Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday said the United States is ready to work with the winner of Ukraine's presidential election next month and expressed hope that the polling will be free, fair and without external interference.   Clinton held talks focusing on security issues with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Petro Poroshenko. 

It is widely hoped that the January 17 Ukrainian presidential election will put an end to squabbling among the country's political leaders that has paralyzed decision making in the country, which has been hard hit by the global recession.

In a press appearance with her Ukrainian counterpart, Clinton expressed hope that the election process, which might require a run-off vote in February, will carry forward the momentum of the country's 2004 reforms and produce an outcome that will be respected in Ukraine and around the world.

"It is for the Ukrainian people to decide who their elected leaders should be," said Hillary Clinton. 'But the promise of the 'Orange Revolution,' which was so moving to so many of us, is that the people of Ukraine have the right to choose their leaders without interference, without any kind of electoral abuse.  And we are doing all we can to support Ukraine and, of course, we will work with whoever the Ukrainian people elect in a fair and free election."

The election pits Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a key figure in the 2004 Orange Revolution, against former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, whose apparent victory in a presidential race that year was annulled by the country's supreme court amid allegations of fraud.

Foreign Minister Poroshenko said his government has invited more than 1,000 international observers to "guarantee the character" of the election.  He said the fact that polls show the race as too close to call shows that democratic processes in Ukraine have been strengthened.

"We now demonstrate one of the greatest achievements of the Ukraine - this is the freedom of speech, freedom of mass media, the equal access of all the candidates to all these resources," said Petro Poroshenko. "And from my point of view, the fact is that nobody knows this is the first presidential election in Ukraine where nobody knows who will be the next president.  This is also the symbol of democracy.  And from my point of view, I think that Ukraine successfully passed these exams for democracy, for the members of civilized society."

Clinton applauded the growth of a free press and what she termed a "vibrant" political culture in Ukraine.  She reaffirmed U.S. support for the country's further integration with NATO and the European Union.

At a time when the United States and Russia are seeking a new strategic arms reduction treaty, Clinton applauded Ukraine's post-Cold War decision to scrap the huge nuclear weapons arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union, and reaffirmed 1994 security guarantees to Kiev that helped spur the disarmament.

Foreign Minister Poroshenko said the security guarantees, and U.S. support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, continue to be of critical importance to his government.

He also stressed his government's readiness to resume dialogue with the International Monetary Fund on further economic reforms that will help free up billions of dollars in frozen IMF loans.  Clinton said the United States wants to encourage investment in Ukraine's energy sector, but that further reform is an important precondition.