Why a Free, Stable and Prosperous Ukraine Still Matters

US-UA Working Group Yearly Forum:
Providing Ukraine with an Annual Report Card

Why a Free, Stable and Prosperous Ukraine Still Matters

Thomas O. Melia

Keynote remarks by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas Melia, delivered during US-UA Working Group Yearly Forum:
Providing Ukraine with an Annual Report Card, Washington, DC, June 20, 2013.

It is a pleasure to be here today. I thank the organizers-Walter Zaryckyj , the American Foreign Policy Center and the Center for US-Ukrainian Relations-for inviting me to speak on: “Why a Free, Stable and Prosperous Ukraine Still Matters.”

To begin, I’d like to note that the topic is not to discuss the question “does” a free, stable and prosperous Ukraine matter, or “should” a free, stable and prosperous Ukraine matter? I think those questions have been unequivocally answered over the course of Ukraine’s two decades of independence.

To put it succinctly: Ukraine, a large and important European state, which is strong, independent, and stable is-to borrow a phrase coined by Sherman Garnett-is “the keystone in the arch” of a Europe whole, free and at peace.

The U.S. commitment to supporting the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to build a prosperous European democracy is underscored by the size of our overall assistance program-approximately $104 million last year, despite reduced budgets globally.

More than four years ago, under previous administrations in both countries, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed Ukraine’s key importance, together with the parameters and foundation of our bilateral ties, by signing the U.S. – Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership in December 2008 with her Ukrainian counterpart.

The Charter has endured through changes of government in both countries, and is the basis for our cooperation on a number of vital issues ranging from security and nuclear nonproliferation, military cooperation, international peacekeeping, to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, media freedom, economic development, and energy independence.

In fact, many of the same issues that are being discussed and assessed here today by distinguished experts and friends of Ukraine. I like to include myself in the latter group, having now visited Ukraine five times in my current capacity, and co-chairing five meetings of our bilateral “Democracy and Rule of Law Working Group,” which last met in February in Washington.

To begin, I’ll speak about some of the current issues facing Ukraine, especially ahead of the much-anticipated Eastern Partnership Summit in November in Vilnius.

First, we are likely to soon have a new U.S. Ambassador in Kyiv. Ambassador-designate Geoff Pyatt yesterday completed his Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Should he be confirmed by the U.S Senate, I know Geoff will be an excellent envoy to Ukraine following in the foot-steps of Ambassador John Tefft.

As Geoff stated in his testimony, he will continue to build upon our strategic partnership with Ukraine to realize the potential we see in our bilateral relationship, and to help fulfill the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to establish a democratic, strong, prosperous, and European state.

I worked with Geoff over the past couple of years in his capacity as P/DAS of the South and Central Asian Bureau. He will bring many years of diplomatic experience to his new posting, and I look forward to working with him as closely as I have with Ambassador Tefft on the important and challenging issues of democracy and human rights, which Ukraine continues to grapple with.

Speaking of Ambassador Tefft, I’d like to congratulate him as winner of the State Department’s 2012 Diplomacy for Human Rights Award, which recognizes a U.S. Chief of Mission who has demonstrated extraordinary commitment to defending human rights and advancing democratic principles.

Given the outstanding work Ambassador Tefft has done during that past three years on behalf of the Ukrainian people and the U.S. Government-and prior to that in his previous assignments as Ambassador to Georgia and Lithuania-it’s hard to imagine a more deserving diplomat for his collaborative, effective, and sustained efforts to strengthen and promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Ukraine.

Second, is Ukraine’s continuing integration into Europe-which we is the U.S. Government strongly support. While Ukraine has achieved much with regard to a number of political, social and economic reforms, there is still more work ahead for Ukraine to fulfill the EU’s conditions to sign an Association Agreement together with the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).

Four months ago, at the conclusion of the EU-Ukraine Summit in February, the EU set three broad conditions for moving forward to sign the Agreements: ending politically-motivated prosecutions; appropriate follow-up on completing the 2012 parliamentary elections; and substantial progress on previously agreed-to economic and political reforms.

The U.S. position on politically motivated prosecutions, and on the case of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko”s immediate release, is well known. She ought to be released today -as called for in U.S. Senate Resolution 165, which was introduced last week by Senator Durbin.

For my remarks today, I would like to focus on Ukraine”s progress in the two other areas identified by the EU.

Let me first reiterate, however, that the decision on whether to sign the Association Agreement rests with the EU and its 27 – soon to be 28 – member states, and not with the United States. For our part, we continue to encourage Ukraine to meet the EU”s conditions for signing the Agreement.

For the purpose of measuring Ukraine”s progress in implementing essential reforms, today’s Forum is particularly helpful.

Follow-up on the 2012 Parliamentary elections: I’ll begin with the unfinished business from the October 2012 Parliamentary elections. Following the vote, we shared the view of most international observers that the Parliamentary elections constituted “a step backward” compared even to other recent national elections in Ukraine, and we urged Ukrainian authorities to fully implement the OSCE’s recommendations for electoral reform.

While voting was peaceful, the election campaign was characterized by the lack of a level playing field, caused primarily by the abuse of government resources to favor ruling party candidates, a lack of balanced media coverage, and fraud and falsification in the vote-counting process.

Today, the controversy over five disputed single mandate districts remains unresolved in that no definitive date has been set for the re-vote. Debate continues in parliament about whether the re-vote will take place in August or in October – nearly one full year after the national elections.

