Ukraine leader woos businessmen

Pointing to his country’s emerging agriculture sector, steady economic growth and recent ascension into the World Trade Organization, Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko called on Canadian business leaders Wednesday to pump more investment into Europe’s “breadbasket.”

Yushchenko also announced that Ukraine’s Ministry of Fuels and Energy has signed a memorandum of understanding with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to study CANDU nuclear technology.

“This is great news, it’s a great work plan,” Yushchenko told a business gathering in Toronto.

The agreement begins with a four-month feasibility study and comes as Ukraine looks to diminish its reliance upon Russian energy reserves, which Moscow has wielded as a political tool.

During a luncheon speech to the Economic Club of Toronto at a downtown hotel, Yushchenko also outlined his government’s efforts to slash bureaucracy and open Ukraine’s economy to make it a “one-stop shop” for foreign investment.

“If we were to talk about overall economic stability, Ukraine has it,” he said.

As world food prices continue to spike, Ukraine’s vast areas of arable land offer “astonishing opportunities” for investors, he added, noting the country is celebrating record employment levels and created roughly one million new jobs last year.

Earlier this month, the Ukrainian government predicted this year would see a grain harvest of about 40 million tonnes, with 13 million of those earmarked for export.

Yushchenko said that while some socialist tendencies continue to hamper growth, the country has made great strides towards a free-market model.

“If we’re aware of the problems, we’ll cure them,” he said.

Ukraine recently announced it would lift a two-year ban on exporting grain, and Yushchenko said this year marks the first time all arable land in the country will be privately owned.

He added Ukraine’s economic growth in the first quarter, though down from previous years, still sits at a robust six per cent.

“We want to live like the rest of Europe,” said Yushchenko, referring to his country’s desire to live in a free and democratic society.

He said many Ukrainians now look favourably to the West, with recent polls showing a growing number of Ukrainians support a push to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Yushchenko said that three years ago, only 17 per cent of Ukrainians supported joining NATO, but last month, that number has climbed to about 35 per cent.

“We see it as a matter of time,” he said, referring to his country’s move toward the European economic and political sphere.

Yushchenko, who spent his last day in Canada in Toronto, received a rousing reception during a meeting earlier in the day with members of the city’s Ukrainian community.

Fans seeking autographs and photos of the charismatic leader gathered in front of a westside club, and he didn’t disappoint.

Yushchenko, famed for leading his country’s so-called “Orange Revolution” more than three years ago, stopped his motorcade and stepped out of a black limousine to greet several dozen well-wishers.

Yushchenko also delivered a speech to hundreds of Ukrainian-Canadians and was praised by federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty for his country’s democratic progress over the past 17 years.

The Toronto visit comes a day after Yushchenko addressed the House of Commons, which moved to declare the Soviet-engineered famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s – which claimed the lives of millions – an act of genocide.

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