CANADA IN UKRAINE: Canadian Ambassador hails free trade deal as start of new chapter in Canada-Ukraine bilateral ties

Ambassador Roman Waschuk discusses free trade, military training, police reform and the challenges he has faced as a diplomat and member of the Ukrainian diaspora at a time of historic change for Ukraine

CANADA IN UKRAINE: Canadian Ambassador hails free trade deal as start of new chapter in Canada-Ukraine bilateral ties
About the interviewee: Roman Waschuk is the Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine. He took up his post in Kyiv in October 2014
Business Ukraine magazine
Wednesday, 17 August 2016 23:40

Summer 2016 will surely go down as one of the busiest periods in the history of the Canadian diplomatic mission to Ukraine. May and June were occupied by preparations for a landmark Canada-Ukraine Business Forum in Toronto, while early July saw the signing of a free trade agreement between the two countries during Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s headline-grabbing visit to Kyiv and Lviv.

This recent flurry of activity marks the opening of a new chapter in what has long been a close bilateral relationship. Ties between the two nations are rooted in Canada’s million-plus Ukrainian diaspora and date back to December 1991, when Canada became the first Western country to recognise Ukrainian independence.


FTA gateway to EU and NAFTA markets

Business Ukraine magazine caught up with Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Waschuk in mid-July as the dust was still settling on the Trudeau visit. Ambassador Waschuk was understandably encouraged by the success of the visit and the signing of the bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), but he was also keen to emphasize the work that now lies ahead in order to build on this momentum. Trade between the two countries is currently hovering at extremely modest levels – Ukrainian exports to Canada in 2015 totalled just USD 60 million – but Ambassador Waschuk sees the FTA as a potentially transformational commercial breakthrough with broad implications for both countries’ bottom lines. “This is about much more than widgets going from country A to country B”, he says. Instead, Waschuk hopes the FTA will invigorate triangular trade, with cooperation between Ukrainian and Canadian companies serving as a gateway to market access throughout North America and the European Union.

Direct bilateral trade is also expected to grow from present lows. There was an unmistakable feel-good factor surrounding the Trudeau visit that cannot be solely attributed to the rock star appeal of the charismatic Canadian PM. The first cooperation agreements of the new free trade era have already been signed, with a memorandum of understanding between Ukrainian Railways and Canada’s global rail technology leader Bombardier Transportation on upgrading Ukraine’s locamotive fleet among the most eye-catching.

When asked which other specific sectors are poised to benefit most from the FTA, Waschuk points to Ukrainian processed food exports, value-added metal products and sporting goods like the hockey sticks Ukraine already exports to Canada. He also speaks of the associated ‘halo effect’ – the tendency for free trade deals to raise awareness of opportunities and generate a growth in bilateral trade that goes far beyond the removal of tariff barriers alone. “In our experience, trade tends to rise by 50% to 100% in the years following the signing of a free trade agreement.”

This halo effect may well make itself felt beyond the confines of Canada-Ukraine bilateral trade. There are already mounting indications of growing international investor interest in post-Maidan Ukraine as the hybrid war worst-case scenarios of recent years are downgraded and opportunities finally begin to outweigh risks. Waschuk says the Canadian Embassy has encountered a marked growth in economic interest in recent months, and points to the November 2015 Ukrainian market entry of heavyweight Canadian business group Fairfax Financial Holdings as a reflection of the country’s renewed investor appeal. “The post-revolutionary situation has stabilised and there is a realisation that you can now reenter the water profitably,” he says.


Canadian Ambassador’s Ukrainian diaspora roots

Ambassador Waschuk is a member of Canada’s large and well-established Ukrainian diaspora community. Born in Toronto in 1962, he is the child of Ukrainian parents who emigrated to Canada in the wake of World War II. He has always been conscious of his Ukrainian roots and was a member of the Ukrainian scouting organisation ‘Plast’ in his youth.

