Paul Grod takes over helm of Ukrainian World Congress
After returning from a Nov. 27 meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, Paul Grod tried to make his way through the lobby of the President Hotel.
But he kept getting stopped by well-wishers. They congratulated him on his uncontested election to a four-year term as the president of the Ukrainian World Congress, an organization that strives to represent 20 million Ukrainians living outside Ukraine. It held its 11th congress at the Kyiv hotel. Grod succeeds Eugene Czolij, who served 10 years.
During an interview with the Kyiv Post, Grod also fielded telephone calls from Security Service of Ukraine head Vasyl Hrytsak and Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Valeriy Chaly. He had just seen President Petro Poroshenko on Nov. 25. He returned home to Toronto on Nov. 29.
Such attention is befitting one of the world's most recognized leaders of the Ukrainian diaspora, a married father of four children whose parents emigrated from Ukraine to Canada.
In 2001, Grod was elected vice president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, in a nation that is home to 1.4 million Ukrainian-Canadians. He became president in 2010 as well as vice president of the Ukrainian World Congress during the IX official meeting. He is founder and CEO of Rodan Energy Solutions, a Canadian company with 100 employees that specializes in energy efficiency.
The 42 million Ukrainians still living in Ukraine rely on the diaspora abroad to help the homeland remain a strong and independent nation, a status under attack by Russia's war since 2014.
In 2017, Ukrainians working or living abroad sent around $9 billion to their home country, about 7 percent of the economy.
Grod says all Ukrainians globally — up to 65 million people living inside and outside of Ukraine — need to unite for the long struggle ahead.
"We have been facing Russia aggression for 300 years. Why do we think it's going to go away?" Grod told the Kyiv Post. "One of the biggest mistakes we made as a diaspora was, when Ukraine became independent in 1991, we said: 'Hey let's celebrate, all is good.' Even Ukrainians couldn't believe how the Russians could be our enemies. That's become very clear. With the attitude of Russia towards Ukraine, we believe this will be a protracted aggression. Whether it's military, economic, political or culture, it will continue, potentially for decades."
He said Ukrainians abroad must build strong self-help institutions — from cradle to grave — and stay engaged in the nations where they are living and with Ukraine.
That engagement includes "not falling prey to the cynicism that many are falling prey to because of the reading of the Ukrainian media and 'everything is bad, everything is terrible here,’" Grod said. "I'm not an apologist for the government or Petro Poroshenko, but a positive image of Ukraine is very important. One of Russia's strongest weapons is creating that cynicism."
But the next time he sees Poroshenko, he said that he would question the wisdom of imposing martial law in response to Russia's attacks on three Ukrainian navy vessels on Nov. 25.
"I hate the phrase," he said of martial law. "Whoever came up with that, what were they thinking? Of course they're going to create alarm bells and so why would they call it martial law?"
Russia's war and the attacks at sea put greater responsibility on all Ukrainians to set the record straight with the news media, government officials and others who influence public opinion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin "is discouraging foreign investors," Grod said. "Putin is doing a good job of trying to undermine Ukraine's economy."
Fearing lost identity
Another challenge for Ukrainians is the exodus of people from the homeland who find jobs in other nations. The ability to seek new opportunities increased in 2017 with visa-free travel for short-term stays to most of Europe. Grod is not so much alarmed by Ukrainians leaving Ukraine as he is by his fears that and more of the new diaspora are moving to places with no Ukrainian institutions — schools, credit unions, community centers, churches and so forth to keep alive history, culture, and language. In many cities with sizeable Ukrainian communities, these institutions have promoted the Ukrainian identity for generations. In Soviet times, Ukrainians abroad kept alive the dream of an independent Ukraine.
"One of the biggest challenges Ukraine faces is not only a huge wave of immigration leaving Ukraine, but what is happening to those immigrants when they leave. We are witnessing a disastrous level of assimilation among this wave of Ukrainians who are leaving. I'm just very afraid we are going to lose a significant Ukrainian population in terms of global conscientiousness. So we need to act on that. That's why building those institutions in those countries is going to be incredibly important."
Grod said that established Ukrainian communities in different nations need to reach out to new immigrants and help them adjust to their new lives with financial and other assistance.
Besides electing Grod, the Ukrainian World Congress also moved to decentralize its operations with six regional vice presidents and six administrative vice presidents. Altogether, the organization has networks in 61 countries.
Grod says that the organization is at its "all-time, high-water mark" in relations with the Ukrainian government, elected officials and members of political parties. "Where we lack is in general knowledge among Ukrainians about who we are as an organization and who we are as a people," he said.
That's a big challenge, but no less a hurdle than getting the far-flung diaspora to be more united and effective.
He said there are proven paths to success. Wherever a Ukrainian lives and no matter how many generations ago his or her family left Ukraine, cultural issues to preserve a strong Ukrainian identity are unifiers.
"We have a huge diaspora, strong, smart, sophisticated, worldly," he said. "They want to help. They want to get involved. They just need an outlet. We're going to create that outlet with the Ukrainian World Congress."
The congress won't endorse any candidates for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine.
"We're absolutely non-partisan," Grod said. "We would never endorse any political party, whether it's in Ukraine or globally. We will, however, because we represent the interests of the Ukrainian diaspora, be asking the presidential candidates to outline their policies and priorities to us. That has worked well for us in other countries and allowed us to hold the governing party's feet to the fire based on what they committed to us in the pre-election process. We do also plan on sending an election observation mission to Ukraine."
Neutrality does not stop the organization from speaking out against the government "if we think they are making missteps" or giving "credit where credit is due." The organization strives to be "the moral compass for the Ukrainian people."
Who is Paul Grod?
Like many others, Grod stepped up his activism because of the EuroMaidan Revolution that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power on Feb 22, 2014.
"Being Ukrainian defines me. it's something I care about passionately. When I look at what our people and parents and forefathers went through, it's time we step up to make sure that Ukraine reclaims its right to have an independent country. It's an obligation because of how many people have sacrificed their lives because they're Ukrainian," Grod said. "I love being Ukrainian. I love being Ukrainian-Canadian. We can be patriots of Ukraine and patriots of Canada and one does not conflict with the other."
Paul Grod, a Ukrainian-Canadian who is the new president of the Ukrainian World Congress, speaks at a Nov. 28 press conference in Kyiv. The organization has members in 61 nations. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)