Quo Vadis Ukraine

Source: State Department []

Ukraine”s Euro-Atlantic Future:
International Forum VI

Ukraine at the Crossroads

Quo Vadis Ukraine

Thomas O. Melia

Remarks by Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor, presented at Ukraine”s Euro-Atlantic Future Forum VI in Ottawa, Canada on March 7, 2012.

Thank you and good evening. I am delighted to join you at the opening of this timely international forum, “Ukraine at the Crossroads.” I commend the organizations who have brought us together on a surprisingly balmy day: the Canada Ukraine Foundation, the University of Ottawa, the Center for US-Ukrainian Relations, the Canada Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, the US-Ukraine Business Council, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress — and its member organizations — for bringing together opinion leaders from journalism, academia, civil society and the business world who are committed to a democratic, prosperous future for Ukraine, to provide fresh ideas and perspective to those of us now serving in government.

I am honored to be here among so many distinguished guests and especially tonight’s other keynote speakers — all of whom have been empowered to speak on behalf of the people of their countries as elected members of parliament: the honorable Borys Tarasyuk, Marcin Swiecicki, and Peter van Loan. And thanks especially to our moderator tonight, the celebrated journalist and author Chrystia Freeland.

The theme for tonight”s session — Quo Vadis Ukraine” — has been raised and pondered many times during the two decades of Ukraine’s independence.

There are many ways to answer the Quo Vadis” question, but I think we all can agree on at least one fundamental point: It is first and foremost for the men and women of Ukraine to shape their country”s future as a sovereign, independent country. And for the people of Ukraine to do so, they must be able to freely exercise their civil and political rights in an environment where the rule of law is respected and government officials and institutions are held accountable to the people, including through an unfettered press.

I daresay that to truly consolidate Ukraine’s independence, the country must consolidate its emergent democratic character. For what does sovereignty mean in the 21st Century if a country’s government does not understand its origins and purpose to be if not of the people, by the people, and for the people.

As the people of Ukraine make their way forward toward greater democracy and prosperity — a path that has not been and will not be straight or smooth , as is the case with most nations in transition — they can count on the friendship and support of the people and governments of the United States and — I trust — of Canada.

It is important to recall how much the Ukrainian people have achieved in their first 20 years as an independent country. They proved the skeptics wrong twice. First, by coming together — East to West, and North to South — to peacefully achieve national independence in 1991, and then, 13 years later, by pushing back against those who had attempted to manipulate a presidential election.

We all followed the dramatic events during two-weeks in December 2004, gripped by the popular outpouring demanding that the election results honestly reflect the will of the voters. Ukraine at the time was clearly at a crossroads — and the people chose a path towards democracy and Europe in a bold attempt to harmonize Ukraine”s political processes with Euro-Atlantic standards.

This marked a second beginning for Ukraine, although the governments that followed — all of them from 2004 to 2012 had an opportunity to chart a democratic course — failed to consolidate the country’s democratic potential.

It is worth noting that the presidential election of 2010 was — I think all would agree — the best election in the country’s brief history, procedurally speaking.

Throughout these two decades, we have been at Ukraine’s side, steadily building a friendship and a strategic partnership. We have accomplished much together, helping the Ukrainian people seek what they themselves repeatedly have said that they want — a more, secure, stable and prosperous country. But clearly, more needs to be done. And it is up to Ukrainians to take good decisions about their future.

Next year, Ukraine will assume the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, which is built around cooperation in three “dimensions,” including the Human Dimension, which is about democracy and human rights. As it prepares to assume that leadership position in 2013, the United States, Canada and other like-minded governments are encouraging Ukraine to serve as an exemplar of how nations uphold human rights, democratic principles of government and related OSCE commitments. Among these commitments are those reaffirmed at the OSCE Summit in December 2010. At the Summit, all OSCE states reaffirmed: Categorically and irrevocably that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.”

The U.S. and Canada — no less than Ukraine — thus welcomed international scrutiny of our adherence to the OSCE commitments on democracy. Further, Ukraine and other OSCE member countries stated: We value the important role played by civil society and free media in helping us to ensure full respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy, including free and fair elections, and the rule of law.”

There are a number of opportunities in the year ahead for Ukraine to strengthen its democracy, most notably by implementing its new election law, ensuring the participation of all political parties — and their leaders — in the October 28 parliamentary elections, and by sending an early invitation to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to pave the way for a substantial international observation mission.

Ukraine has given assurances that it will follow through on these commitments. To be sure, to cite the words of five European Foreign Ministers in an op-ed in last Sunday”s (March 4) New York Times, On that day the eyes of the international community will be on Ukraine, with the hope and expectation that the country will not renege on its tradition of free and fair elections.”

Also on the horizon — but on hold for now — is the signing of the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. When those accords are fully implemented, they will generate multiple benefits for the Ukrainian people, move Ukraine closer to integration with Euro-Atlantic structures, and also help strengthen Ukraine’s partnership with both Canada and the United States, because a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, and the legal norms and corporate governance standards that reflects, will make Ukraine a more attractive business partner for North American businesses. Democracy and economic development go hand in hand. And our best and most effective partners are countries that adhere to the rule of law, that have open political systems, free media and open markets that allow all people to prosper.

