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While acknowledging ''unsavory elements'' among Ukraine's street protesters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday said the former Soviet state should be free to align with Europe if it wishes and not feel coerced by more powerful neighbors like Russia.
''Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine,'' John Kerry told the Munich Security Conference. ''While there are unsavory elements in the streets in any chaotic situation, the vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe, prosperous country.''
Kerry was meeting later Saturday with members of the Ukrainian opposition.
''They are fighting for the right to associate with partners who will help them realize their aspirations - and they have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone - and certainly not coerced,'' he said. ''The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.''
The crisis in Ukraine began after President Victor Yanukovych backed out of an agreement to deepen ties with the European Union in favor of getting closer to Russia. Protests quickly came to encompass a wide array of discontent over corruption, heavy-handed police and other grievances.
In Kerry's audience at the conference was a wide range of U.S., European and other diplomats, lawmakers, military officers, think tank and academic specialists and former government officials such as Henry Kissinger.
Without directly criticizing Russia, which has accused the West of fanning the flames of unrest in Ukraine, Kerry said, ''Russia and other countries'' should not view the European integration of their neighbors as a process that hurts them.
''In fact, the lesson of the last half-century is that we can accomplish much more when the United States, Russia, and Europe work together. But make no mistake: We will continue to speak out when our interests or values are undercut by any country in the region,'' Kerry said.
Kerry cast his remarks about Ukraine in the broader context of a ''disturbing trend'' toward despotism among governments in central and eastern Europe.
''The aspirations of citizens are once again being trampled beneath corrupt, oligarchic interests - interests that use money to stifle political opposition and dissent, to buy politicians and media outlets, and to weaken judicial independence and the rights of non-governmental organizations,'' he said.
Addressing the conference before Kerry took the stage, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed