Clinton's Ukraine Visit Puts Freedom Under Spotlight

WASHINGTON, DC -- Signs of a rollback of democratic freedoms in Ukraine and an increasing tilt towards Moscow will be under the spotlight during the first visit by a senior US official since Viktor Yanukovich became president four months ago.

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, has arrived in Kiev today at the start of a tour also taking in Poland, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia - deep into what Moscow considers to be its backyard - just days after Russia-US relations were tested by a spy scandal.

Ukraine had been seen as a leading US ally in the former Soviet Union under the former president, Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution. But it has tipped sharply towards Moscow since the pro-Russian Mr Yanukovich became president, despite his pledges to steer Kiev on a balanced path between east and west.

Still reeling from a 15 per cent economic contraction last year - making it one of the countries worst hit by the global financial crisis - Ukraine has gone further than expected in reviving ties with Russia. Mr Yanukovich won a reduction in natural gas prices, vital to Ukrainian industry, in return for a 25-year extension of Russia's lease on the Black Sea naval base of Sevastopol.

Ukraine's natural gas monopoly appears to be moving towards putting assets into a joint venture with Russia's Gazprom, while Russia has pushed to merge strategic assets, such as shipbuilding and nuclear power, which were united in Soviet days.

Mrs Clinton's visit will be largely focused on bolstering US-Ukraine ties.

The US argues Ukraine does not have to choose between Moscow and Washington and hails the symbolism of Mr Yanukovich's decision to visit Brussels instead for his first foreign trip as president.

However, Mrs Clinton will hear of growing fears that gains in democracy and press freedoms after the Orange Revolution have suffered under Mr Yanukovich. Journalists have called on the US secretary of state to send a strong warning to Mr Yanukovich.

"With evidence building up that news is being broadly censored and synchronised in a way that minimises criticism of the leadership and coverage of the opposition, it's clear that we have a systemic problem," said Natalia Ligachov, head of Ukraine's main media watchdog, Telekritika.

Source: The Financial Times