But this debate does not even include the re-voting in three other single mandate districts to replace MPs who were stripped of their mandates in March by the Supreme Administrative Court for alleged “conflict of interest” with their duties as members of parliament because they held jobs in addition to their positions in parliament.

Two were independent MPs, who reportedly rebuffed invitations to join the government faction, and the third was Serhiy Vlasenko, an adviser to Yulia Tymoshenko who was for a time denied the right to travel outside the county.

Taken together, these actions create an atmosphere that inhibits political competition and freedom of expression.

One might also say these are additional examples of selective political prosecutions in as much as other MP’s clearly have jobs and economic interests, which could also be construed as posing conflicts of interests.

Ukraine”s OSCE Chairmanship: As OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Ukraine has focused intently on securing progress in the protracted conflicts, particularly in Transnistria, and has advanced work on human trafficking and non-proliferation, among other issues.

As Chair-in-Office, we look to Ukraine to lead not only on the issues it has identified for collective work by the OSCE and its participating States this year, but also to demonstrate leadership through its implementation of core OSCE commitments, on the rule of law and democratic elections. We have raised the issue of ongoing problems of selective prosecutions many times with the Government of Ukraine, most recently when Secretary Kerry met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kozhara in May here in Washington.

We have also stressed that a critical element of Ukraine”s stewardship of the OSCE must be a focus on protecting and preserving the Organization, its institutions and field missions. This is an ongoing challenge that will require strong leadership on Ukraine”s part. OSCE Missions in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan will be especially important to continue.

Legal and Judicial Reform: We continue to encourage Ukraine with its efforts to reform the judicial system. While the new Criminal Procedure Code, which went became effective last November is very good on paper, it remains incomplete without effective implementation, which requires that it be accompanied by reform of the Soviet-era Prosecutor”s system.

A dark cloud looming in the background is the “Law on National Referendum,” enacted last year with little public discussion, which could move Ukraine even further away from its democratic commitments.

The Venice Commission and independent observers have raised concerns that the law violates existing constitutional provisions and imposes restrictions on free speech. These groups have also raised questions about transparency and fairness in administration of referenda under the new law.

And some have expressed concern that the new referendum process might be used to alter the electoral system.

Social Issues, Media Freedom: While many outlets for alternative, independent views still exist, the media in Ukraine in general have become less competitive, as dominance by the state and oligarchs friendly to the authorities– both national and local– has grown.

Aggressive, critical reporting is being stifled and a constricted advertising market makes it extremely difficult for independent newspapers and broadcasters to survive.

International media monitors, including Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, and the International Press Institute have all expressed concern during the past year about media freedom in Ukraine-including attacks on May 18 on two Ukrainian journalists who were covering a rally in Kyiv.

We are also concerned by proposed legislation in Parliament that would severely restrict freedom of expression and association for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, and that legislation on a new Freedom of Assembly law has still not been finalized.

These are but a few of the issues that we continue to raise and discuss in our ongoing contacts with the Ukrainian Government, and in meetings of the bilateral “Democracy and Rule of Law Working Group,” which I co-chair on the U.S. side.

Economic and political reforms: With regard to the EU’s last condition-substantial progress on agreed-to economic and political reforms-there is virtually no disagreement that Ukraine’s business and foreign investment climate has been weakened by pervasive corruption, a lack of transparency, and questions about the fairness of the court system.

However, as in other areas reform, much more needs to be done by Ukrainians both in and out of government to advance the rule of law, the protection of intellectual property rights, and investor rights.

So to circle back to the notion I posed at the outset, has Ukraine made sufficient progress on the EU’s conditions on the 2012 parliamentary elections and on economic and political reforms to sign the Association Agreement in November?

Again, that is a question for the EU and its member states to answer. Ukrainian authorities are working hard to “get to yes” on the Association Agreement and the DCFTA. Just last week President Yanukovych reiterated at the Summit of Head of Central European States that Ukraine’s desire to become a part of Europe is unchanged.

We hope Ukraine”s government will ultimately decide to match words and deeds by meeting all of the EU”s conditions for signing the Agreement.

Ukraine has vast economic potential. We will continue to urge Ukraine to implement economic reforms and address democracy and rule of law concerns, in order to open up the full range of opportunities available to it, including European integration and foreign investment.

As I and others have stated on many occasions, democracy and economic development go hand in hand. And our best and most effective partners are countries that adhere to the rule of law, have open political systems, free media and open markets that allow people to prosper.

In closing I’d like to cite remarks made in 2000 by former President Clinton in Kyiv’s Saint Michael’s Square. It captures the essence of our enduring partnership with Ukraine as it transitions to a stable, free and prosperous democracy.

President Clinton said, “America will stand by you as you fight for a free and prosperous future…I cannot tell you how to build your future, but I do believe this: I believe Ukraine has the best opportunity in a thousand years to achieve both freedom and prosperity. You are on your way… All you need now is to stay on course and pick up speed. Open the economy; strengthen the rule of law; promote civil society; protect the free press; break the grip of corruption…You must use your freedom to make sure you and your children prosper in peace. America is your friend and your partner.”

In other words, Ukraine, help us to help you. We will continue to provide our active support, but Ukraine’s success in signing the Association Agreement and the DCFTA will ultimately depend-as always-on the choices and actions of the Ukrainian people. Thank you.