Looking back at 2020

Chrystia Freeland (Left); Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Marco Levytsky, Western Bureau Chief.

When historians – and for that matter all of us – look back at 2020, the overriding event that will dominate everything else that happened, will be the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which originated in China late in 2019, but swept the world early in 2020. The full impact of the first wave of this virus hit Canada in mid March, declined a bit in the Summer, then returned with a vengeance as the second wave. This not only created a health crisis, but also an economic one. As all the lockdowns closed many businesses and put many people out of work, the government responded with fiscal stimulus measures that are raising the debt to unprecedented levels. What will happen when it comes time to pay the piper, only time can tell. Towards the end of this year several vaccines have been approved and the first people, mainly frontline health care workers, have been inoculated. As mentioned in last week’s editorial this provides a light at the end of the tunnel and hope for the future. But it is also a long tunnel and most experts agree that full herd immunity, as it is called, will not be reached until this fall and only then will things get back to some semblance of normalcy.

But while Covid-19 dominated the news in 2020 and stood way above all other issues in world attention, other significant events took place as well and they too deserve our attention.

One of the biggest stories in Canada was the appointment on August 18 of Chrystia Freeland as the first female finance minister in history. This came on top of her already strenuous portfolio as Deputy Prime Minister and cemented her role as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “minister of everything” as MacLean’s put it, or “most indispensable minister” as we did. While this was an historically significant appointment it also came during the worst economic crisis Canada has suffered since the Great Depression. So, Chrystia has her work cut out for her. But we are convinced she will tackle that crisis successfully just as she has tackled other crisis situations in the past.

Of course, Chrystia Freeland’s success is a matter of great pride to the Ukrainian Canadian community of which she is such a proud member. In her previous posts as Foreign Affairs Minister and International Trade Minister she successfully negotiated the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA) and not only organized Canada’s steadfast support for Ukraine, but also promoted it on the world stage with our allies. As we have often commented before, she stands out as Canada’s Prime Minister-in-Waiting.

The year began however, with a massive tragedy that affected both Canada and Ukraine. This was the downing of Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) Flight PS752 on January 8, when Iran fired two Russian-made TOR missiles at the plane just as it took off from Tehran airport, killing all 176 people on board. Of those 176, 138 were connecting in Kyiv to Toronto. This included 57 Canadian citizens. Many of the other 81 were Iranian students studying in Canadian universities, or Iranians who had permanent residency status in Canada, but had not yet obtained citizenship. As well, 11 Ukrainians, nine of whom were crew members died in the crash. Here, Ukraine as the country whose plane was shot down, was able to assist Canada considerably. This included efforts to ensure access to the scene of the tragedy for Canadian experts, and assistance in dialogue with the Iranian authorities regarding the identification of the bodies of the victims, including Canadian citizens.

But throughout the course of the year, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who won a 73 percent landslide in the presidential election, then followed up with a massive parliamentary victory which gave his Servant of the People’s Party the first outright majority in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada in history, saw both his influence and popularity wane. The parliamentary majority withered as many of the deputies elected had ties to oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoisky in particular, and were thus reluctant to implement the measures Zelenskyy required to implement the reforms he was elected to do. This led to electoral setbacks for his party in the October local elections.

Also in October, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court struck down some anti-corruption legislation and curbed the powers of the National Anti-Corruption Agency (NAZK), sparking tensions between Zelenskyy, the opposition, and members of the court. On December 15, the Verkhovna Rada voted to restore the powers of the NAZK as Kyiv seeks to secure new loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fight a sharp economic slump triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. The conflict, however, will carry on into the New Year and will become a litmus test of Zelenskyy’s ability to live up to his promise of reform.

On the global stage, perhaps the most significant event was Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump. This will have a major effect on Canada, on Ukraine and on the world.

As far as Canada is concerned, this will mark the end of idiotic and mutually destructive tariffs inflicted upon Canadian aluminum and other products. However, there is a major bone of contention that will arise with the Biden administration and that is the promise to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline carrying Alberta oil to Texas. Both the federal and Alberta governments are lobbying U.S. lawmakers to let the project go ahead. We will see what happens after Biden is inaugurated.

As far as Ukraine is concerned Biden’s election is most welcome news indeed. On the one hand, it’s goodbye to a president who had nothing but contempt for Ukraine, who slavishly followed the lead of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, even to the point of taking his word over that of his own intelligence agencies and even went so far as to blackmail Ukraine into digging up dirt on Biden and his son, Hunter, by unconstitutionally holding back Congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine in the midst of a struggle for its survival.

On the flip side, Biden has extensive Ukraine experience, having served as the point man to Kyiv when he was vice president during Barack Obama’s 2009-17 presidency and having made six trips to Ukraine during his eight years in the White House. He will give firm support for Ukraine in its war with the Russian Federation, will buttress the anti-corruption campaign and ensure continued bipartisan support for Ukraine in Congress.

As far as the world is concerned, this marks the end of Trump’s policy of coddling dictators while picking fights with America’s traditional allies and retreating from the international leadership role the United States has maintained since the Second World War. What we will see is a return to normalcy in international diplomacy as Biden mends fences with democratic allies while taking a strong stand against dictatorships.

So, while we look back at 2020 with a sense of relief that the year is finally coming to a close, we look forward to 2021 with more than a glimmer of hope.