William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
Omni Shoreham Hotel
Washington, DC
December 1, 2011

Date: 12/01/2011 Description: Deputy Secretary William Burns delivers remarks during the 20th anniversary gala honoring the Ukraine at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. - State Dept Image

Thank you and good evening. It’s a pleasure to celebrate 20 years of Ukrainian independence surrounded by so many old friends and colleagues working with the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. I am honored and humbled to share the podium with Brent Scowcroft–a wonderful mentor and friend. I am also deeply honored to participate in a program led by former President George HW Bush, one of our nation’s great statesmen. And finally, it is my pleasure to congratulate the other honorees.

As a wave of historic change sweeps across the Middle East, it is worth remembering just how recently it was that Ukraine was one of the world’s newest democracies. It is also worth remembering how Ukraine proved the skeptics wrong by achieving independence and by eliminating its nuclear arsenal—enhancing Transatlantic security and earning the world’s respect.

We need simply recall the dramatic events leading up to Ukraine’s independence to grasp the achievement we celebrate today.

Earlier in the twentieth century, the people of Ukraine endured war and suffered the unconscionable tragedies of the Holodomor and the Holocaust, without abandoning their pursuit of dignity, universal rights, and sovereignty. Throughout this difficult period, Ukrainian émigrés around the world, including in the United States, kept the flame of Ukrainian independence and identity alive. In August 1991, the parliament of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence. That December, ninety percent of Ukrainian voters upheld that declaration of independence at the polls. A free and sovereign Ukraine finally took its rightful place among the community of nations.

One of Ukraine’s earliest and most important contributions to global security was its decision to remove the Soviet-era nuclear arsenal from its territory, which was completed in 1996. Ukraine’s leaders made a tough choice that made the region and the world a safer place and made Ukraine an example for others to follow. And today the Ukraine Government honors that tradition with its own commitment to eliminate all of Ukraine’s highly-enriched uranium.

And from those earliest days, America has worked to build a strategic partnership with Ukraine. In 2008, we signed a charter based on our shared interests and common goals—on protecting Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity; on supporting innovation and technology; and on strengthening economic freedom, the rule of law and the democracy that Ukrainians sacrificed so much to build for themselves.

A lifetime of diplomacy has taught me that each country will be the judge of its own interests. Advice and lectures, while easy to offer, are not always solicited or well received. But let me say that it remains deeply in America’s interest to see an independent, prosperous and irreversibly democratic Ukraine; a Ukraine that is modernizing as a European state; a transparent, inclusive Ukraine where a dynamic civil society is free to contribute to public life; and a Ukraine where all citizens enjoy the full protection of the rule of law.

It is no secret that we are concerned by the recent conviction of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko. We are concerned by the conduct of her trial. And we are concerned by the prosecution of other opposition leaders and members of the preceding government. Politically motivated trials undermine democracy and democratic values. Politically motivated trials risk ingraining self-censorship in the media and discourage civic participation more broadly, for fear of prosecution.

In the 21st century, no country can succeed without investing in its human capital and empowering people to create the rules and institutions that move societies forward. Today, if Ukraine wants to attract international investment, it must provide companies – both foreign and domestic – with a level playing field, including better legal protections and transparent, predictable rules. We strongly support a future for Ukraine that is deeply integrated into Europe. We believe that Ukraine’s future is in Europe.

Ukraine’s choices matter to us. As Secretary Clinton has said, democracies make for stronger and more stable partners. They trade more, innovate more, and fight less. And while we offer our active support, Ukraine’s success will ultimately depend on the choices and actions of Ukrainians—just as it did in 1991.

Just as every generation in every democracy must do—Ukrainians will have to make the choices that safeguard their freedoms and their future. That is what Ukrainians did for most of the last century when they held fast to dreams until they became reality. That is what Ukrainians did when they refused to wait to be granted freedom and independence. And that is what Ukrainians must do now.

Ukraine’s potential is limitless. Our potential as partners is limitless. We look forward to continuing to work closely with you to help realize the enormous possibilities of our relationship and to help realize the rich future of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Thank you.