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Unprecedented Time for Ukraine's Profile in Canada and Globally: Roman Washchuk

Ukraine Calling — September 3, 2022. This is a podcast of Hromadske Radio in Kyiv.

Show hosts

Andriy Kulykov

Гостi

Roman Waschuk

Unprecedented Time for Ukraine's Profile in Canada and Globally: Roman Washchuk
https://media.blubrry.com/hromadska_hvylya/static.hromadske.radio/2022/09/hr_uc_2022-08-31-vashchuk.mp3
https://media.blubrry.com/hromadska_hvylya/static.hromadske.radio/2022/09/hr_uc_2022-08-31-vashchuk.mp3
Unprecedented Time for Ukraine's Profile in Canada and Globally: Roman Washchuk
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Andriy Kulykov (AK): Ukraine Calling is again with you. This is a podcast of Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. I am Andriy Kulykov, and our guest today is a person, thinking of whom, I always remember that his official title for some time used to be His Excellency. Because this is an excellent conversationalist, an excellent guest, Roman Waschuk. He is now Ukraine’s Business Ombudsman and in very responsible times he used to be Canada’s Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Ukraine. And in some very official cases he had to be addressed as His, or Your Excellency.

Roman Waschuk (RW): You’re encouraging me to rise above mediocrity.

AK: Very good; I think that our audience will appreciate this. By the way, Roman, you are a figure of Ukrainian folklore. One of the legends I heard about you is that you were very instrumental in Canada recognizing Ukraine’s independence as swiftly as it happened. Is there some ground in this?

RW: In a very junior way, yes. When I came back from my first posting, which was to Moscow, I started working at what was then the Soviet and East European Department in what was then the Department of External Affairs Canada, and I was the Desk Officer for the Soviet Union. So when it began to fall apart, and there was a need to write the first draft of the cabinet decision document recognizing Ukrainian independence, my deputy director, John Dugange, who had a slightly wicked sense of humor said, “Roman, I think you would appreciate writing the first draft of this document”. Which I did, of course, because cabinet documents in Canada are secret, I don’t know if anything was left of my first draft in the final decision document, but I did give it a little start.

AK: As a Ukrainian, as a person who, I presume, sympathized with the Ukrainian struggle for independence, were you, sort of, having special feelings?

RW: My deputy director was right; I did very much appreciate the opportunity. And frankly, being in that office throughout the late summer and fall and winter of 1991-1992, some of my good friends who had stayed at the embassy in Moscow and then moved to Kyiv to support the emerging Ukrainian embassy, and they also have very fond memories of sort of getting in on the ground floor.

AK: Roman Waschuk is today’s guest on Ukraine Calling, and he used to be a very successful and high-ranking diplomat for several decades.

RW: Yeah, about 32 years.

AK: Yeah. How had the Canadian policy towards Ukraine changed over these years? And you were, again, instrumental in bringing those changes about.

RW: Or, I was an instrument of the changes sometimes.

AK: Alright.

RW: I think Canada was always keen to both be supportive and be seen to be supportive. We had a domestic constituency that was very interested in our relationship with Ukraine. I think you mentioned that we were nearly the first to recognize Ukraine’s independence.


You may also read: No «Ukraine fatigue» for Andreas Umland after eight years of war


AK: OK, the first, far, far away to the west.

RW: Yes, well, what we would call those countries considered to be Western countries in 1991. Poles would disagree with that categorization, but because of the time difference, they managed to get in a few hours earlier. You know, I think we’ve generally paid quite a lot of attention to the relationship. We’ve had in many respects a less Russo-centric policy, although again, there’s a strong inertia in every government when you have a big embassy in places like Moscow, it continues to exert a lot of influence, even when the relationship is no longer so close or so important. I think 2014-15 – very active, also I’d say on the cutting edge of hashtags and tweets. I’ve seen the Russia Not Russia graphic, which actually was designed by an intern at our Mission to NATO in 2014; it keeps popping up over and over again. It’s maybe the strongest Canadian policy statement ever made graphically, and it was done by an intern. So, there’s that. Then of course, Operation Unifier, police training, so a lot of practical things that people may not have fully appreciated at the time because Ukrainians are skeptics about change in their own country –

AK: Wherever they are?

