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World Ukraine's prime minister seeks to change his country’s narrative in Canada

Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, seen in Berlin in June, 2016, will address Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a number of Canadian business leaders when he arrives in Ottawa on Saturday.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Ukraine has been in the headlines for much of the past four years, almost always for unfortunate reasons. First came a bloody revolution, then the loss of the Crimean Peninsula and the start of the undeclared war with neighbouring Russia that continues until today.

None of that is the kind of news that foreign investors like to read, so Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman arrives Saturday in Canada hoping to change the narrative.

The Ukraine he'll be pitching to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canadian business leaders over his five-day visit is a country that has enormous challenges, but also one that's finally starting to recover from the tumult that began with the pro-Western revolution – and Russia's subsequent military interventions – in 2014.

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"Of course, Ukraine is experiencing a very difficult time – but also we should stress that over the past three years, Ukraine made great strides to reform itself in many areas," Mr. Groysman said in an interview with The Globe and Mail inside the Cabinet of Ministers building in central Kiev.

He said the economy had finally started growing again – expanding by just more than 2 per cent in 2016 and maintaining that pace through the first half of this year – after three years of precipitous decline that saw the country's gross domestic product collapse to nearly half its previous level.

But Mr. Groysman said few people had noticed the turnaround because Russia's attack on Ukraine has included a disinformation campaign that has been successful at portraying a country in chaos. (The impression is not entirely a Kremlin creation – while Mr. Groysman spoke to The Globe, several thousand protesters were camped on the street outside, calling for his government to resign over its failure to change Ukraine's culture of corruption.)

"The Russian propaganda machine is aimed against Ukraine," Mr. Groysman said, blinking the fatigue out of his eyes near the end of a 12-hour workday. "In reality, the Ukrainian army managed to stop the aggressor. The national economy, by hard efforts, has started to reorient itself, and Ukrainian citizens have demonstrated their resolve."

Mr. Groysman, who at 39 is Ukraine's youngest-ever Prime Minister, is known primarily as the political protégé of President Petro Poroshenko, who pushed parliament to elect Mr. Groysman in April, 2016, after prevailing in a power struggle with the previous prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk.

Eighteen months after taking office, Mr. Groysman is still introducing himself to world leaders. But he arrives in Canada with fresh legislative achievements to boast of after pushing through a series of key reforms this fall, including overhauls of the country's crumbling health system and its dysfunctional pension plan.

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Both measures are aimed at convincing the International Monetary Fund to release $1.9-billion (U.S.) in funding that is being withheld because of the slow pace of reforms. However, neither measure has yet convinced the IMF, or the protesters on the streets.

The trip to Canada is one of the most important foreign excursions Mr. Groysman has undertaken. The warm relationship between the two countries – nurtured by the politically powerful Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora – is a critical one for Kiev. With U.S. President Donald Trump battling accusations that the Kremlin aided his election bid, and the European Union far from united over how to deal with Vladimir Putin's regime, Ukraine has no stauncher ally than Canada.

Canadian governments – both Liberal and Conservative – have slapped sanctions on Mr. Putin's inner circle, and sent Canadian soldiers and police to help train Ukraine's security services. The Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement – which eliminates duties on most goods produced in one country and imported to the other – came into force on Aug. 1.

"Putting it bluntly, Canada became an absolutely crucial partner for Ukraine for the past three years, since the start of Russia's undeclared war in Ukraine," said Taras Berezovets, a Kiev-based political analyst. The only hiccup in the relationship, he said, has been Canada's refusal to provide lethal weapons to the Ukrainian army – a step Ottawa is unlikely to take unless the United States joins it, because of the angry reaction it would provoke from Moscow.

The close ties between Kiev and Ottawa mean that an idea floated by Mr. Poroshenko during his own recent visit to Canada – he called for a Canadian-led peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine – is almost certainly a non-starter. Russia, which supports and supplies the separatist militias that have taken over parts of southeastern Ukraine, sees Canada as anything but a neutral party in the conflict and would almost certainly object to Canadian peacekeepers should the idea ever get as far as the United Nations.

The aims of Mr. Groysman's own visit are less controversial: He wants to talk less about the war, and more about the opportunities in Ukraine for Canadian businesses.

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He'll address the business and political leaders at the Toronto Global Forum on Monday before travelling on to Ottawa for meetings with Mr. Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. Afterward, Mr. Groysman will visit Montreal to directly lobby Canadian aerospace companies for investment in Ukraine's plane-making sector, which produces the famed Antonov cargo planes, but has lost much of its supply chain owing to the conflict with Russia.

Mr. Groysman is hoping other industries, particularly Canada's agribusiness sector – which could help Ukraine's farmers though a technological upgrade – will be interested in taking advantage of lower tariffs under the new free-trade pact.

"When people think about Ukraine, they think about corruption and conflict. We want to say that we're the last emerging market in Europe, and we're trending up – buy in while asset prices are low," said Daniel Bilak, a Canadian-born lawyer working both as an adviser to Mr. Groysman and the head of a government agency tasked with drawing foreign investment to the country.

While Mr. Groysman has never met Mr. Trudeau – who will have the rare experience of being the elder statesman in the room, at the age of 45 – they have appeared together on lists of the world's youngest leaders.

The two men have little in common beyond their youth; Mr. Groysman shares almost none of Mr. Trudeau's easy charisma. In person, he comes across as earnest and intense, qualities that earned him admiration during his eight-year stint as mayor of the mid-sized city of Vinnytsia but don't easily translate into nationwide popularity.

Opinion polls suggest that support for Mr. Poroshenko has fallen below 20 per cent, raising the question of whether he can win re-election in 2019. The same polls show Mr. Groysman – who has quietly begun to distance himself from Mr. Poroshenko – has almost no support base of his own, with just 5 per cent saying they would vote for him in a multicandidate presidential election.

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Still Mr. Groysman said he hoped that he and Mr. Trudeau would find it easy to understand each other. "Politics around the world is getting younger indeed," he said, pointing to France's 39-year-old President Emmanuel Macron, and the newly elected Prime Minister of Austria, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz.

"We are representatives of the new generation," Mr. Groysman said, cracking a rare smile. "Maybe we see the world differently."

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