Clinton visits Ukraine, urging democratic liberties, U.S. partnership

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 3, 2010

KIEV, UKRAINE -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton kicked off a tour of former Soviet-bloc countries Friday by quietly warning Ukraine's new president not to backtrack on the democratic reforms ushered in by the 2004 Orange Revolution.

In presidential elections in February, Viktor Yanukovych defeated the pro-Western leaders who led the massive democracy demonstrations six years ago. Since then, Yanukovych has alarmed Ukraine's opposition and raised concerns in Washington by moving swiftly to improve his country's frigid relations with Russia. The Ukrainian parliament recently scrapped the country's bid to join NATO.

Clinton made clear that the Obama administration is not troubled, provided Yanukovych's intent is simply to come up with a more "balanced" foreign policy, involving Russia as well as the European Union and the United States. She noted that Ukraine decided this year to participate in exercises with the U.S. military.

Clinton expressed concern, however, about a string of incidents in which Ukrainian journalists and civic activists have complained of facing harassment or censorship.

"I've discussed the importance of defending these rights with your president," Clinton told students in an ornate, white-columned hall at the 19th-century Kiev Polytechnic Institute on Friday evening. "He has made a commitment to uphold Ukraine's democracy, to uphold the rule of law, to maintain respect for human rights."

Clinton said the U.S. government welcomes Yanukovych's declarations of support for democratic freedoms. "But we recognize rhetoric alone does not change behavior," she said. "These statements need to be followed up with concrete actions."

Hundreds of students burst into applause.

Newer democracies

Promoting democracy is a major theme of Clinton's trip, which will also take her to Poland, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Critics have accused the Obama administration of soft-pedaling democracy as it pursues a pragmatic foreign policy that includes what it calls a "reset" of relations with Russia.

Clinton is offering assurances that the newer democracies in the region are not being forgotten or sacrificed to the Russia relationship. Her message in Ukraine also focused on the country's devastated economy -- it shrank nearly 15 percent last year -- and inefficient energy sector. Corruption and poor management of the energy system have retarded the development of Ukraine, officials and analysts say.

At a news conference with Ukrainian officials, Clinton heaped praise on the clean election that Yanukovych won. She was somewhat muted about democratic liberties, an effort to avoid seeming to lecture the Ukrainian leadership, according to senior U.S. officials.

But in later meetings with students and civic activists, she was more emphatic.

"We have said very clearly to the Ukrainian government that we will make sure these values and freedoms are protected," Clinton told the students.

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