KIEV (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Ukraine on Friday that the door to joining NATO remained open even though its new leadership has abandoned alliance membership as a long-term goal.
But she made clear that Washington did not seek to disrupt Ukraine’s new closer ties with Moscow. Those who pushed Ukraine to choose between Russia and the West were offering a “false choice,” she said.
At the same time, she urged President Viktor Yanukovich to stick to a democratic course and obliquely expressed concern over reports that media freedoms were being infringed.
“We would urge the Ukrainian government to safeguard these critical liberties,” she told a news conference with Yanukovich.
She also backed Ukraine’s push to win a new International Monetary Fund program of up to $19 billion and encouraged the country to strengthen its investment climate through economic reform, fighting corruption and upholding the rule of law.
Clinton’s discreet avoidance of any open criticism of pro-Russian moves by the newly-elected Yanukovich was in line with the Obama administration’s policy of “resetting” ties with Moscow.
Apart from downgrading contacts with the U.S.-led military alliance, Yanukovich has tilted Ukraine firmly toward Moscow by stepping up commercial contacts and by extending the stay of the Russian navy in a Ukrainian Black Sea port by 25 years.
“Regarding NATO, let me say very clearly: Ukraine is a sovereign and independent country that has the right to choose your own alliances,” Clinton told Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko.
“NATO’S door remains open but it is up to Ukraine to decide whether or not you wish to pursue that or any other course for your own security interests,” she added.
Yanukovich has dropped NATO membership as a goal, to the delight of Moscow, saying his country will remain outside military blocs. On Friday, he said Kiev would keep cooperating with the Western alliance on defense reform and peace-keeping.
Far from faulting his approach, Clinton later told students at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute “what Ukraine is doing in trying to balance its relationships between the United States, the European Union and Russia make a lot of sense.”
Yanukovich was sure to be pleased by Washington’s blessing for what he says is a pragmatic policy that looks both to Russia and the West, and for Ukraine’s efforts to stabilize its economy with help from global financial lenders.
Clinton fulsomely praised Yanukovich’s election in February as a “major step in consolidating Ukraine’s democracy.”
She later met his arch-rival former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now in opposition, who may have a different view.
Tymoshenko, who faces possible prosecution for alleged misdemeanors in office, disputed Yanukovich’s election but then dropped a legal attempt to block his inauguration.
The one area where Clinton came close to criticizing Yanukovich was over media freedoms and democratic liberties.
Last week, U.S. Ambassador to Kiev John Tefft expressed concern about reports of pressure on journalists since Yanukovich came to power.
“Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to petition governments, to assemble, to participate in the political sphere — these are not just afterthoughts,” she said. “These are absolutely the right and the property of each individual.”
Clinton said she had raised these issues with Yanukovich and she noted that he has previously committed to uphold democracy, strengthen rule of law and respect human rights.
“We recognize that rhetoric alone does not change behavior,” Clinton said. “These statements need to be followed up with concrete actions.”
Clinton is at the start of a five-country regional tour and was stopping in Krakow, Poland, on Saturday for a gathering of the Community of Democracies, a group that promotes democratic norms. She will also visit Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.
Additional reporting by Yuri Kulikov in Kiev; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton