After months of tumult, Ukraine's ambassador craves the mundane
Laura Beaulne-Stuebing Published: Wednesday, 11/12/2014 12:00 am EST
The diplomatic community is mostly a separate world from the rest of Ottawa; the average Ottawan doesn’t see the city's foreign heads of mission all that often. And when they do, visiting diplomats have a way of being very, well, diplomatic.
But outgoing Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko is an exception to that general rule, appearing in front of television cameras and speaking frankly to reporters regularly (he was quoted in a Nov. 9 CBC news article this week saying the word "bullshit"—how often does that happen on the record?).
In a final interview with E m b a s s y on Nov. 5, before heading back to Kyiv at the end of his posting, Mr. Prystaiko recalled his busiest media day had him doing about seven interviews, most of them for television, which he described as an “exhausting experience.
” It’s not the easiest way to go about being a diplomat, stirring up controversy and being very pointed about violence and crises back home, “but it's what we believe, inside our embassy, that's important for our country,” he said.
In July, Mr. Prystaiko complained publicly about a months-long delay in a promised $200 million financial aid package from Canada, and said a request for non-lethal military help had gone unanswered. It didn’t take long after that for the Canadian government to announce in August it would be sending military equipment such as helmets, first-aid kits and sleeping bags, to help Ukraine protect its eastern border. The loan was sorted out during the Ukrainian president's visit to Ottawa in September. Mr.
Prystaiko has had at least two sit-downs with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, something even he notes isn’t common for an ambassador.
“I've been in this business for quite a while myself. And I have to tell you, even working for the president back home, I wouldn't see many ambassadors to come to my president. It's quite rare opportunity,” he said.
The ambassador chocks up Mr. Harper’s support for Ukraine—and strong stance against Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin—not just to internal politics and catering to the 1.2 million Ukrainians in Canada, but also to a Western government showing support for democratic values.
“[Media] would just jump to the conclusion that [the] Ukrainian community is [an] important factor for internal politics here, and that the Canadian government is paying attention to what the electorate is thinking and what the electorate wants...internal politics is dictating foreign politics,” he said. “It is a factor which is in play.”
But at the same time, he added, “There are some values which help you to live the way you live and create the society that you are in. When some nation is declaring and striving to get there, [the] logical thing [to do is] to help them.”
Mr. Prystaiko arrived in Ottawa in December 2012, at a time when Canada-Ukraine relations were chilly, under a former government.
But the ice has thawed with the installation of a pro-West government this year. Mr. Harper called the country's parliamentary election on Oct. 26 an "important step in the process of strengthening democracy in Ukraine." Over the last year, Mr. Prystaiko’s home has seen unrest and violence in Kyiv’s Independence Square, with high-profile visits to Ukraine by Foreign Minister John Baird.
“Now the situation is very much different,” Mr. Prystaiko continued. “It wasn't actually about government per se. It was about the reality that people created by standing tall and telling that we are not taking this anymore in the last year.”
Although he admits the situation is different now, it still isn’t ideal. Talking with the CBC, Mr. Prystaiko said the West is losing interest in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and pouring more resources and attention into fighting Islamic State militants.
The tumult in Ukraine has played out in Canada, too, changing the nature of his time in Ottawa. Mr. Prystaiko said there have been eight protests in front of his Somerset Street embassy, with Ukrainian-Canadians upset for many different reasons.
The ambassador even received death threats after the clashes in Ukraine. He had to call the police, who patrolled his residence. “That experience wasn't good, I have to tell you,” he said.
“Some people don't understand that we also have souls and we also have families,” he continued. “Those who live here have no idea what's actually going on in Ukraine and how dangerous it is for our families back home. I have my mother who is alone, I have my brother with two small kids, just how difficult [it is] for them. And how difficult for people on Somerset Street in peaceful Ottawa? That's different.”
Mr. Prystaiko has been posted in Sydney, Washington and also in Ottawa in the past, all postings that were a little less hectic and perhaps a little more boring.
“Strangely enough, but my embassy would also like to have [a] boring but comfortable life, which we don't,” Mr. Prystaiko said. “Maybe...in a couple of generations, Ukrainian diplomats will be like everybody else, won't be rushing with our telephones attached to our heads. And we'll be normal people, speaking slowly, picking our words carefully.”