This close association with Ukraine has equipped Waschuk with the kind of local knowledge that makes him the envy of many ambassadorial colleagues within the Kyiv diplomatic community, but it also poses ethical challenges. Does he ever feel that he is becoming too emotionally involved? “Very few diplomats have not been emotionally engaged by the events in Ukraine over the past two years,” Waschuk says, before recounting the tale of one seasoned EU member state ambassador who recently told him that Kyiv had been the most memorable posting of a veteran diplomatic career. “I try to remain conscious of the fact that the cultural baggage I bring to the table can be both an advantage and a liability. I always seek to maintain a certain distance and remain critical.”

In addition to his Ukrainian heritage, Waschuk enjoys additional insight into regional current affairs thanks to his educational background. He studied East European history at the University of Toronto, providing him with the context necessary to make sense of the massive changes across the region since the fall of the Iron Curtain. He believes this historical perspective informs his work in today’s Ukraine and helps shape Canadian support for Ukraine’s ambitious post-Maidan transition agenda. “From the historical point of view, there is a sense of ‘you snooze, you lose.’ You can’t just wait for eternity to do its work.”


Moscow, Belgrade, Kyiv

Waschuk’s current role in Kyiv is not his first diplomatic posting to the Ukrainian capital. In the mid-1990s he served as Political Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv. As a regional specialist, he had also been posted to Canada’s Moscow Embassy in the twilight years of the Soviet Union. His current post in Ukraine is his second ambassadorial role. Prior to his October 2014 appointment as Canadian Ambassador to Kyiv, Waschuk had been based in Belgrade as Canadian Ambassador to Serbia, Montenegro and the Republic of Macedonia. This Balkan posting provided Waschuk with an interesting vantage point to view the unfolding events in Ukraine in 2013-14 as the Euromaidan protests gave way to the occupation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s hybrid war in east Ukraine. He recalls how many Serbian commentators echoed Russian narratives and says colleagues in Belgrade commented on the striking similarities between Kremlin media coverage of events in Ukraine and the tone of the early 1990s Serbian media under Slobodan Milosevic at the time of the Balkan Wars.


An evolving defence relationship

Waschuk says his time in Belgrade gave him valuable insight into the kind of post-conflict processes that could serve as important lessons for Ukraine in the coming years. Healing the divides in Ukrainian society will inevitably be a key theme over the next decade, but for the time being at least, Ukraine’s top priority remains the strengthening of the country’s defensive capabilities. Since the conflict began in 2014, Canada has been among the leading providers of trainers for the Ukrainian military. The current Canadian military training mission is scheduled to run until March 2017 and is part of what Waschuk terms as ‘an evolving defence relationship’. He places this support within the broader context of Canada’s national defence priorities and points to the recently confirmed deployment of Canadian troops to Eastern Europe as part of the NATO response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. “Our role in Ukraine should be viewed as an element of the broader Canadian government vision for Euro-Atlantic security. We’re not getting sentimental about any single country.”


Maidan momentum: Ukrainians still hungry for change

In addition to boosting bilateral trade and bolstering Ukraine’s military defenses, the Canadian Embassy is also involved in a range of reform-oriented initiatives designed to add meat to the bones of the grassroots changes taking place in the country. Waschuk singles out the banking sector reforms carried out by the National Bank of Ukraine for particular praise, and also enthusiastically recounts the positive impact of numerous ongoing projects backed by Canada in the agriculture and regional SME sectors. However, pride of place is reserved for the reform of the Ukrainian police service. Canada has been instrumental in this process, working alongside Japanese and US partners to help Ukraine carry out an ambitious and high-visibility overhaul of its law enforcement infrastructure.

Waschuk struggles to contain his amazement at the pace of the process, quipping that the hardest challenge has been keeping up with the sheer speed at which new Patrol Police services have been unveiled across the country. Crucially, he regards the positive public response to Ukraine’s police reforms as evidence of continuing support for the transformation agenda championed by the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14. “Ukrainian society wants tangible change,” he says. “There is lots of understandable skepticism in today’s Ukrainian society, but when people see change, they embrace it.”

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