RW: Yeah, but most skeptical of all in Ukraine itself. Then, you know people assessing from outside can be led astray by Ukrainian skepticism. And so you have this situation now where clearly everyone is surprised by how well the Ukrainian army has performed.

AK: But you certainly are not surprised, or you are as well?

RW: No, so I was about to say that I am in the tiny minority of unsurprised people. Because I would visit various locations of Operation Unifier’s training mission with the Ukrainian forces, to the extent that one of the rotations gave me this plaque titled, Combat Ambassador. No, but I’m a non-combatant, you’ll be reassured to know. And I can see how the relationships were being built, how the mentality of the Ukrainian partners was changing, a lot of it just through plain old conversations, eating the same meals together, the fact that a lot of the soldiers stayed in touch through social media or otherwise, after their tour of duty in Ukraine, the Canadians. I mean, it’s significant that, for example, two past commanders of Operation Unifier are the senior advisors to one of the big funds that is helping to procure non-lethal equipment, especially drones and other things for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. So these are people who, through their training mission, developed a deep appreciation for, and commitment to, Ukraine. As military, as policing, colleagues. And frankly, a lot of them I think, in the initial weeks and months, felt a bit of guilt about not being able to directly help their Ukrainian comrades. But they’ve gotten over it by undertaking all of these supportive measures and activities, and being part of, if you will, the deep field presence back on kind of a reserve front supporting the Ukrainian forces.

AK: Mr. Waschuk, when you became Canada’s Ambassador to Ukraine, how did your experience of working in Moscow help to deal with Ukraine?

RW: And the experience of working in Belgrade. I came to Kyiv directly from Belgrade –

AK: That I tend to forget.

RW: I was the Canadian Ambassador in Belgrade, also responsible for Macedonia, now North Macedonia, and Montenegro. So I was in Moscow at a time of hope in Russia. When there was more than one xороший русский (good Russian) out on Red Square at a time. But also I could see that that imperial mindset was very much there, and could come back. What my experience in Belgrade showed me was the fact that, when you are the former center of a federation that falls apart, but the federation of a bigger country that made you feel important, you saw things very differently from the way people saw it in Skopje of Podgorica, in other words if you will, the liberated parts –

AK: Wasn’t Podgorica Titograd at that time?

RW: It was Titograd – I think the airport is still TGD in terms of its code. So this kind of former metropolis, and then liberated former colony or former part of the state, so I was able to see it in different locations. Some things are the same, some things are different. But actually, the Balkan experience I found particularly helpful because for me, it didn’t come with any of my own emotional family or historical baggage. And so it was maybe an even more objective appreciation of the difference between the central perspective and the ex-periphery perspective on things. Plus, the Balkans was a region that had gone through a big conflict a decade earlier, a decade and a half, than when I was there in 2011-2014. And so you could, to some extent, model the psychological trajectory of both the attackers and the defenders. Interestingly, Serbs were quite keen on forgetting the 90s.

AK: Maybe because of the feeling of guilt?

RW: Partly, or yeah, not wanting to revisit their own memories or feelings. And a sense of, “let’s just get over it”. Croatians, not so keen on moving on. So, what happens often, I think, is the people who helped touch off the war no longer want to talk about why they did it or how they did it afterwards. Those whose identity was forged in defending the homeland against the initiators and perpetrators, they hold onto that memory for much longer. And so, if Putin were to be run over by a tank tomorrow, I suspect that in 5-10 years, Russians would say, “it wasn’t us!” or “how sad; hugely unfortunate – let’s just get over it”. But I don’t see Ukrainians getting over this identity forging experience for decades and decades and decades.

AK: In an aside about your stay, or your tenure, in Belgrade, did you have to deal with the Ukrainian or Rusyn minority in Vojvodina?

RW: I did indeed. I was often a guest on radio – both Rusyn and Ukrainian radio and television. So very interesting micro-communities, very active, proportionate to their size. The entire Ukrainian – identifying as Ukrainian community – about four and half thousand people, with six cultural societies –

AK: And different view on whether they speak a special language or –

RW: Rusyn, certainly, yes. But you have also this very interesting thing that in former Yugoslav terms, now in Serbian-Vojvodinian terms, the Rusyns are the bigger group. And Ukrainians are concerned about separateness from the bigger group. But in a global sense, of course the Rusyns are a tiny group compared to Ukrainians, in the homeland or globally. So there’s a kind of micro set of feelings and then a macro set of feelings. I met lots of very interesting people. And again, people who are able to live in, because they’ve lived in both contexts, compare the two situations. You’ve probably met people like Mykhailo Ramach, Borys Varha, who are certainly in the Serbian language sphere, the post-Yugoslav sphere, very important commentators in their own right; nothing to do with their Rusyn background or their affinities for Ukraine. I found, and I recommend often for people wanting to talk about what’s happening in Ukraine given context, that talking to them offers a very interesting perspective that is often missing in commentary.

