by Peter O’Neil-Europe Correspondent-Postmedia News
L’viv,Ukraine-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in one of the world’s few large countries where Canada has considerable influence, used that clout Tuesday to send another tough message to President Viktor Yanukovych about growing Russia-style authoritarianism here.
Harper visited a monument honouring a 19th-century poet famous for predicting that Ukraine would eventually break free of Moscow’s grip.
He later met a historian arrested last month for allegedly revealing state “secrets” – historic documents about Ukraine’s nationalist, anti-Soviet movement during the 1960s.
Harper, speaking at a Catholic university that was warned this spring not to let its students protest against government policies, bluntly called the 1932-33 famine here that killed millions a “genocide.”
That’s a term he didn’t use while meeting Monday with Yanukovych who, like his Moscow allies, denies that term is appropriate for the starvation deaths of millions of Ukrainians.
Harper’s symbol-laden visit was as heartening to Ukrainian nationalists and Canada’s 1.2 million-strong Ukrainian diaspora as it was aggravating for Ukrainian authorities.
“It goes without saying that it is a positive development for us,” said historian Ruslan Zabilyj, 35, who was arrested in September and interrogated for several hours by internal security agents.
They suspected him of releasing state secrets and kept the relevant documents. His case has become a cause celebre among academics around the world, who have signed a petition condemning the attack on academic freedom.
Frank Sysyn of the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies said Harper’s visit is crucial because Yanukovych is attempting to see how far he can go in controlling the media, the judiciary, the political opposition, and the academic world.
But Canada has considerable influence here due to the large and politically active Canadian diaspora, the resulting deep political involvement of successive governments, and the extensive Canadian aid program.
Harper, in fact, underscored that point by announcing Tuesday $36 million in aid for projects to improve Ukraine’s customs service, job training, municipal economic development, regional governance, and juvenile justice reform.
“This is a country where Canada has a major voice,” said Sysyn, who attended the event at the Catholic university, “and I think Harper hit exactly the right tone.”
In his speech to students at the Catholic university, Harper said Canadians will never abandon Ukraine.
“Remember that in Canada you have friends, friends who respect and admire Ukraine’s heart for freedom, its spirit of national self-determination, and the courage of its people, a courage that has never deserted you, even in the darkest nights of your long history.”
On Monday, Harper, who arrived in Ukraine after the two-day Francophonie summit in Switzerland, said he raised human rights issues during a meeting with Yanukovych.
He also visited shrines marking atrocities by the 20th-century’s most notorious dictators, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, to remind Ukrainians of the importance of protecting democracy.