Ukraine's president faces straight talk in Berlin

By Gregg Benzow

Chancellor Angela Merkel used a visit to Berlin by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Monday to raise concerns about press freedoms in his country. Yanukovych was hoping to drum up German investment in Ukraine.
Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters following her talks with President Viktor Yanukovych in Berlin that relations between Germany and Ukraine were on a "good, solid and friendly foundation."

But at the same time she said she had "very open" talks with the Ukrainian president about press freedoms in his country, following criticism from journalists and international watchdogs.
"I made clear that with regard to certain democratic areas, in particular, in the area of press freedom and freedom of opinion, we had certain questions," Merkel said diplomatically after talks with Mr. Yanukovych.

The chancellor told reporters in Berlin that she insisted that should any such problems come up again in the future that "we would be able to discuss them openly and honestly."
Groups raise concerns about harassment

Journalists wearing t-shirts reading "stop censorship" in Kiev earlier this year. Last Friday, the media rights group Reporters without Borders sent a letter to Merkel urging her to discuss with Yanukovych what it said were "growing obstacles to freedom of the press" in Ukraine, for both domestic and foreign journalists.

Western observers in recent months have also complained about growing harassment of foreign foundations and institutes by Ukraine's secret police.

In one instance, the director of the Kiev office of the conservative German Konrad Adenauer Foundation was held for several hours at the city's airport after he had earlier criticized some of the policies of the Ukraine government.

President Yanukovych dismissed the incident as a "misunderstanding" and denied reports that foreign institutions or the media were being harassed.
Ukraine seeking better ties and investment
Critics of Yanukovych also accuse him of further polarizing the country into pro-eastern and pro-western camps. But Merkel stressed that Ukraine should not feel compelled to choose between a pro-Russian or pro-European stance, adding that Kiev had an important role as a mediator between the two.

"I have no interest in the Ukraine repeatedly facing the question, 'Are you on the Russian or European side?'" Merkel said.

At the same time, Yanukovych stressed that the prospect of eventual European Union and NATO membership was an important goal for his people, even if Ukraine had a long way to go. Merkel said these issues would be approached "pragmatically."

For Germany and the European Union, Ukraine is an important transit route for supplies of Russian natural gas. Both sides are interested in stable, reliable deliveries after a dispute between Ukraine and Russia in 2009 led to interruptions in gas deliveries to Europe for several weeks during the winter.

Yanukovych was hoping his trip to Berlin would help drum up investors to pull his country out of its economic doldrums. German investment in Ukraine, he said, already totaled six billion euros ($7.5 million), but it was still not enough.

He also suggested that Ukraine would like to buy decommissioned warships no longer used by the German navy.