Published: Wednesday, 04/16/2014 12:00 am EDT
Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko says he has received death threats in recent months after violent clashes in his home country. On Feb. 20, demonstrations turned ugly when dozens were killed in Kyiv. Meanwhile, protests were erupting outside the Ukrainian embassy in Ottawa.
“At that time, I was receiving death threats over the telephone, and we had to call the police and they were patrolling around my residence. It was a very difficult time,” Mr. Prystaiko said in an interview on April 14.
“You’re looking at the news and you can’t believe that snipers are just shooting unarmed people, and you see pictures of [people] carrying the wounded ones, it’s unbelievable,” he said.
“Then you understand that you represent this government, and you have no explanation of what was going on...you have, immediately, people in the street shouting, calling you all the names, although you didn’t shoot anybody, you didn’t give any command to shoot anybody.”
Embassy life ‘different’
It hasn’t been an easy road for Mr. Prystaiko, whose posting to Ottawa since his December 2012 arrival has been one of change. It’s been a shift from relations being “sort of on ice,” to Mr. Prystaiko being called in to the foreign ministry for a dressing down, to public photo opportunities with the prime minister and remarks to the media with Foreign Minister John Baird.
“Our embassy’s life is very much different from what we even experienced a year ago,” he said.
“It was a nice, quiet diplomatic life—receptions, concerts, talking to people, sometimes bringing delegations in...now we have some people calling us names, extremely emotional.”
The embassy’s staff has also been reduced since last year. “That’s not easy to cope with all these things, but we are trying.”
Seated at his gated embassy on Somerset Street in Ottawa, Mr. Prystaiko appeared relaxed as he said he would be heading off to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the interview. Mr. Harper met with a group of envoys that day including Polish Ambassador Marcin Bosacki, Estonian Ambassador Gita Kalmet and Latvian Ambassador Juris Audarinš.
It would be Mr. Prystaiko’s second meeting with Mr. Harper in the past month, and since protests started in Ukraine in November. “When you do meet the leader of government...that’s a very unique opportunity for you to be able to tell things and to hear what his own views [are],” Mr. Prystaiko said.
Mr. Harper announced after their March 17 meeting that the Canadian government had imposed more sanctions and travel bans on Russian and Ukrainian officials. It was also a few days before the prime minister was set to travel to Ukraine.
“First of all it was very symbolic—it was support and recognition of the Ukrainian government,” Mr. Prystaiko said of the prime minister’s trip.
“As I told him personally, that was quite a courageous move on his own personal side, because nobody knew for sure what was going on, people were still very agitated...and the prime minister is going just because he believed that it’s more important than his own safety,” Mr. Prystaiko said.
Mr. Prystaiko said while most announcements were the Canadian government’s initiative, he was happy to now see “normal relations.”
“They are really consulting because they are trying to understand what can be done to really benefit Ukraine,” he said.
As for the sanctions, Mr. Prystaiko said they requested some of those. “Canadians were very quick on reacting—as soon as we sent it, it was immediately introduced.”
He said they asked the Canadian government to place sanctions on some individuals, and Canada added some people on their own.
Mr. Baird told media on April 14 that there would “absolutely” be more sanctions.
Canada has already done a lot, Mr. Prystaiko said, but added that the country’s experience with operating a national police force and dealing with bilingualism are areas it could help Ukraine in.
Change in the air
Mr. Harper traveled to Ukraine in 2010 and met with former president Viktor Yanukovych. The two countries had launched free trade talks that year.
“Everything was okay, quite okay,” he said. “When I arrived it was a bit different, it was [a] colder atmosphere already, but it was nothing like last winter.”
So when unrest spread through Ukraine and citizens started calling for Mr. Yanukovych to step down, the Canadian government toned down its contacts with Ukrainian officials.
Mr. Prystaiko said while he understood why this happened, it wasn’t as if all lines of communications were cut.
“I’ve been called on a couple of occasions to Foreign Affairs to talk,” he said. “The Canadian government wanted to express their dissatisfaction or their unhappiness with what was going on in Ukraine and that became the best channel.”
A spokesperson for the foreign affairs department previously told Embassy that the department had called in Mr. Prystaiko on Dec. 2 “to express Canada’s strong disapproval of police violence carried out during that weekend against protesters in Kyiv.”
An interim government stepped in after Mr. Yanukovych reportedly fled the country in February. “I understand the Canadian government had to reconsider who is the embassy or who they are representing,” Mr. Prystaiko said.
“This moment of how to restart is quite sensitive,” he said. “It’s a lot like family relations—if you didn’t talk yesterday, who will be the first to make this step? But I believe that it was quite painless and smooth.”
There were many factors at play. For example, the embassy opened up a book of condolences for people to sign on Feb. 20 and the days following in memory of those killed in Ukraine.
It helped bring relations to a more “human-to-human” level, Mr. Prystaiko said. Some ministers, members of Parliament and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau showed up to sign the book.
One thing that many seemed to have trouble understanding was who Mr. Prystaiko represented, he said.
“People here...they are not Yanukovych himself, they have their own particular views, they have to serve the government, but we believe...we are serving the people in Ukraine,” he said.
Governments change and sometimes diplomats are happy with the government, sometimes they aren’t, he said. At times it was like being “between two fires.”
One example was after the Ukrainian government withheld from signing an association deal with the European Union, triggering the waves of protests.
“Although the official position of government was that we are postponing the negotiation, in this embassy we were saying that we are unhappy as people,” he said.
Kyiv was not pleased at the time.