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Ambassador touched personally by Ukraine’s upheaval

By Kristen Shane      

He was on the ground in Maidan square identifying the dead, he says.

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Andriy Shevchenko comes to Canada as a new diplomat with a story to tell.

The ambassador of Ukraine to Canada, a political appointee who officially took up the job in December, is putting his communication expertise as a journalist and politician to use.

Standing tall, the 39-year-old former editor-in-chief of Ukraine’s first 24-hour news channel is at ease when the tables are turned and he’s the interviewee, talking to Embassy about his new diplomatic mission on Jan. 25.

“I think my mission is to find proper words to tell the truth about what has been happening in Ukraine, what we are going to do in the future, how the country is changing…and what kind of help we need in this situation and how together we can make this world a safer place.”

His Ukraine is one still in conflict with Russia in the east, and one reforming a corruption-soaked bureaucracy after the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in early 2014. Though that view of Ukraine is contested, especially after the country’s economic minister resigned last week because he didn’t want to serve as “cover-up” for “covert corruption” he compared to the old government.

Ten ambassadors including Canada’s top representative in Kyiv wrote a joint letter urging Ukrainian politicians to “press forward on vital reforms.”

Mr. Shevchenko, speaking to the Ottawa Citizen said the Ukrainian president has taken seriously the minister’s arguments, and the country is working to fight corruption.

“The country has changed,” the ambassador told Embassy on Jan. 25. “The country has become much more mature. Now we understand that freedom is not something which you can…once make, and then it stays forever.”

He knows the high price of freedom firsthand, he indicated. His relative went missing in the eastern city of Donetsk in July 2014 and has not been heard from since, he said. His wife and three kids were forced to move to Kyiv and stay with Mr. Shevchenko’s family, the envoy said.

As a three-term member of Ukrainian parliament, he also participated in the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv against the Yanukovych government in the winter of 2013-14.

At times, that meant going to court hearings to defend the protesters, physically taking them from police hands or helping to identify the dead.

“On Feb. 20, when the snipers started shooting, you take a dead person and you check the pockets. If you’re lucky you will find an ID which will help you to understand who this person is.”

If you’re not that lucky, he said, you could find the person’s cell phone. “You scroll down numbers and you don’t call mom, you don’t call honey or darling, but you would find someone’s name and you dial,” and ask them to come to help take care of their friend’s body, he said.

By the end of Feb. 20, 2014, more than 50 people would die, including many protesters and a few police officers, according to BBC News.

Though Mr. Shevchenko served his country as a politician and reporter, when he got the call to do it as ambassador to Canada, he and his family initially said no. His life in the media and politics meant he was attached to his city and country. But after more exploration, he said, his family realized it was an opportunity and they shouldn’t be afraid to try something new.

Though he once worked for an Edmonton-based Ukrainian newspaper, he said he’d never been to Canada. His wife, Hanna Homonai, took a break from her job as a TV presenter and they moved along with their 11-year-old daughter, Maria.

Different words, same substance

Mr. Shevchenko expects to use his communications and coalition-building skills to advance a busy agenda.

Canada, he said, was one of the first countries to slap sanctions on Russia for its actions related to Ukraine, and to provide the Ukrainian military with resources like boots and training, for which his country is grateful.

The Ukrainian government has for months been pushing Canada to take that help a step further to give weapons to help fight the Russians. The previous Conservative government looked into it, going as far as to consult Canadians on putting Ukraine on an arms-export country list. But NATO members have also feared that arming Ukraine could escalate the conflict, and a Conservative defence minister spoke of acting only with allies.

“If the situation requires further steps, and if it requires defensive weapons, then we would expect Canada to be among the leaders in that,” said Mr. Shevchenko.

Pressed by Conservatives about giving more military aid, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion has not committed to it, but emphasized that under his government “Canada’s support for Ukraine is solid and will remain.”

He was in the country earlier this month to show that support, meeting with the prime minister and foreign minister. Mr. Dion’s visit came only days after showing his willingness to open the lines of communication with Russia again after the Conservatives virtually stopped talking to its officials. The Tories have accused the Liberals of putting engagement with Russia above strong support for Ukraine. There are around 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian origin, making it a strong political constituency.

“I see some different words and different packaging. But I think on the substance, Canada is very committed to supporting Ukraine across party lines,” said Mr. Shevchenko.

One strong supporter of Ukraine in the Liberal camp is Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, whom Mr. Shevchenko has known since the 1990s when they were both journalists. “I really keep my fingers crossed for her personal success,” he said.

He expected to soon meet with her in her new job, where they are both tasked with helping to implement a free trade agreement Ukraine and Canada concluded talks on last summer. Mr. Shevchenko said he hoped it would be signed and ratified in 2016. He’s planning a big business forum in Toronto in May to boost trade.

Other priorities he hopes to push include continued Canadian technical assistance to Ukraine on issues like judicial and police reform.

Visa-free travel for Ukrainians to Canada is also a goal. While a few years ago talking about visa liberalization was like a “science fiction conversation,” he pointed to the European Union’s recent move to lift visas on Ukrainians as a good sign that it could happen in Canada too.

Albanian ambassador heads home

Albanian Ambassador Elida Petoshati’s Canadian posting is set to come to an end this week. And following the usual diplomatic protocol, she’s headed back to headquarters in Tirana.

“But Canada’s chapter will always remain in my heart,” said the envoy last week.

Besides being her first ambassadorial post, it’s been a memorable posting for her because she became a mother.

Only days after she took up duties in Canada officially in 2011, Ms. Petoshati learned she was pregnant with her son, Noël, who was born in January 2012.

“I got really scared, because you take a responsibility and you shall fulfill it,” she recalled thinking. “But after giving birth, I managed to do both, to be a mother and be an ambassador.”

She said she’s thankful to all the Canadians, government officials and diplomatic colleagues who received her warmly in those first few months (and beyond).

“I never felt a difference going into courtesy calls with my tummy. Never, never.”

She also credits her husband, Arian Muka, for taking on a lot of the childcare load while she was travelling in the provinces, visiting with some of the 60,000-strong diaspora or pursuing bilateral relations.

Mr. Muka also worked at the embassy as an administrative staffer during her posting, and he is now headed back to Tirana with her to pursue the career he put on hold as an IT consultant.

Though she could have taken more time off, Ms. Petoshati said she only took 40 days after her son’s birth.

“When you have this position, either you take it [or] you don’t. So you cannot stay one year away from the office,” she reasoned.

Toward the end of her pregnancy, on Dec. 15, 2011, she and her husband were wrestling with what to name their child when she dropped in on then-Senate speaker Noël Kinsella for what she thought would be a typical 20-minute courtesy call.

She said she left an hour and a half later having had a long chat with Mr. Kinsella, whom she said is a “great friend” of Albania.

“He received me so warmly. I was looking at that welcome and I felt secure on the way I would go forward on my job here,” she said. “And I came out of that meeting, I went home and I told my husband, I am going to call him Noël.”

And every Christmas since, she said Mr. Kinsella gave her son a small toy, including a horse she said her son always keeps with him. It was the kind of thing a grandfather would do for his grandson, she recalled smiling. She still keeps in touch with the former speaker, who has retired from Parliament.

On top of that personal challenge, Ms. Petoshati kept busy as a leader in the foreign diplomatic community. She’s departing as dean of the Franocphonie group, as well as president of the Women Ambassadors and High Commissioners of Ottawa. She also served on the executive of the Ottawa Diplomatic Association, and as vice-dean of the European group of ambassadors.

“As a woman leader, you need to have a say and be useful…I believe we shall give from our energy if we have it. If we have good ideas, we have to put them up,” she said.

As for bilateral relations, Ms. Petoshati said she’s proud political dialogue has ticked up on her watch, with Canada and Albania’s foreign ministers visiting each other’s countries for the first time.

Canada is the top investor in Albania, with oil, gas and mining companies dominating, including Bankers Petroleum and Tirex Resources.

The two countries finished talks toward an investment protection agreement in 2013 and then worked to legally vet the deal. Ms. Petoshati said she hoped it would be signed in the first six months of this year.

She’s returning to her capital expecting to work on multilateral affairs, while her embassy in Ottawa is to be headed by chargé d’affaires Orjeta Çobani until new ambassador Ermal Muça arrives. He’s a career diplomat now director of protocol in the Albanian foreign ministry.

kshane@embassynews.ca

@kristenshane1

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