As It Happens

Ukraine election 'a wake-up' call to Canada on Russian meddling, warns former minister

Canada's former foreign minister says he's concerned about where Ukraine's newly-elected president — a popular TV actor with no political experience — will take the country, with Russia looking to exert its influence.

Despite Ukraine's efforts, former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy says Russia influenced election

Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a well-known comedian and actor who played Ukrainian president on TV before he was elected. (Reuters)
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An actor who played the president of Ukraine on TV now has that job in real life.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been elected in an overwhelming victory — with more than 70 per cent of the vote.

He told the crowd at his victory party Monday that he wasn't going to bother with any "pathetic speeches." And that sort of silence is why some watchers are concerned about where the neophyte leader may take the country.

Lloyd Axworthy is Canada's former Liberal foreign minister and is in Ukraine monitoring the election. He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the president-elect, the reach of Russia's influence — and why he thinks Canada is at risk ahead of the federal election.

Here is part of their conversation.

It's clear that this victory for Mr. Zelenskiy was pretty overwhelming. Did you have, or do you have, any doubts about the legitimacy of the vote?

No. I think one of the interesting and I think important results coming out is that Ukrainians, in very large numbers, voted for a change but did so in a very democratic way.

We have observers in every particular part of Ukraine and every report we got was that the election was clean. It was open. The ballots were there. No interference.

And it's a tribute, you know, in today's world, that you can actually have a change of government by the ballot box. And that, I think, is a real tribute to Ukraine and themselves.

Axworthy says a debate between former president Petro Poroshenko, left, and his rival, comedian and president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, right, was "political theatre at its best." (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Yet Ukraine is a country at war and, as you have pointed out, there were regions where people were not able to vote — Eastern Ukraine, Crimea. What prevented them from being able to cast a ballot?

Crimea is fully occupied by the Russians and the eastern part of Ukraine is by Russians and their proxies.

But what's happening is that the Ukrainian election system offered an opportunity for people to cross the border, to come to the free part of Ukraine, and many hundreds did.

But I got to tell you, it wasn't without obstructions. The Russians and their allies there were putting all kinds of barriers in the way, including planting land mines along the roads.

I want to get to that — about your concerns about what this tells us about the kind of influence Russia might be having in elections. But let's just talk about the actual victory here for VolodymyrZelenskiy. As people might or might not know he is a comedian, an actor, who is actually the star of a TV show that was about a teacher who becomes quite unwittingly the president of Ukraine. He's extremely well-known because of that role and now he is the president. What does he represent? Who is Mr. Zelenskiy?

You know something, right now, it's a mystery. He made a basic statement in his campaign. He's not making any promises because he doesn't want to break any promises. What he was really saying is I don't want to be held bound or accountable to different positions.

And that's, to me, one of the concerns about the election is it really was based on a quite tightly closed restriction of free press and media being able to provide policy and accountability for that policy from one of the major candidates.

Now, I have to tell you, I attended the most incredibly crazy political event in my life when I went to the stadium on Friday night where the two candidates were debating in an Olympic soccer stadium with 40,000 people cheering on their champions.

But I thought to myself, you know, maybe this isn't so crazy. Maybe that's not a bad way to get people out there participating. But even in those circumstances the new president-elect was very restricted in what he was prepared to commit.

It was political theatre at its most exciting and absurd, at the same time.

Little is known about Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but Axworthy says the former comedian and TV star will likely face pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

But Mr. Zelenskiy made a very powerful statement, didn't he, after his victory, that must have rattled [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. He said that, "As a citizen of Ukraine, I can say to all post-Soviet countries look at us. Everything is possible." What alarm bells must have gone on in Mr. Putin's head at that point?

That's an encouraging statement. It's an encouraging sign. But the intelligence that we've been picking up though is that Mr. Zelenskiy has around him some very talented people. I mean his campaign was really run by the producers and writers of his TV show. They were really skilled on it.

But when it comes down to what position he's going to be taking, it's going to happen soon. He's going to have to make really serious decisions because I think Putin is going to put some propositions in front of him very quickly.

Propositions like, well look, I'm prepared to exchange prisoners. I'm prepared to negotiate certain agreements as long as you agree to the invasion of Crimea.

And that's where I think there's a real responsibility from Western countries, including our own, to put our own kind of case forward.

This front row seat you have had on the Ukraine election has been able to let you see how Moscow operates and how it interferes in elections. What warnings are you coming back to Ottawa with? What will you tell Canadians and tell the government about what it can expect?

Carol, I'm coming back with almost a Paul Revere awareness. It's time for a wake up. This whole increasing ability to build a cyber system to change people's minds, to foment disruptions, is so powerful and and as one of the Ukrainian security people told me today, they've had five years of it.

And by the way, they were quite successful in the second round of elections in being able to suppress a lot of that because they had a preventative system. They've worked on their technology. They've worked on training their election people.

But there's no question that the agenda of Putin is to provide disruption where he goes. And I think we have an election in six months, and let's not kid ourselves — the Russians are going to be involved. It's a question of how well we're able to counteract that.

Written by Kate Swoger and John McGill. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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