NATO's door still open for Ukraine: Clinton

3rd July 2010, Comments 0 comments

The door to NATO membership remains open for Ukraine but the strategic ex-Soviet state does not need to choose between Russia and the West, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Kiev Friday.

Clinton is the highest ranking US official to visit Ukraine since the election as president of Viktor Yanukovych, who scrapped his predecessor's staunchly pro-Western stance in favour of closer ties with Russia.

In addition to Ukraine, Clinton is to visit several other ex-Communist countries in Russia's backyard on a major tour taking place against the backdrop 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.

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.

"Some have tried to force Ukrainians into a choice between aligning your country with Russia or with the West. We believe it is a false choice," Clinton said after talks with Yanukovych.

"We do not believe in the concept of spheres of influence."

She also played down the spy scandal with Moscow, saying that the United States was "committed to building a new and positive relation with Russia".

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.

There has also been 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."

Yanukovych meanwhile for the first time revealed that Ukraine wanted to build a new pipeline for the transit of Russian gas across its territory, in a three-way joint venture with Russia and the European Union.

He said the pipeline "would ensure additional possibilities for deliveries" to Europe. A quarter of the gas consumed in the European Union comes from Russia, 80 percent of which passes through Ukraine.

At the start of his mandate, Yanukovych moved with breathtaking speed to revive relations with Russia, prompting howls of protest from pro-Western politicians.

There has also been concern about media freedom in Ukraine under Yanukovych, with private television companies issuing petitions complaining of 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 steered clear of publicly criticising the Ukrainian authorities on the issue.

"We'll continue to raise concerns about freedom of the media, freedom of assembly (...) It's important for a government to make the kind of commitment that this government has made and to follow through on it," she said.

Senior US officials said Clinton had discussed the issue during her meeting with Yanukovych, specifically citing the case of two television stations.

"She wants to be encouraging, not lecturing," a US official told journalists.

Clinton's tour will also take her to Poland, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia but not Russia itself.

© 2010 AFP

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