It was supposed to be a brand new waterpark on the coast of the Sea of Azov, east of the Black Sea. But the site, near the small village of Strilkove, unfortunately sits on a narrow strip of land that juts out into the sea just kilometres from the contested shores of Crimea.
Toronto-area businessman John Iwaniura is concerned that the $2-million he and his fellow investors have put into the 20-hectare property could be at risk. About 40 Russian troops and some armoured vehicles are said to be in the area, and Russian helicopters buzz overhead.
“I am not worried about the people,” Mr. Iwaniura said, even though his local manager, who is based in Yalta in Crimea, is now afraid to travel to the site. “But I am worried about the ownership of the land that we acquired. ... I am worried that they will step in and ... take it away from us.”
The concern, the stalled progress, the fear about the future – it is a common refrain from Canadians with companies or investments in Ukraine, as many, unlike those with business in Russia, urge Ottawa and the West to take a tougher line to counter Russia’s aggression.
Zenon Potichny, the chairman of the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, has been watching anxiously since Russia bucked the international community and annexed Crimea. His company, Shelton Petroleum, has a joint investment agreement with Chornomornaftogaz, the Crimean arm of Ukrainian state-owned gas utility, Naftogaz.
They share licences to explore for gas deposits in two areas of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The push to find gas was part of a Ukrainian plan to seek more independence from Russia and its gas supply.
But the Crimean parliament, taken over by pro-Russia forces, has declared that it intends to nationalize Chornomornaftogaz, and that Russian gas giant Gazprom OAO may buy it. An Agence France-Presse story cites statements by Chornomornaftogaz's deputy chief executive, published in local media, claiming that four Gazprom representatives and a number of gunmen took control of the company on March 13. Analysts value Cornomornaftogaz between $500-million and $800-million.
Mr. Potichny, a Polish-born Ukrainian who moved to Canada in 1975, said his contacts with Chornomornaftogaz have told him to “ignore” whatever the “illegal government” in Crimea says. He hopes for tougher sanctions that would send a message to Mr. Putin, and praised Ottawa for its strong statements and moves so far.
And he said he was disappointed by recent statements made by the Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association, which represents Canadian companies with interests in Russia and has urged Ottawa to avoid punitive sanctions.
“They are saying, ‘Don’t push too hard because there are lots of companies doing business [in Russia],’” said Mr. Potichny, whose company also has Russian operations. “Yes, people want to do business, but money and business is not everything.”
Mr. Iwaniura and his fellow investors actually put their plans for a waterslides and family fun on the shores of the Azov on hold two years ago, blaming the deteriorating political situation under now-ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The waterfront property in Eastern Ukraine is still just a handful of vacation cabins, a campsite, and a driving range for golfers.
He praises the Canadian government’s sanctions and tough words for Russia, as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s weekend visit to Ukraine.
And Mr. Iwaniura, who also runs a Toronto-area trucking company and is vice-president of Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, says the West should be doing more to push back against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Now, listen to Putin, now he is [saying] he is worrying about Russians living in Estonia and Latvia,” said Mr. Iwaniura, who was born in Poland but is of Ukrainian origin and moved to Canada in 1998. “Someone’s got to stop this guy.”
Wayne Thomson, an oil-and-gas industry veteran who is chief executive officer of Calgary-based Iskander Energy Corp., says his firm’s exploration coal-bed-methane well outside Donetsk so far has been unaffected – despite being inside the latest region of Eastern Ukraine to face pro-Russian protests.
He said financing for investments in Ukraine has become very difficult: “We will be very careful about investing more money in Ukraine until it’s clearer what the future is going to look like.”