Clinton Urges Democratic Liberties, Pushes U.S. Partnership In Visit To Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton launched a tour of former Soviet-bloc countries Friday, aiming to promote democracy and provide reassurance that the United States is not ignoring the group despite the Obama administration's efforts to "reset" relations with Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gestures during a meeting with Ukraine's Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko in Kiev July 2, 2010.

Many analysts say countries such as Ukraine and Georgia have gotten less attention than they did under the George W. Bush administration, which made democracy promotion a signature issue.

Clinton began her five-country trip in Ukraine, which has moved closer to Russia since elections in February ousted the pro-Western government that had emerged from the 2004 Orange Revolution.

The new president, Viktor Yanukovych, has alarmed the Ukrainian opposition by dropping the country's bid to join NATO and signing a deal to extend the lease of a Russian base for 25 years.

Clinton appeared Friday to be wooing Ukraine's leadership, emphasizing in her public comments the importance of the relationship and U.S. eagerness to see the country's tattered economy improve.

The Obama administration has said it is not worried about the Ukrainian government's warming relations with Russia, noting that Yanukovych is also emphasizing close ties with the European Union and Washington.

"Ukraine is a sovereign and independent country that has the right to choose [its] own alliances," Clinton said. "NATO's door remains open, but it's up to Ukraine."

She spoke in a Foreign Ministry salon hung with chandeliers after a meeting of the U.S.-Ukrainian Strategic Partnership Commission, which Vice President Biden established last year to strengthen relations.

Clinton was cautious about what critics are calling an erosion of democratic liberties under Ukraine's new leadership. In recent months, a number of Ukrainian journalists and civic activists have complained of facing harassment or censorship.

"The United States will continue to raise concerns about freedom of the media, freedom of assembly, because we believe from our own experience that it's important for the government to make the kind of commitments this government has made, and to follow through," Clinton said at a news conference later. She added: "But our strategic partnership is very deep and broadening and strengthening."

David Kramer, the former assistant secretary of state for democracy in the George W. Bush administration, said it was important for Clinton to convey U.S. distress about violations of liberties.

"Ukraine is heading in the wrong direction," he said in an interview. "I'm more concerned about the rollbacks of democratic development than the orientation toward Russia."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko noted to reporters that the country's news media continue to criticize the government, which he called "evidence we believe in openness and transparency."

Ukraine is a critical conduit for Russian gas heading for Europe. In addition, U.S. officials say it could be an important symbol of democratization for other former Soviet countries.

But Washington officials became frustrated with the Orange Revolution leaders, who bickered constantly while in power, bringing government virtually to a halt. Ukraine is troubled by widespread corruption and poor economic management, analysts and officials say. Its economy shrank almost 15 percent last year during the global economic crisis.

The country is also hobbled by an inefficient and heavily subsidized energy sector. In January 2009, Russia cut off the supply of natural gas to Ukraine over a payment dispute, leaving Europe short of heating fuel for weeks.

After leaving Ukraine, Clinton is scheduled to travel to Poland, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia and return home Monday.

Source: The Washington Post