AK: When you came to Ukraine as an Ambassador, did you ever have a feeling that Ukrainians are a minority in their own country?

RW: Well, interesting you should say that. I had a feeling that I was almost like a dual ambassador to some extent. I was an ambassador of Canada obviously and all Canadians. I made a point of this, that not just some diaspora but from coast to coast to coast, including Canada’s Indigenous people, Canadians of all backgrounds. But also because of my family background as a sort of Mohican of previous generations, whose legacy had largely been marginalized in Ukraine itself. What’s been interesting to see over the last decade is how things have shifted. I have to say, coming back now, even compared to six months ago, you sort of wonder like, where did all these Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians come from, that you see ordering food, or wandering the streets, or shopping in Kyiv today. So the answer is, they were kind of there all along, except not expressing themselves necessarily publicly because they were suffering cultural cringe from the previous dominant Russian post-Soviet culture. Since I come from an officially bilingual, multicultural country myself, and I’ve worked in all these other environments, I also didn’t feel an incredibly, kind of militant, guilt-inducing approach to language or cultural issues necessarily works terribly well. People need to be encouraged, and regulation needs to be put in place that encourages the right outcomes. I have to say that at one point, I guess 2018-2019 when the updated language law was being debated, there were attempts to kind of instrumentalize the G7 Ambassadors to stop it from being adopted. And I invited my old friend Mykola Kniazhytskyi, who was head of the committee in charge of the legislation, and he sort of contextualized it for my colleagues and explained that it wasn’t blanket, that it was actually based on a number of other countries’ approaches to language use issues. And that helped create a more balanced view of what they had in mind. Now of course, president Putin has disrupted the balance and radicalized individual Ukrainians beyond what any law might have tried to encourage them to do.

AK: Roman Waschuk is our guest speaker today on Ukraine Calling and he used to be Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine during very responsible years. And since the beginning of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, and I mean 2014 in this case, not only the 24th of February 2022, Canada was behind Ukraine, Canada was next to Ukraine, but some people would say of course because Ukraine’s resistance damages Russia and it’s not because Canadians love Ukraine so much, it’s because they want to inflict as much damage at Russia as the West generally. This is backed by the way I remember a Canadian group called Arrogant Worms whose song says, “We are the second biggest country on the Planet Earth, and if Russia keeps on shrinking we’ll become the first.” So, how much Canada is interested in shrinking Russia, and how much is it interested in upholding Ukraine’s fight for independence?

RW: I hate to tell you, but the Arrogant Worms are not prominent Canadian policy makers. Most Canadians, and certainly Canadian politicians, don’t think in those kind of terms. There may be countries where people think like that but it’s not Canada. We’re too “live and let live” for that. So, I would say the Canadian policy’s actually driven by positive feelings about and to Ukraine. So, and in fact, there’s a sort of reluctance. I mean, everyone is willing to condemn Russian aggression but to be strident in it somehow feels to most people un-Canadian. That you need to leave maybe a little space for dialogue, or you don’t want to sound like you’re really clanking those weapons. Even if you’re- I think we prefer to actually ship weapons more quietly and not appear to be too militaristic or gung-ho as a country. Now, that doesn’t mean individual Canadians or individual Canadian alt-rock groups don’t express themselves differently.

AK: Speaking of federations and multiculturalism and bilingualism, can we draw some comparisons between the English-speaking and the French-speaking part of Canada in attitude towards Ukraine, since you were representing all Canadians?

