Why did my heart sag when I learned of the international conference in Ottawa titled "Ukraine at the Crossroads"?
Over 30 notable academics, politicians, and international experts gathered at the Chateau Laurier on Mar. 7-8 under auspices of the Ukrainian Canadian Council (UCC) to discuss the state of democracy and freedom in Ukraine and its tenuous (and often tense) relations with Russia.
Prior to that gathering -- often involving some of the same "experts" -- was the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. Again, they rehashed what to do about the loss of democratic reforms that jeopardize Ukraine's ties with Europe.
Former Interior Minister and Opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko, has been sentenced to four years in jail, convicted in December of "Abuse of Office" and embezzlement. Charges that reek of political expediency.
Former Ukrainian PM (2005) Julia Tymoshenko is currenlty serving seven years in prison for "Abuse of Office." An economist and academic, Tymoshenko was Ukraine's first female PM. As a businesswoman in the gas industry, she is reputedly one Ukraine's richest people -- but still she's in prison.
Tymoshenko and Lutsenko were both involved in Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," as was their colleague, Viktor Yanukovych, now Ukraine's president. As a teenager, Yanukovych served time in jail for robbery and assault -- a rough diamond. He narrowly defeated Tymoshenko for the presidency in 2010 -- so she went to jail.
The Canadian Standing Committee is comprised of seven Conservative MPs, five NDP MPs, and no Liberals, which seems a mistake because the Liberals are far more experienced and sensible in foreign matters than the NDP.
The big lapse in the Standing Committee is the absence of Liberal MP Chris Alexander, former diplomat in Moscow and former ambassador to Afghanistan who understands Russia better than the whole Harper Cabinet and NDP caucus is you ask me.
So what can be done to enhance Ukraine's future, living next to Russia?
Not much, I fear.
Some 45 years ago I lived and worked for a couple of years in Moscow, when Ukraine was a republic of the Soviet Union. Even then, tension between Russians and Ukrainians was palpable. This always struck me as curious, because as an outsider it was hard to tell the difference between the two.
I remember asking a Russian why the thinly disguised hostility.
The Russian, remarked on the Stalin-inspired famine in Ukraine that killed some seven million by starvation and tamed incipient rebellion in Ukraine; and the wartime massacre at Babi Yar of several million Jews and more millions of Ukrainians.
That doesn't answer the question "Why?" I remember saying.
"You must remember," said my friend. "That Ukrainians instinctively feel they are more intelligent, more civilized, more efficient than Russians."
"Okay," I said. "That may explain the attitude of Ukrainians, but it doesn't explain why Russians should be so resentful.
"It's because Russians also feel Ukrainians are more capable than they are."
I'd never thought of that, but it added a new perspective: Inferiority complex.
Now that Ukraine is an independent country, but still economically, socially, and culturally dependent on Russia in ways that Belarus is, it cannot escape Russian paranoia about its desire to identify more closely with Europe.
Next to the Jewish lobby, the 1.2 million Ukrainian-Canadians probably wield more influence with the federal and provincial governments than any other group. The UCC is aggressive and vibrant, but it's difficult seeing them having much influence on Russian policies.
After the presidential election in Russia, it's likely that Vladimir Putin is going to be the guy in charge until about 2024 if he so wishes -- and if he lasts.
Despite all the rhetoric and street protests now going on in Russia against Putin resuming the presidency, he is in a strong position. The 64 per cent vote he got is slightly lower than the 72 per cent he got in 2004, but it indicates huge support that is far more significant than any incidents of vote-rigging could have managed.
The Canadian Standing Committee wants to send an observer team to Ukraine for elections due in October. How may times have we heard similar proposals for elections in Africa and other sensitive spots in the world? And how often has such monitoring affected the outcome of elections? Not often.
One doesn't like to contemplate it, but it's hard to see any country that is cheek-by-jowl to Russia following a diplomatic course that makes Russia fearful. Democracy is too new, too fragile in that part of the world, and is not yet a tradition as it is elsewhere.
None of this should -- or will -- inhibit Ukrainians from being dynamic and determined advocates of Ukraine's future in democratic world where human rights and reforms are standard ways of life.
To suggest Ukraine today is at a "crossroads" is perhaps too hopeful.
If, indeed, it is at a crossroads as the title of its recent Ottawa conference suggests, it is stalled at the crossroads -- paralyzed between east and west, unable to advance until one side or the other blinks. Which neither shows any sign of doing. Yet.