Secretary of State Colin Powell thanked Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych Thursday for his government's support for U.S. Iraq policy, while also stressing the importance of a free and fair presidential election in Ukraine next year.
The tone of U.S.-Ukrainian relations has improved markedly in recent months, due in large part to Ukraine's decision to contribute nearly 2,000 troops to Iraq peacekeeping.
And Mr. Yanukovych has received high-profile treatment on his Washington visit, meeting Vice President Dick Cheney and several other cabinet-level officials in addition to the mid-day meeting Thursday with Mr. Powell.
Briefing reporters on the session, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the secretary of state expressed gratitude for what he termed Ukraine's "important contribution" to the stability effort in Iraq, noting that Ukraine is the fourth-largest contributor of troops there behind the United States, Britain and Poland.
He also said Mr. Powell praised Ukrainian cooperation in the war on terrorism, and expressed support for Ukraine's efforts to "draw closer" to Euro-Atlantic and European institutions, as well as its goal of accelerated accession to the World Trade Organization.
The spokesman said Mr. Powell stressed the importance of the promotion of democracy and human rights in Ukraine, where human rights conditions were described in the State Department's most recent annual report as "poor."
According to Mr. Boucher, the secretary said Ukraine's hopes for a broader international role would be advanced by human rights improvements.
"He made clear that the conduct of an open, free and fair presidential election process in 2004, and the strengthening of media and judicial independence are essential, and will have a major impact on Ukraine's ability to move forward with its aspirations," said Mr. Boucher.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has served two terms in office and is barred by law from running again in the October 2004 vote.
His 1994 re-election was widely seen as tainted, and relations between Kiev and Washington were badly strained last year when U.S. officials accused Mr. Kuchma of personally approving the sale of a sophisticated air-defense radar system to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Appointed by Mr. Kuchma, Prime Minister Yanukovych is considered a potential contender for the presidential race. He also met here with Under-Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Alan Larsen before a Pentagon meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.