RW: Yes. You know I would say that given past patterns of migration to Canada, there has generally been less understanding and empathy of- regarding Ukrainians in francophone Quebec just because people didn’t meet people of Ukrainian background or listen to their story all that often, and also Quebec is an area where there is a great interest in the Arctic since Quebec itself has a very large northern component. And a sense that Russia is sort of a, if not a partner than at least unavoidable if you want to get serious about Arctic issues. And also, you know, Quebec is no longer New France, hasn’t been for hundreds of years, but Francophones naturally read foreign policy publications and listen to TV and radio from France. So, the generally more sort of balanced, “let’s take not take sides too quickly” rhetoric we were seeing for awhile out of France, that also has an impact, more of an impact in Quebec. But I think what we’ve seen is a shift. I did quite a lot of French language radio and television in February/March, and then the arrival of the first of, you know, thousands of Ukrainian refugees in Montreal and other towns and cities in Quebec has led, I think, to an unprecedented degree of empathy. I saw signs that were put up all over the city of Lévis, which is just south of Quebec City, you know, marking Ukrainian Independence Day and remarking sort of on support for the Ukrainian struggle, this is something that you would have never seen before this year. So, I think what is happening as well is that the geography of interest in Ukraine support for Ukraine is changing. It is broadening. Similarly, on the 24th, there was probably the first big public Ukrainian Independence Day celebration in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada’s eastern most-

AK: Where the Kubasonics gave a concert.

RW: Exactly! Right! And there you can see this very interesting sort of melding of traditions. Kubasonics, led by a guy named Brian Cherwick, descendant of the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants to the Prairies- in fact, did his PhD on Ukrainian popular music on the Prairies- with a band in what was one of Canada’s least-immigrant-receiving provinces, the Kubasonics, when they moved a couple of years ago, became wildly popular in Newfoundland with Ukrainian-only material, nobody wanted their English stuff, they just wanted the Ukrainian stuff, and now-

AK: But that’s interspersed with a Western- with an Eastern coast music-

RW: Yes, exactly, or it draws on many of the same sort of dancing traditions of reels and jigs that people in a pub in Newfoundland can appreciate. And, so on the 24th on George Street, which is the main pedestrian throughfare, you had then hundreds of people who had recently arrived from Ukraine this summer in Newfoundland, plus Newfoundlanders who love this music, plus the Kubasonics. All celebrating Ukrainian independence and a big dance, too. So, that shows how sort of the history of Canada’s migration and Ukrainian settlement in Canada, and things that happened just a few weeks ago all link together and so far very positively.

AK: On the 24th of August this year, a producer from CBC called me and asked whether I was willing to do a couple of interviews to Canadian radio stations. Of course, I said, “I will be glad,” and it ended in eleven interviews for CBC affiliates in different-

RW: Across the country.

AK: Across the country. So, I even got to know a couple of new names, like Kelowna. All the rest were more or less familiar, and it started with St. John’s and I heard part of the Kubasonics concerts and that’s why I know. But the question is was it because, just because it was the 24th? Or the interest in Ukraine spreads more or less evenly across Canada?

RW: You know, it’s interesting. And as I say, the genie has escaped from the bottle. In Southern Ontario, from the Southern part of the prairies or the belt across the Prairies. A Facebook friend of mine who was visiting-

AK: You believe in Facebook friends?

RW: I, well no. I have met her live and in-person but we’re also friends on Facebook.

AK: Aha, okay.

AK: She and her husband were in small towns on the coast of Vancouver Island and all sorts of houses and public buildings had Ukrainian flags. And again, these are areas where previously, there was not much Ukrainian presence at all.

So, I think people genuinely empathize. You know, the fact is, Canada, which has become in the last forty, fifty years a very globally, multicultural country, nonetheless has strong European roots, and fought in two European-centered World Wars. So, a lot of Canadians have a particular kind of emotional attachment to the images they see out of Ukraine. Because the images are very reminiscent of World War II, despite the fact, you know, partly because Russia hasn’t evolved out of World War II. The artillery, the displacement of people, of trains, all this sort of stuff. So, people feel this kind of visceral attachment that transcends ethnic or other boundaries. I saw a photo yesterday of a sort of free boutique that some friends of mine including my sister-in-law Natalie have helped set up in Toronto, it’s called Ukrainian-Canadian Parachute, and it’s set up like a sort of Winners or TJ Maxx except it’s free for people to come in and pickup what they need whether it’s pots and pans or clothing but it’s arranged to look nice so that you feel like you’re shopping and not that you’re getting a donation. But that- a woman who appeared to be of Southeast Asian background and her little daughter came and they donated everything that the daughter had got for her birthday to this shop because the daughter wanted to help, and mother wanted to help displaced Ukrainians. So, I think it’s an unprecedented time, not just in Canada, but globally, for Ukraine and its profile. It’s tragic. The price being paid is extremely high, but people around the world will never look at Ukraine the same way again, and I mean that in a very positive manner.


