Malaysia and Ukraine will forever be linked by a horrendous act of terror that neither country will allow to be forgotten.
IN an ideal world, all bonds would be initiated by a joyous occasion in which two parties come together.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Malaysia and Ukraine, no act defines our relationship more than the tragic downing of MH17 on July 17, 2014.
On that day, 298 people lost their lives and it is something no Malaysian will ever forget.
In the intervening passage of time, borne partly out of close co-operation during the investigations which are still largely believed to point at separatists using a surface to air missile, our two nations have forged an understanding.
Earlier this month, this culminated in the first ever official visit of a sitting Ukrainian President to Malaysia when President Petro Poroshenko came to Malaysia, during which our two leaders jointly highlighted the “necessity of finishing the investigation and using all possible means to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Earlier this week, I spoke to newly appointed Ukrainian Ambassador to Malaysia H.E. Ambassador Olexander Nechytaylo on the ties that developed between Malaysia and Ukraine, partly born out of a joint pursuit of justice.
“The destruction of MH17 was one of those sad moments that we can’t forget.
“When this happened, people in Ukraine were very sorry that innocent people from other countries were killed by this war,” he said.
“One thing about finding yourself in a difficult situation is that you see who is a real friend. Many can pretend when times are good, but when times are bad, that is when true friendship shows.
“We can see that both Ukraine and Malaysia are fully determined and committed that the perpetrators must be brought to justice.”
“It has been more than two years, but we will not give up. It may not seem tangible to get those responsible extradited directly, but look at the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia in early 1990s.
“Who would imagine that more than 10 years later, senior leaders like Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic would face trial for war crimes?”
The conflict that claimed the lives of the MH17 victims is, of course, a separatist movement in Southern and Eastern Ukraine, widely alleged to be backed by the Russian leadership.
It is the most tumultuous period of Ukraine’s history since it broke away from the old Soviet Union into which Nechytaylo was born.
“I was born in 1973 and most of my recollections start in 1980s. The time of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was one of the greatest leaders in terms of forging peace, overcoming rivalries and promoting openness.
“I grew up listening to the radio in secret to hear Western rock music and that’s why the Scorpions song Wind of Change is still momentous to me. It was a time when huge things happened. One of the best times in terms of transition of totalitarian regime to democracy.”
Nechytaylo also recalls the summer of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster.
“That happened near Kiev where I grew up. It was on April 26, 1986.
“Even though in the USSR, they controlled information, everybody knew something bad had happened in Chernobyl. But nobody could imagine just how much.
“The first batch of firefighters went into the plant with no protection and some died within hours from the intense radioactive poisoning.
“My parents sent me a week later to spend the whole summer in Armenia. Most other young people went to Crimea.”
Since independence, Ukraine has its fair share of flare-ups.
“I would call it 25 years of an uneasy but steady way to build a democracy, although notably in 1991, Ukraine exited the USSR with no bloody conflict,” said Nechtaylo.
One dramatic moment was the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005.
“The Orange Revolution shows that the government cannot ignore the will of people. The elections were rigged in favour of then prime minister Viktor Yanukovych. After massive protests, the rightful winner Viktor Yushchenko became president.”
Subsequent turmoil also saw prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko jailed for two and a half years from 2011.
“Yanukovych came back in 2010 with a promise of a bright future in Europe but he made some last minute U-turns. In 2013, this triggered a popular uprising and it was in this circumstance that the Ukraine was attacked.
“The conflict has resulted in one million internally displaced people and we have lost more than 10,000 civilian lives since 2013. In those regions of conflict, there are still unbearable conditions for the locals,” said Nechtaylo.
Ukraine is of course the birthplace of that misunderstood genius, my political idol Leon Trotsky.
In more recent times, a number of famous sportsmen from Oleg Blokhin to Sergei Bubka have made their mark globally.
I asked why footballer Andriy Shevchenko’s foray into politics was less successful than that of champion boxer Vitali Klitschko.
“Shevchenko is a nice player but maybe not so sophisticated. After Euro 2012, he briefly entered politics but now has gone back to sport and is manager of the national team starting last month.
Vitali, on the other hand, is now mayor of Kiev. He is perhaps not a typical boxer, he speaks many languages, plays chess, has a PhD. He is a very popular person in Ukraine.
Another interesting phenomenon in Ukraine was the era of Femen nude protests.
“I missed out because the group was at its most active when I was abroad, but to speak seriously, a nation must be tolerant and accept protests unless they violate personal space.”
Nechytaylo has focussed almost the entirety of his career on the Asian region, first serving in Jakarta during the final year of the Suharto regime as well as Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. He also served four years in Kuala Lumpur in a junior capacity.
“I am ambitious and very serious about building bilateral ties. Our president came here with 42 business people and its part of my job to make sure we follow up on trade and the economy.
“We have signed three important documents on double taxation, mutual legal assistance for our law enforcement channels and extradition.
“The most important thing is that both our leaders have a good chemistry which helps make an outcome productive. Before this visit they have spoken on the phone and met in New York. Our president is very impressed by the level of economic growth here.”
The ambassador remains optimistic about the rebuilding job in Ukraine.
“This is the reality we have to live in. Things will never be back to the pre-2014 period.
“But there is a saying ... when you look in a puddle, some see the mud, and some see the stars reflected in the water. We must forge ahead.”
Star Online news editor Martin Vengadesan still hopes for proper justice in the MH17 tragedy.