor Yanukovych as president.
Mr. Yatsenyuk, a 39-year-old lawyer and economist who has held various government posts, received just seven per cent of the vote in the last presidential election. Since Canada has caché among Ukrainians – it was the first Western nation to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991, and many have familial ties to Canada – a meeting with Mr. Baird could prove a symbolic boon.
Mr. Baird also planned to meet with Ms. Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who was released from jail last weekend after serving time on charges, which many say were trumped up, related to a gas deal with Russia. The Orange Revolution darling has lost some of her lustre since the 2004 uprising in which she rose to office, as evidenced by the lukewarm response to her rambling speech in Independence Square. She is expected to run for president, but she is divisive and has plenty of detractors who view her as old-guard.
Mr. Baird is also expected to meet with the acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, a Fatherland MP and close ally of Ms. Tymoshenko. He has been Speaker of Parliament since Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster and is not particularly popular, as some see him as part of Ukraine’s past rather than its future.
Mr. Baird was also slated to spend time with Mustafa Dzhemilev, an MP from Crimea. The region still hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet warships, and the Crimean parliament passed a motion on Thursday calling for a referendum on its future as part of Ukraine.
Also tentatively on Mr. Baird’s agenda was time with a Crimean Tatar religious leader. Ethnic Tatars, who are mainly Muslim and are in a minority in the area, have historic grudges against Russia and largely supported the uprising in Kiev.
In the evening, the minister was to meet with members of the opposition parties, including UDAR and Svoboda, a loosely centre-right party that some say borders on extremist.
UDAR, which means “punch” in Ukrainian and stands for Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, is the party of Vitali Klitschko, the former boxer who so far has not been given a cabinet post. He was the first to announce his candidacy in May’s presidential elections, and while some consider him a lightweight, he enjoys a measure of popularity.
With a report from Mark MacKinnon in Ukraine