The Canadian president of the Ukrainian World Congress, which represents a diaspora of 20 million Ukrainians worldwide, is decrying a Russian decision last week to blacklist the Toronto-based organization.
On Thursday Russia’s prosecutor general declared the organization “undesirable,” according to a press release, saying its activities threaten Russian national security and violate its constitution. Under Russian law, people who associate with the organization could face financial penalties or jail time.
“The thing that’s of greatest concern to us is the attitude that the Russian government is taking towards the large Ukrainian ethnic minority within Russia,” said the congress’s president, Paul Grod, in an interview on Monday. The community of two million is the biggest outside Ukraine and until now was able to maintain networks internationally through the UWC.
“The Kremlin is essentially trying to isolate any civil society organizations within Russia, trying to isolate them from the outside world,” he said.
Ihor Ichalchyshyn, the CEO of the organization’s Canadian branch, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said the “ominous statement” from Russia was “unexpected,” and the full implications may not yet be known. But President Vladimir Putin’s political opponents are already facing persecution. “Our greatest fear is that community groups in Russia will now face even more pressure and repression,” he said.
Part of the UWC’s mandate has been to strongly criticize Russia for its actions toward Ukraine, including the annexation of its Crimea region in 2014, which violated international law.
In 2014, Grod and then-MP, now-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland were among 13 Canadians sanctioned by Russia and forbidden from entering the country. Grod was elected to the UWC presidency in November and speculated that his presence on the sanctions against him could be connected to the Russian prosecutor’s decision.
Meanwhile, Freeland and the Liberal federal government have remained staunch supporters of Ukraine amid its ongoing conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country. Two weeks ago the third Ukraine Reform Conference was held in Toronto, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky.
A press release out of the conference committed Canada to prevent the recognition of Russian passports issued in the Crimean territory, a move that Grod said shows Canada’s global “leadership role.” In the past five years, Canada has contributed some $785 million in support to Ukraine including towards a military training operation.
“Canada will always support the people of Ukraine, Ukraine’s sovereignty, and its territorial integrity. We condemn in the strongest terms Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea and its aggression in Eastern Ukraine,” said Adam Austen, a spokesman for Freeland, on Monday. “It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the Russian Federation has chosen to designate the Ukrainian World Congress, the co-ordinating body for Ukrainian communities worldwide, as ‘undesirable.’ Canada will continue to work closely with the UWC and all organizations committed to helping Ukraine.”
Grod hesitated to make a connection between Canada’s blunt criticisms of Russia and the blacklisting of an organization whose head office is in Toronto — the UWC is represented in 60 countries with big offices in Brussels, New York and Kiev, and works with a variety of other governments including the United States, United Kingdom and European Union. Ichalchyshyn agreed. “I think it’s more about the international voice that is the UWC,” he said.
Asked for comment, Russia’s embassy in Ottawa offered a statement claiming that ”Canada-based Ukrainian World Congress has nothing to do with promoting Ukrainian culture, language and traditions in Russia, which hosts the world’s largest Ukrainian community, but instead (pursues) a highly biased russophobic agenda, threatening Russian territorial integrity and national security,” calling it an “anti-Russia entity” that “glorifies Nazi collaborators” and is trying to “sow hatred.”
Meanwhile the idea that the UWC is doing work that could harm Russia’s ambitions seemed to please Ukraine’s foreign ministry, which put out a statement via its Ottawa embassy Friday saying “one cannot but rejoice” at the idea the Kremlin feels threatened. It nonetheless expressed “strong protest” to the prosecutor general’s decision.
“From my perspective, on one hand it’s a badge of honour,” said Grod. “On the other hand it’s a demonstration of a very sad state of affairs.”