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(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, held a hearing today examining the status of Ukrainian political reforms and their implications for the United States. Among those testifying was Eugenia Tymoshenko, who spoke about the plight of her mother, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the leaders of 2004’s Orange Revolution and leader of the opposition against current Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, has been in jail since October 2011 on charges that U.S. and E.U. officials have said are political.

Below is Shaheen’s opening statement, as prepared for delivery:

The Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe meets today to examine the current situation in Ukraine and to evaluate what’s at stake for the United States and our transatlantic allies.  We have two impressive panels of witnesses here to help us sort through these difficult issues.  Thank you all for being here, and we look forward to hearing from each of you.  I want to take a second to welcome the Subcommittee Ranking Member, Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming. 

As one of the largest and most strategically located countries on the European continent, Ukraine literally and figuratively lies at the crossroads between Europe and Russia.  Its importance as an energy transit state and as a force in the vital Black Sea region has made the country a unique and critical player in Euro-Atlantic economic, energy and security considerations.  In addition, the country’s ongoing transition from a Soviet republic to a market-based democratic system makes Ukraine an important test case for reform in this part of the world. 

Obviously, the people of Ukraine will have the final say on the future of their country; however, we are here today because the path Ukraine ultimately chooses matters to the United States and to our European allies.  As a result, the U.S. and Europe must play a more aggressive role in encouraging Ukraine to continue down the path of reform. 

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, and over the course of the last two decades, we have seen some important progress in Ukraine.

On the security front, Ukraine made a courageous decision to voluntarily give up its nuclear arsenal in 1996, and today, it continues to lead in nonproliferation efforts around the globe, committing to eliminate all of its highly enriched uranium by the spring of 2012.  In addition, the U.S. relationship with Ukraine has evolved positively since 1991, culminating in a strategic partnership initiated in 2008.  We have seen progress on political reforms and democratization in some areas, including open elections and a free media. 

Unfortunately, despite some movement forward, Ukraine is severely lagging on a number of its own initiatives, and it continues to slip backward on its democratic and economic reform agenda.  

It has been two years since Viktor Yanykovych returned to power following the 2010 Presidential campaign in Ukraine.  Elected under what was considered to be a relatively free and fair election by outside observers, Yanykovych had the legitimacy and mandate to continue moving Ukraine toward a modern, independent, and market-oriented future.  However, Ukraine under Mr. Yanykovych has seen a significant slide on critical issues, including democratic reform, media independence, election standards, rule of law and economic issues.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Ukraine ranks 163rd out of 179 countries in terms of economic freedom.  That puts them dead last in Europe behind Belarus and Russia.  Last year’s annual Freedom House report found that Ukraine suffered the steepest decline in democracy of any major nation in the last two years, citing anti-democratic tactics, politicized courts, a media crackdown and the illegitimate use of force in the country. 

Perhaps most concerning for the international community is the case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.  Her continued imprisonment on dubious, politically motivated charges is unacceptable and antithetical to a free and open system.  The decision to move her to a prison outside of Kiev and her continued lack of appropriate medical care adds to our concerns. 

Her case is a symptom of the much more pervasive disease of a lack of rule of law, a corrupted judicial process, and selective persecution of political opposition leaders.  Politically motivated trials and further abuses will isolate Ukraine, undermine its independence from Russia, make it difficult to attract outside investment, and will further hurt the country’s already struggling economy. We have already seen a major free trade agreement with the European Union held up over the Tymoshenko case.

Let us be clear.  It will be difficult – if not impossible – for Ukraine to deepen relations with the West while Ms. Tymoshenko remains behind bars.  She should be released.   

In this dynamic year of revolutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we sometimes forget that in many ways, the Arab spring could arguably be seen as a continuation of the not-too-long-ago revolutions we saw in Ukraine and Georgia in 2003 and 2004.  However, as Ukrainians have learned since the heady, expectation-filled days of the Orange Revolution, democracy is not easy, and it does not happen overnight.  

Today, the people of Ukraine and its leadership face a critical choice about its future path.  We all share an interest in an open, independent, and successful Ukraine that is accountable to its people, and we all have a responsibility to help the country reach that important goal.  I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about their ideas and suggestions for accomplishing this important objective.