There is also an explicitly political agenda in our work in recent years to build a strategic partnership. The bilateral Charter we signed in 2008 demonstrates the importance we attach to Ukraine and is based on our shared interests and common goals. These include protecting Ukraine”s security and territorial integrity and supporting innovation and technological advances. Importantly, the Charter also places a high priority on strengthening the rule of law and advancing human rights, democracy, economic freedom, freedom of the media, eradicating corruption, and on promoting tolerance.

The fact that the Charter has endured — even after changes in Administrations in both our governments since early 2008 — is testimony to the enduring nature of our partnership and friendship.

A key component of the Strategic Partnership Commission is the Political Dialogue / Rule of Law Working Group, which brings together not only American and Ukrainian officials, but also welcomes input from civil society and non-governmental representatives from both countries. To date our Working Group — which I co-chair together with a senior Ukrainian counterpart — has met five times in Kyiv and Washington since 2009.

Over that same period, we”ve also had a significant number of other meetings with Ukrainian officials to discuss our relationship and goals in Washington and Kyiv, and during OSCE multilateral events in Astana, Warsaw, and Vilnius. These engagements matter and have produced results. We believe our engagement has helped to inform Ukraine”s decision-making in several key areas.
For example, last year’s passage of a law on Access to Public Information,” which mandates more transparency and accountability of government, benefited from international experience, as has a new Criminal Procedure Code — now being debated in Parliament — that will replace a Soviet-era legal system with laws that comply with European standards. These are concrete improvements.

Also on the docket in the Verkhovna Rada is legislation for a new law on non-governmental, non-profit organizations, which is of significant importance to build a sustainable civil society in Ukraine.

Notably, these developments have to a certain degree been shaped and influenced by civil society, which are key actors in our working group dialogues. In this way we have facilitated and fostered more direct contact between civil society and Ukrainian government officials — in Kyiv and Washington.

I”ve been delighted to visit Ukraine three times — not just Kyiv but also Sevastopol and Simferopol — since I started at the State Department 19 months ago. My most recent trip was in July last year. That’s more visits than I’ve made to any other country that falls within my portfolio.

I have enjoyed these visits and the openness of Ukrainians with whom I met — from senior officials to civil society and labor activists, journalists, and rank and file members of NGOs. We”ve had honest, substantive, and thoughtful discussions about the challenges, problems and opportunities confronting Ukraine and that have an impact on our bilateral partnership.

When I and other US officials speak to our Ukrainian counterparts — as Secretary Clinton did recently in her meeting with President Yanukovych in Munich, and Assistant Secretary for Europe Philip Gordon did in Kyiv early last month — we do not shy away from clearly and frankly expressing our concerns about the current setbacks to the rule of law and democratic development, and the obstacles this poses to strengthening our partnership.

We have voiced our concerns about selective, politically-motivated prosecutions on multiple occasions, including the prosecution and conviction of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and most recently, the conviction and sentencing of former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko. Altogether, thirteen former senior officials from Tymoshenko’s government — including four cabinet ministers, five deputy ministers, two agency heads, one governor and the head of the state gas monopoly — have been charged. And we raise them all.

Let me be clear about our interests in these cases. By calling attention to them, we are not expressing a preference for a political party or individual, but our serious concern over due process and fairness. As we state in our annual country report on Human Rights Practices in Ukraine: The constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, in practice the judiciary remains subject to political pressure and lacks public confidence. In certain cases, the outcome of trials appeared predetermined.”

Politically motivated trials not only deprive citizens of potential political candidates, and thus weaken the political process, but also contribute to mistrust in the integrity of the judicial system, which is the linchpin of a modern economic system.

2012 is a year of decision for Ukraine. The people of Ukraine face important decisions about their future. As friends and partners, we in the U.S. Government remain committed to working with the government and people of Ukraine to fulfill their long-stated goals to expand and protect its democracy, in part because this is who we are as a Nation — but also because we believe it is fundamental to Ukraine’s long-term stability and economic development.

The United States welcomes the Yanukovych administration”s stated commitments to pursue political and economic reforms, its pledge that Ukraine”s parliamentary elections this fall will showcase Ukraine”s democratic bona fides, and the government”s initiatives to strengthen civil society. As Secretary Clinton has said “civil society is the lifeblood of democratic politics.” We continue to believe that progress in these areas is in the best interest of the Ukrainian people.

Before I entered government two years ago, I spent many years as a professor and activist promoting democracy. I have seen democracy emerge and take hold in some of the most unlikely places on every continent and among people of widely varying cultures and conditions. Ukraine should not be an unlikely place for real democracy. Neighbors like Poland and Lithuania have shown the way. Ukrainians in Canada and the U.S. have certainly thrived in democratic societies. For Ukraine to fully realize its sovereignty it needs to strengthen its democracy.

That is why the United States, Canada and others in the democratic community are strongly committed to helping those in Ukraine who continue to work for human rights, the rule of law, free and fair elections, accountable government, freedom of the media, and thereby strengthen Ukraine’s ties with the democracies of Europe, North America and across the globe.

Once again, Ukraine is approaching a crossroads — and 2012 will be a year of decision for Ukraine. And we believe and hope that, once again the people of Ukraine will prove the skeptics wrong and they will make the right choice as they have bravely done in the past.

We cannot make these decisions. But we and other friends of Ukraine will continue to hold out the prospect of a closer and mutually-beneficial partnership. And that is our leverage — that we can be better friends and partners for a more democratic Ukraine than we can for a less democratic Ukraine.

Thank you for your attention.