AK: Before we go back to Ukraine for the rest of our conversation, another question pertaining to the attitudes of Ukraine. I rarely watch videos from Russian propagandists but from time-to-time I just have to do this to sort of keep abreast of what they are saying. And the message that they’ve been spreading for quite some time already is, “the world has become tired of Ukraine, they do not want to see Ukrainian refugees anymore, they will stop to help them pretty soon,” and all this kind of stuff. Uh, Canada?

RW: Look. We have had, as of last week, just over 75 thousand Ukrainians arrive. Over 200 thousand Ukrainians have had Canadian visas issued to them. Now, not all of them are using them, some of them are, I think, because it’s a free program they’re thinking this is an insurance policy, I’ll get one just in case. Nearly 500 thousand have applied and there’s no limit. So, the Russians in this, as in many other things, are just lying. And I can also tell you as someone who has spent much of the last six months in Poland, and occasionally in other parts of Europe, that Ukrainians are seen as high human capital people, and this is one of the rare displacement movements where the host countries are sometimes more interested in keeping the refugees than the refugees are in staying. I was at a panel this summer, Baltic Business Forum. It was a panel on migration and the Ukrainian movement. There were two researchers there. Two women and they were Ukrainians living in Poland for a longer time and they had been studying the phenomenon doing polling and surveys. And then there were three representatives of business and of municipalities saying, “we are working on incentive programs to try and ensure that some percentage of these people stay, because let’s say the Katowice Agglomeration, municipal agglomeration, we have identified demographic needs and a number of these people fit the profile of who we need in our communities.” And so, nobody is going to send people who are this smart, this well-educated, and this useful to their own societies back, against their will generally, and in fact, as I say, a number of countries are thinking of incentive programs.

AK: So, we’ve stopped for a while in Poland on our way to Ukraine, and by the way I read some Polish analysis which says in a positive way, which surprised me quite a lot, that Poland is becoming a two-nation country at the moment.

RW: Yes.

AK: Because Ukrainians are swiftly approaching the almost twelve and then maybe fifteen percent of the population.

RW: Yup. In major cities like Wrocław, they’re now thirty percent.

AK: I was in Wrocław where my grandson was studying when Ukrainians constated the tempest. And even then, they had conscriptions and signs in Ukrainian next to Polish and German.

RW: Well right now on program number one of Polish radio, Jedynka, you get, I think, it’s every second hour, you have the news, and then you have the news in Ukrainian. So, yeah. I think what’s characteristic of what is a war, now it’s strictly speaking still on Ukrainian territory, but it is a regional war and with global implications, is that things are changing. It changes things in unexpected ways. One of which is as you say, that Poland is, at least temporarily, becoming a binational country. And a lot of thoughtful polls are thinking, “how can we manage this situation better than before 1939,” realizing that mistakes were made before then and, you know, you have a realignment of European security relationships, you have, within Ukraine, a rebalancing of business from one region- from one set of regions to another. You have Ukrainians who work remotely, continuing to work from wherever they have found temporary shelter, which is very different from what would have happened even ten years ago. So, their maintaining connection to their Ukrainian company or Ukrainian organization. So, no, it is fascinating, and I think those of us who are living in it, we aren’t always conscious of all the very many impacts it’s having.

AK: Roman Waschuk is talking to those who listen to this podcast, Ukraine Calling on Hromadske Radio, and at the moment he is Ukraine’s business ombudsman, and he has spent several very fruitful years in Ukraine as Canada’s ambassador. Before talking about your business ombudsman’s affairs, a question which has always fascinated me because it’s always applied to or often applied to journalists who are somebody’s own correspondence in different countries. But I have almost never heard this issue raised about the diplomats. The issue of becoming native, of “going native”-

RW: Oh yes.

