NATO's door still open for Ukraine: Clinton
The door to NATO membership remains open for Ukraine, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Kiev Friday, after its parliament abandoned the previous administration's bid to join the alliance.
Clinton is the highest ranking US official to visit Ukraine since the election of president of Viktor Yanukovych, who has scrapped his predecessor's staunchly pro-Western stance in favour of closer ties with Russia.
As well as Ukraine, Clinton is to visit several other ex-Communist countries in Russia's backyard on a major tour against the background of the discovery of an alleged Cold War-style Russian spy ring in the United States.
"Ukraine is a sovereign and independent country that has the right to choose its own alliances and NATO's door remains open," Clinton said at a meeting with her Ukrainian counterpart Kostyantyn Gryshchenko.
"But it's up to Ukraine to decide whether or not you wish to pursue that or any other course for your own security interest," she added.
The Ukrainian authorities led by Yanukovych have abandoned the aim of his pro-Western predecessor Viktor Yushchenko to join NATO, with Yanukovych pledging to pursue a policy of neutrality.
Ukraine's parliament late Thursday passed in the final reading a law formally establishing a non-aligned status for the country.
Yanukovych came to power earlier this year after defeating the pro-Western leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution in elections that underlined Ukrainians' disappointment with the lack of economic and political change.
The country's economy shrank by over 15 percent last year amid the economic crisis and the previous administration was beset by sometimes comical infighting.
Kiev received a 16.4-billion-dollar rescue loan package from the IMF but the fund halted disbursement of the loan after the previous government violated the IMF's austerity rules and the authorities are now seeking to have this reopened.
"We know that you're undertaking reform plans which are welcomed," said Clinton.
"We hope that Ukraine will conclude an agreement with the IMF shortly to advance this process."
There has also been international concern over the Ukrainian energy sector after a dispute between Kiev and Moscow over gas in early 2009 led to several European countries being deprived of energy supplies.
Clinton said the United States was ready to help Ukraine by investing in its energy industry "including in the nuclear energy sector, as well as helping developing the gas sector."
At the start of his mandate, Yanukovych moved with breathtaking speed to revive relations with Russia, prompting howls of protest from more nationalist Ukrainians in the country's east.
Yanukovych agreed to prolong the lease of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine by another quarter century in exchange for a discount on Russian gas imports.
Cooperation in nuclear industries, ship-building and even a merger of the Russian and Ukrainian state gas companies has also been mooted.
There has also been concern about media freedoms in Ukraine under Yanukovych, with private television companies issuing petitions complaining censorship in news programmes.
The US ambassador to Ukraine complained last month there had been "troubling reports of pressure on journalists" and warned there should be no going back to the "old system" of government pressure.
Clinton's tour will also take her to Poland, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia but not Russia itself.
© 2010 AFP