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Europe

German Chancellor Schröder Visits Ukraine

After the murder of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze last year, the Ukraine slipped into diplomatic infamy. Western nations avoided the former Soviet republic, but a visit from Gerhard Schröder might change all that.

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Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (right) and President Leonid Kuchma (left)

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder opened his one-day visit to Kiev on Thursday with a promise to support the Ukraine's aim of integration into the European Union and to boost trade and investment in the struggling economy.

"It's a question of supporting Ukraine's rapprochement with Europe. The tools are there but they should and could be used better, more intensively," Schröder told reporters at the star of his seven hour visit in Kiev.

Following secession from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukraine slipped into years of recession. Only gradually was the country able to recover and make financial improvements. This year's economic growth is forecast at eight percent, that's up from last year's increase of 5.8 percent. Inflation is set to drop down to six percent from a staggering 26 percent - a clear sign that the situation is improving.

Shröder praised Ukraine's economic recovery and said there was potential to expand business ties between the two countries.

"Ukraine has had a good year, in terms of growth, which is noteworthy. We think there is considerable scope for more to be done," the German leader said during his visit.

In addition to economic ties, the Ukraine is also reaching out for more integration in Europe and the West. Kiev has signed up for NATO's Partnership for Peace and increased its involvement in the United Nations peacekeeping missions. It has also made clear its intent to join the European Union.

Resuming relations

Schröder's visit marks a key turning point in relations between the Ukraine and the West. Following the murder of the young journalist Georgiy Gongadze last year, many western countries broke off ties to the Ukraine.

Only the European Union President Romano Prodi, the Pope and NATO leader George Robertson have traveled to Kiev this year.

But Schröder, as head of Europe's strongest economy and a decisive member of the EU, is the most influential western leader to visit the country since the Gongadze scadal erupted last September.

The Ukrainian journalist, whose articles frequently criticized the government and President Kuchma in particular, suddenly disappeared last fall. Two months later his headless corpse was discovered.

Kuchma denies involvement in the case, which still remains unsolved. But tapes were published on which a voice like the Ukrainian president's is heard ordering officials to "deal with" Gongadze.

A former presidential bodyguard, now in exile in the US, says the tape recordings were made in Kuchma's office. The president says the tapes were faked and the words put in his mouth to defame him.

Thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets demanding Kuchma's resignation, and western leaders broke off contact with the country. The US in particular kept the Gongadze case and the Ukraine's poor human rights record in the spotlight.

But Kuchma survived the demonstrations, and now western powers look like they're set to resume contact with the Ukraine. Schröder's visit, albeit it short, could be the start of improved relations with Europe.

The Ukraine showed its gratitude for such a gesture by returning a priceless archive of music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. The compositions were seized during World War Two by Soviet troops in Germany.