AK: -to the country where you are stationed, of losing the ability to look at this country from your editorial office’s point of view and does this happen to diplomats and especially to diplomats like you who are from a solid Ukrainian stock, who know the culture, who know the history, who may- can speak language immaculately, so?

RW: The short answer is, after a certain time, yes. I remember one of my former ambassadors in Germany, towards the end of her term and I think it was four or five years, saying “why should I deliver this demarche to the Germans, to our German friends? I mean these people in Ottawa, they have no idea what they want.” And I was thinking wait a minute, but like, the people in Ottawa are paying us. Maybe we should pay some attention to what they want. It’s one of the reasons why diplomats get rotated, because you do tend to set down roots and you are overwhelmingly talking to people from your country of accreditation and not from your headquarters. There is a bit of an embassy bubble in each embassy, but nonetheless, if you’re at all effective, you’re interacting more with the host’s society. I liked to think, and anyhow maybe I’m just overestimating my abilities here, that because I had actually done quite a lot of studying of the region, that I also had a certain ability to critically interrogate the Ukrainian side of things as well. Not just the country of Ukraine, but my own beliefs and my own background. Now, that doesn’t negate emotion, that doesn’t negate a certain sense of solidarity, but I think it’s helpful for diplomats, probably for journalists too, to always have that little voice somewhere in their head, the editorial voice saying, “wait a minute, you’re getting caught up in some sort of surfing the wave.” Again, there are times to critically interrogate, there are times to stay balanced on the surfboard, to keep surfing. So, and I think the last six months have been more of a surfing period for people than having huge self-reflection exercises. But, yeah, there’s a reason why diplomacy is a rotational culture.

AK: Very personal question. You left diplomatic service at a young age, after holding a very responsible position in a very important country. Was it because you’ve had enough of diplomacy or was it because you saw a good opportunity for yourself to be a business ombudsman in Ukraine?

RW: Not at that point no. I think I got out while the getting was good. You mentioned I was there during a very responsible period. I have to say, my successor has been through a much more challenging period than I ever experienced. So, I think she and the current cohort, they are all going to be deserving medals from headquarters for managing the situation.

AK: By the way, do you have a medal from Ukrainian or Canadian authorities?

RW: Yes and Yes. Not very shiny ones but…

AK: Alright.

RW: So, I thought, yah, I’d never really have the same combination of serving in a country I care about deeply. And for a long time, I had a minister who was very engaged as well, Christina Freeland when she was foreign minister. If I go back to headquarters and I’m in charge of something administrative, I’ll just be sitting there saying “it’s not like the old days”. I’ve had enough years, so I took early retirement, and I thought end of 2019, hey, travel the world, go to some conferences do some think-tanking, maybe talk to Hromadske Radio, and occasionally hit the beach. But then the pandemic hit and none of that happened. So, I spent a lot of time in my basement, in our new house in Toronto. Spent some time helping relatives and other people make it through the pandemic, did some research on family history. Then I saw this [advertisement], and I got a call some from head-hunters saying [if] I would be interested in this job, and I said “well I’m sitting here in my basement, maybe this will be more interesting”. So I applied, and that’s how I ended up incaved in early January of 2022.

AK: How much time did you need to grow into this new position?

RW: I’m still growing! Ukrainian legislation, Ukrainian business environment [is] highly complex. Many faceted, lots of generalization…

AK: A very diplomatic way of putting it…highly complex .

RW: Highly complex but also, and again, as we discovered with the Ukrainian government during this war, and other aspects, I think often having a worse reputation than it deserved in real life. So, one of the things I learned in the first few weeks is that there are significant part of the Ukrainian court system that actually work, you know decide on tax cases etcetera, within a reasonable period of time. And sometimes the issue is the court orders are not implemented by the tax service, and you need to persuade them, and they do. But this notion that I think…I’m going to go into dangerous metaphorical territory here so I’m sorry…so many people use the “burning platform” argument from 2014 to 2021, arguing that things were probably so serious that you need to do something major. You need to change it, you need to have a big technical assistance program to fix it, and to get the money, and to get the support you need to paint things as darkly and as horribly as possible. Physically the platform really is burning, literally here in Ukraine, people are realizing that it’s not as dysfunctional as we were saying. And also, Ukrainians, are they really the poorest people in Europe? Or were they just statistically the poorest people in Europe? And instead, people from three times richer Russia come to Ukraine and say “Wait a minute, I need to steal your washing machine because you’re better off than I am”. So there’s a lot of assumptions that are being questioned and shifted by this war. And I think there’s a sense…I was lining up in UKRAINIAN at the train station with Ukrainians who’ve been in the lineup for two hours, so they’re not terribly happy, commenting on the fact that, you know, the world outside is not so amazingly better than life in Ukraine. Some of these Europeans were saying “they live in the stone age! You can’t do anything with your phone”. In Italy, one guy was saying to another lady “you realize you eat your meal, and you get something written on paper and you have to take it to this desk somewhere else in the restaurant? There’s no QR code, there’s nothing!”. So, I think, not just in terms of bravery, but in terms of what actually was achieved from after 2014, but also [in] 30 years, people now appreciate it differently now that it’s so threatened by destruction.
Maybe just another little anecdote. I was at one point doing a border crossing on foot, legally I might add obviously, I was not sneaking across the border.

