U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright travels to Ukraine and Central Asia Friday for a seven-day tour expected to focus on democracy, human rights and economic reform. RFE/RL correspondent Lisa McAdams reports the trip comes amid heightened concern about rights violations in Central Asia and reports of potential financial improprieties with International Monetary Fund (IMF) money in Ukraine.
Washington, 13 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to arrive early Friday in Ukraine -- a country the U.S. has identified as one of its four key foreign policy priorities this year.
The daylong visit, originally planned for two days over April 20 and 21, will be Albright's second trip to Ukraine as Secretary of State. Her first was in March 1998.
While in Kyiv, Albright is expected to consult with Ukrainian government officials on a wide range of issues, including accelerating economic liberalization and speeding the countries integration into the Euro-Atlantic community.
Albright's spokesman, James Rubin, said Albright would underscore the United States' strong support for what he called the ambitious reform agenda being undertaken by President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko.
This, at a time when the government in Kyiv is facing allegations of making its foreign exchange reserves look bigger than they really were in order to secure IMF credits. The international accounting firm PriceWaterhouse (Coopers) is currently completing the second of two audits on financial activities in Ukraine, the first of which focused entirely on actions of the Central Bank.
David Kramer is the Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public diplomacy and an expert on Ukraine and Central Asia. Kramer told RFE/RL that Albright's visit to Kyiv is crucially timed:
"I think what Albright is going to do is to try and repair any damage done to U.S.-Ukrainian relations while she's there, but she has to keep in mind that Ukraine's reputation at the moment is not terribly good. It is a country with a tremendous corruption problem. The Prime Minister there is viewed rather positively, but there are concerns about an upcoming referendum on April 16. President Kuchma is pushing ahead and there are some concerns about what directions he may go after the referendum."
The constitutional referendum Kramer refers to calls for a shift of power away from the parliament and toward the presidency.
Kramer said the United States has already provided a lot of financial assistance to Ukraine over the years, on the order of $225 million a year. But Kramer said it was his view the U.S. does not have a lot to show for its money.
Albright is to leave Ukraine on Saturday (April 15) for Kazakhstan -- her first stop on this her first trip to Central Asia as Secretary of State. She will spend much of the day and overnight there, before heading to Kyrgyzstan (April 16) for a very brief visit. She arrives later that night in Uzbekistan for a final three-day stop.
In announcing the trip recently, State Department Spokesman James Foley said the Secretary goes to Central Asia with a full agenda:
"We are troubled by some shortcomings in the field of democratization, and elsewhere, in some of these countries. Nevertheless, we support their efforts to consolidate their sovereignty and their democracies and their economic reform programs. And we want to encourage them to do better in certain areas of democracy, of the rule of law, and human rights, and all of these important areas, also having to do with economic reform."
Foley said Albright will consult with officials of all three governments on a broad range of bilateral and multilateral issues, discussing progress in their efforts to establish strong democratic and market-oriented reform institutions, as well as regional security concerns.
Albright also is expected to meet with American business representatives, civil society and non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, and others active in defending human rights.
In the days leading up to the trip, there was a flurry of activity in Kyrgyzstan, where the government was both detaining, and in one case releasing, key opposition leaders. The news was particularly distressing for U.S. officials, who have long viewed Kyrgyzstan as the brightest "reform" country in the region.
State Department Spokesman James Rubin told reporters at that time that Albright would be delivering, in his words, "a tough message" to the government of Kyrgyzstan on democracy and human rights.
But independent policy expert Kramer says the U.S. will have to carefully the consider the message it sends in Central Asia:
"I think that the U.S. needs to stress the view that democratic reform is just as important as economic reform or the exploitation of natural resources. I think unfortunately there has been a message read by some of the leaders in this region -- in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- that as long as they have oil or gas or other natural resources, they can pretty much do what they want in their countries and not pay a serious price."
Kramer said delivering that message will require U.S. officials to walk a "fine line," between stressing fair treatment of opposition figures and promotion of democracy, while avoiding the appearance of meddling into the internal affairs of sovereign nations.
Kramer also pointed out that Albright's trip to Central Asia comes on the heels of two other high-level U.S. visits. The first was by George Tenet, the Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The second trip was made by the Director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Louis Freeh.
Kramer said those visits, along with Albright's, underscore the concern the U.S. has about regional security in Central Asia, especially as regards the potential rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
Overall, Kramer said it will be a challenging trip, with Albright going to some countries that have not, in his words, "been doing terribly well." He said, ironically, all of its problems notwithstanding, Ukraine may indeed be the bright spot of the trip.
Elsewhere, he said Albright will be encountering problematic leaders and will likely, in his words, see little relaxation.
Neither is Albright likely to get a break when she returns home April 20th, as she is immediately slated to head to Middle East peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.