Press Availability
William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Media Roundtable
Kyiv, Ukraine
September 9, 2010


Date: 09/09/2010 Description: Under Secretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns speaking during media roundtable in Kyiv, Ukraine. - State Dept Image
Under Secretary Burns
: I’m delighted to be in Ukraine. Thank you all very much for making the time to meet this afternoon. I emphasized in the extensive schedule of meetings that I had today the very high priority that President Obama attaches to the strategic partnership between our two countries. I’m happy to be here to follow up on the successful meeting that our two presidents had in Washington last April and Secretary Clinton’s very important visit last July.

In the course of my meetings today with the President, the Prime Minister, with a number of other senior government officials, with opposition leaders, with representatives of the American Chamber of Commerce, and with a group of civil society leaders, I had the opportunity to talk about a range of important issues.

We talked about the importance the United States attaches to deepening economic cooperation between our countries, to increasing investment, and to encouraging reforms in Ukraine that can build greater predictability and transparency and help attract greater investment. The new tax code, for example, is the kind of signal that can have a positive effect on outside investors.

We talked about strong American support for Ukraine’s further integration into the European Union. We talked about the importance the United States attaches to protecting the democratic gains in Ukraine over recent years. President Yanukovych has made some important statements about his commitment to protecting media freedoms and pursuing reforms. As Secretary Clinton made clear when she was here last summer, we welcome those commitments, but it’s essential to translate them into actions.

It’s very important to make progress in the self-interest of Ukrainians, in deepening the rule of law, in judicial reform, in fighting corruption. I had a good discussion with civil society leaders, as I mentioned before, about this whole range of issues as well.

We also talked about our cooperation on security issues and nonproliferation. The United States welcomes the decision taken by Ukraine to remove highly-enriched uranium. At the same time, the United States is committed to working with Ukraine to modernize its civilian nuclear research facilities using low-enriched uranium, which is the global standard. We see this as a genuine win-win proposition, in the interests of both our countries and the wider interests of global nonproliferation.

So, I had very interesting and productive set of meetings today and I leave with an ever stronger sense of the importance of the strategic partnership between us. Now I welcome your questions.

Question: Your visit to Ukraine is coupled with a visit to Moscow, which is in conflict with Secretary Clinton's itinerary which included a visit to the Caucuses nations when she came to Kyiv. Is it just a coincidence or does it indicate some trend that the United States gave up on Ukraine so much and gave it to the Russian's sphere of influence - that this is indicative...?

Under Secretary Burns: It is entirely a coincidence. And that would be exactly the wrong conclusion to draw. In Moscow I talked about the importance we attach to U.S.-Russian relations and the progress that we've made over the last eighteen months in this Administration in improving our relations. And in Kyiv, we have had very good discussions of ways that we can further strengthen our relations. We see both of those as important goals -- each on their own merits.

Question: Some people ask the question to themselves, and to others, whether the U.S. set of values has changed because U.S. is talking and pursuing a "reset” with Russia - with this kind of Russia that does not have democracy, freedom of speech, and doesn't respect other democracies. How can that be?

Under Secretary Burns: The United States remains firmly committed - and we've always been committed - through Administrations of both parties, to values which we think are important, not only for Americans but for anybody trying to build a democratic society. And we make those concerns clear whether it's in talking to the Russians, talking to Ukrainians, or in any capital around the world. In Moscow, in addition to meetings with government officials, I had, as I always do, a meeting with civil society and human rights leaders. And I made very clear our support for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. That will continue to be a very important part of our agenda in any relationship that we have. We're not at all shy about expressing our concerns on those issues.

Question: You mentioned discussing freedom of speech with President Yanukovich. As you are probably well aware, there is a movement of journalists currently in Ukraine, which is called Stop Censorship. It came into being because journalists feel and see the deterioration with respect to freedom of speech with the - with this administration in office. And this is happening while President Yanukovych publicly speaks in support of the freedom of speech and says that he shares the value. So I would like to ask whether you share the position of President Yanukovych who claims that there is nothing going wrong in this area or do you side with those, including journalists, who see clear deterioration in this area?

Under Secretary Burns: I think there are obvious concerns about freedom of expression in Ukraine. And I had a good and very wide ranging discussion of a number of those concerns with a number of civil society activists and people who care very much about those issues earlier today. We will continue to emphasize very clearly the importance of translating commitments into actions. That's not a matter of American lecturing, it is a matter of self interest, as you understand very well, of Ukrainians. People talk about challenges like fighting corruption. How can you fight corruption unless you have a media that's independent enough to hold people accountable and cast a spotlight on that kind of behavior?

Question: A follow up question. Do you have a position on a particular situation in Ukraine where the head of the state security services of Ukraine - the SBU - is at the same time the de facto owner of a group - the most influential group of television channels in Ukraine. This is one. And continuing activities of the security services of Ukraine - do you have a comment on the checks and questioning that they have had with the representatives of the International Renaissance - Soros Foundation in Ukraine - and also the kind of problems they caused for a range of other foreign foundations in Ukraine, like German foundations?

Under Secretary Burns: I am honestly not familiar with the specific cases that you mentioned. But I would stress again that supporting freedom of expression and creating an atmosphere in which there is a genuinely free exchange of ideas, in which civil society groups and non-governmental organizations can work actively and effectively, is important for the future of this society as it is for any democratic society.

Question: A leader of a well-known international foundation has made a commentary about the authoritarian trends in the current Ukrainian administration. Do you share this assessment? And what kind of political system, in your opinion, has formed in Ukraine?

Under Secretary Burns: I think Ukraine, as I said before and as you know better than I do, has made some very important democratic gains over a number of years. It’s very important to build on those. It is very important to avoid any backsliding on those gains, and it is very important that the public commitments that have been made about no backsliding are reflected in actions – actions to reform the judicial sector, actions to fight corruption, actions to respect freedom of expression, actions that foster political competition and help support the important role of the political opposition.

Question: May I insist on your commentary on the particular situation when the head of the Security Service of Ukraine is the de-facto owner of the largest television channel in the country, the largest media outlet.

Under Secretary Burns: I don’t know all the details of that situation, but I do believe that it’s very important for freedom of expression to be protected and preserved and for there to be an independent media. It is only with an independent media that any society can make progress in the areas that I mentioned before. It’s an independent media that can hold officials accountable.

Question: But, if it’s lacking – there is no freedom, and there is backsliding, what happens then.

Question: Let me make it more concrete. Did you tell the President that, suppose such tendencies continue in Ukraine, there will be certain steps – and what kind of steps could there be that the U.S. will take in response?

Under Secretary Burns: I made very clear in my conversations here, just as Secretary Clinton did last July, that the United States welcomes commitments that are made rhetorically about support for reforms, but it’s very important to see actions which reflect that. And we will continue to support the efforts of all of you and all of your colleagues in the media to try to find the truth and to speak out clearly about issues and abuses and problems where you see them. We will continue to support the efforts of civil society groups to protect the democratic gains that have been made in this society over the years. That was a very important part of the agenda in the discussions that I had today. It was a very important part of the agenda of Secretary Clinton’s discussions last July. And it will continue to be a very important part of our agenda in the weeks and months ahead.

Thank you very much for your time.

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