- - Monday, November 7, 2011

KIEV — Ukraine’s prime minister says he sees no conflict in his country’s pursuit of better relations with the market-diverse European Union, which has criticized the government’s jailing of a pro-democracy advocate, and oil-rich Central Asia, where authoritarian regimes remain strong since the 1991 fall of communism.

“Ukraine is in between these two blocs, and it is in our self-interest to live peacefully with both,” Mykola Azarov said

In a wide-ranging recent interview, Mr. Azarov discussed the abuse-of-power trial and sentencing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s leading pro-democracy advocate, and his country’s energy future.

But he focused on his country’s relations with the West and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which is made up of former Soviet republics, like Ukraine itself.

If “we look ahead 10 or 20 years, I believe the European Union will have changed considerably, and the CIS countries will have changed as well, and that the basic principles that exist in the European Union, like freedom, human rights, and democracy will be more and more the same principles of the CIS countries,” he said.

Mr. Azarov, 63, mentioned a recent visit to the Yuzhmash machine-building plant in the city of Dnipropetrovsk.

During the Cold War, the top-secret plant had been used to build Soviet satellites and missiles. Today, it is developing parts of the U.S.-led program to develop the Stanford Torus space station, he said.

“Twenty years ago, nobody would have been able to imagine that this facility that had been a classified military facility in Soviet times would be working on an important joint project with the United States,” Mr. Azarov said.

“That is why I am optimistic about the future. I believe the future will belong to all sorts of integration. I believe mankind will face difficult challenges that will require a high degree of integration to resolve.”

He said he sees Ukraine growing closer to EU and CIS countries, as well as those two blocs growing closer to each other. “Yes, this will happen, and I believe Ukraine, which borders both groups, will play an important role in making that happen,” Mr. Azarov said.

Some of that integration is already taking place - at least with the CIS.

During an October summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Ukraine signed a free-trade agreement that includes seven other former Soviet states and guarantees that gas from Central Asian republics such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan will soon make its way to Ukraine through Russian territory.

It is a deal Mr. Azarov said is key to ensure that Ukraine will have a diverse enough energy supply to avoid a repeat of the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis that had left Ukrainians freezing almost every winter since 2005.

Mrs. Tymoshenko’s seven-year prison sentence in connection with a natural-gas deal she signed with Russia is one of the obstacles in the way of Ukraine’s increased integration with the European Union.

EU leaders have condemned her sentencing as an example of a shoddy and unfair Ukrainian justice system.

But Mr. Azarov brushed aside those concerns, casting the Tymoshenko case as an example of the exercise of the rule of law.

“There is a lot of myth and a great deal of suspicion surrounding this case, but if one looks at the court documents, it is clear that she was sentenced for breaking the law during the course of concluding the agreements with Russia,” the prime minister said.

“She pushed through the controversial contract and said she had a decision from the government when it was her decision alone, with no support from lawmakers. This is the essence of the case, and to insist she should be freed is to say the law should not be followed.”

He declined to criticize the EU’s condemnation of the Tymoshenko case, saying the problem is a lack of understanding.

“Should a government official be allowed to act unilaterally, the way Tymoshenko did?” Mr. Azarov said. “If those who have criticized the Ukraine believe the way Tymoshenko conducted herself was right, then that is one thing.

“But I do not believe that was the case, and I was surprised to note how quickly assessments were made with no attempt to understand the situation. Only the judicial system has the right to make such assessments about innocence and guilt.”

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