AK: Not crawling

RW: UKRAINIAN standing in line, with a bunch of people from Kramatorsk, who have been evacuated from Kramatorsk, one earlier, and others just a few days earlier who were intending on going to Germany. And one of the things I said was “you know, it’s so terrible, Kramatorsk, so much was done after 2014. Our city became so much nicer, and all of that is now being threatened and destroyed”. But the thing is until that threat came, you probably would have had a hard time finding people one the street if you did a vox-pop in Kramatorsk in 2020 or 2021, saying is your city nice? No not good enough. It’s only when it’s threatened, as one of my Canadian countrymen, Joey Mitchell said: “you don’t know what you got until it’s gone”. And that’s what’s happening. Ukrainians are appreciating a lot of things about their country more.

AK: Things that happen to change our perception of [the] simplest things [and] simplest words, and when you said “I will sit in my basement” you’d probably guessed what I immediately thought of. Though I understood you meant another thing. The picture is here. What has changed in your perception since the 24th of February this year?

RW: Certainly my appreciation for Ukrainian bravery. Which before was kind of abstract, now it’s very visible and very practical. I already sort of largely appreciated Ukrainian sort-of horizontal self-organizations skills, but thy certainly come out very prominently. I would say also this kind of voluntary coming-out of Ukrainian business and citizens, and offering the state money, pay taxes in advance. I was talking today to an economist who pointed out the famous single-person entrepreneurs, that a large number of them didn’t take advantage of the offer in February-March to shift from 5% taxation to 2% taxation. They, for patriotic reasons, said “No, I’ll keep paying more” so the government has money for the army. So, I think that is a big change, because mistrust was traditionally the mode, both on the part of the people, business, and then the state in dealing with business and the people. So, for me that was a hugely hopeful moment, and my main concern is we don’t lose that moment now as things painfully, but semi-normalize in many parts of the country. So,it means government shouldn’t go back its their bad old habits, and neither should citizens, and neither should businesses. Having sort-of put everything on the table, I would rather see things kept on the table rather than hidden away under the table.

AK: One of the last questions, you say the government should not go back to bad old habits, and people of course should not. But aren’t we in danger of acquiring new bad habits because of the war.

RW: I think there is naturally a worry about authoritarianism, although I think the quest for strong leadership is natural at a time of conflict, and you don’t want everything organized by consensus when there’s not time for consensus to necessarily be evolved. I think there’s enough resilience and resistance to that in Ukraine for it to not actually become a dominant feature. I think the trauma of simply hundreds of thousands of people seeing people being blown apart, body parts separated and etcetera, that’s hard, and that will be a psychological burden for decades to come. Some people will find it easier to overcome, others will find it more difficult to overcome. And then I think it’s been interesting for me to read young progressive Ukrainian journalists or activists writing about how they’re concerned with managing their own hate. And coming to the conclusion, which I think is not unreasonable at this point, that right now they can’t help but hate given what’s happening to their friends, to their family, given the nature of the enemy that has attacked Ukraine. But in the long-term how you sort-of come down from that emotion and how you transform it into something more positive, that will be decisive for country.

AK: Roman Waschuk, Ukraine’s business ombudsman, and previously a very successful ambassador of Canada to this country, a guest of Ukraine Calling, the English language podcast on Hromadske Radio. Thank you very much your excellency.

RW: And it was excellent talking to you!