Ukraine’s Renaissance Finally Seems at Hand
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 4, 2004

On August 24, 1991, euphoria descended on the diaspora as Ukraine declared independence and nowhere more than in Canada where centennial celebrations of Ukrainian settlement in Canada were also underway. Governor General Ramon Hnatyshyn presided while Prime Minister Brian Mulroney described the waves of immigration: 170,000 before the First World War, 70,000 between the wars and some 40,000 after. “Today,” he intoned, “Ukraine and the other republics of what once was an empire, can chart their own course to democracy and to freedom…”

For a Brandon-born, Winnipeg-raised son of first-wave Ukrainian immigrants, that time also represented the zenith in a career already distinguished by service in federal government departments that included immigration, foreign service, finance and the Canadian embassy in Moscow. This made Nestor Gayowsky the obvious choice to become Canada’s first consul-general in Kyiv. “I am looking forward to seeing the nature of the renaissance taking place in Ukraine today,” Gayowsky told the Ukrainian Weekly.

Anticipation, though, soon ended in disappointment. By 1997, on the sixth anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, it was clear the renaissance wasn’t working. In an interview with Chris Guly again for the Ukrainian Weekly, the now former diplomat Nestor Gayowsky noted how “five months after President Kuchma outlined his economic reforms in October 1994, a leading Swiss economist said that Ukraine’s economy was the most incapacitated in the region.” Then there was Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, which “refuses to pass laws that will attract foreign investment.” The “lingering effects of Chornobyl, pollution and an inefficient use of energy” were also problems. Another reason was its legal system. “Ukraine has an ineffective police force and a weak judiciary.”

Today, as Ukraine and the rest of world await whirlwind developments around its presidential elections, Gayowsky’s words leap off the page. Now retired with his wife Tela on Vancouver Island, he recently returned to Ukraine, this time as an OCSE observer of the November 21st runoff election between orange-revolutionary Viktor Yushchenko and Russia-backed Victor Yanukovich. Has anything changed since 1997?

“A new generation has sprung up,” Gayowsky said during a visit to Ottawa this week. “This is partly the reason for the current response. People are more aware of how things work and that the old system is wrong.” Even so, the soviet mentality is still intact, particularly in the eastern regions. “Talk of separation has been generated by local leaders appointed by the current president, Kuchma, to whom they owe their authority and who wield enormous influence over the allocation of jobs and apartments.” Members of the Central Election Commission are also recommended by Kuchma for appointment. Despite resignations and being discredited by Parliament, no CEC member has so far been punished for failure in conducting the elections.

“Ukraine’s Constitution is heavy on formality, and low on legality,” Gayowsky adds. “Foreign experts drew it up but Ukrainians re-wrote it to suit their particular views. The president has enormous powers including the militia, the secret police and the procurator general.”

Writing in the New York Times, C.J. Chivers also focused on Ukraine’s presidential powers. “No matter which presidential candidate ultimately wins,” he wrote, “Ukrainian society is on the verge of great political reorganization”. This is because Kuchma - implicated in the death of a journalist and the recent “state managed” election fraud - needs to orchestrate a legacy and a retirement safe from prosecution. Quoting Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Center for Political and Conflict Studies, and an unnamed senior western diplomat, Chivers also dismisses partition as a stalling tactic but says Ukraine’s professional political class is demonstrably divided calling into question Ukraine’s centralized executive powers. “Mr. Pogrebinsky said one proposal for compromise was reorganizing of the government by changing the Constitution to shift power from the president to Parliament.”

As if on cue, President Kuchma chaired a meeting this week of internationally mediated talks between Yushchenko and Yanukovich who agreed to change the presidential election law, initiate political reform and abide by the Supreme Court’s decision, delivered yesterday, to annul the November 21st election results.

In a rapidly changing world, it is a rapidly growing truism that democracy untempered by effective constitutional instruments invites not only a tyranny of the majority but a tyranny of individuals willing to usurp it for their own ends.

Could Ukraine’s Orange Revolution soon become Ukraine’s Orange Constitution? For Nestor Gayowsky and other Canadians of Ukrainian heritage, Ukraine’s renaissance may finally be at hand.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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