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Will Ukraine tilt east or west?

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov discusses Chernobyl, Tymoshenko, Moscow and the origin of life, in an exclusive GlobalPost interview.

Ukraine tymoshenko protest mykola azarov Enlarge
A supporter of Ukraine's former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko shouts as she holds a picture of the opposition leader during the rally in front of a court in Kiev on December 14, 2011. The Kiev court hears an appeal against the jailing of the 51-year-old opposition leader for seven years which has endangered Ukraine's chances of joining the European Union. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

KIEV, Ukraine — This country has found itself uncomfortably in the news in recent months.

The jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko sparked criticism from Europe and elsewhere, and resulted in speculation over whether the country might abandon its path toward integration with the European Union and instead cozy up with Vladimir Putin’s “Eurasian Union” — which would demand less on human rights and democracy.

Yesterday, Europe raised the stakes. At a summit in Kiev that aimed to advance a trade agreement with the continent, EU President Herman Van Rompuy warned that political abuses by Ukraine could derail the deal. In particular, he mentioned Tymoshenko’s imprisonment as “the most striking example” of what concerns the EU.

This fall, just after Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov sat for an hour-long conversation with GlobalPost’s Eric J. Lyman.

After two brief stints as acting prime minister and one as finance minister, Azarov took over the prime minister job full time in 2010, in the wake of the Tymoshenko scandal.

The interview took place at Kiev’s Boryspil Airport, and addressed Tymoshenko, EU relations, and the lessons Ukraine has drawn from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, which took place just 90 miles north of the capital of Kiev.

The interview has been condensed and edited by GlobalPost.

GlobalPost: The European Union has been very critical of the arrest of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Do you think it is appropriate for it to weigh in on something like this? Is there an issue of sovereignty at stake?

Azarov: (Chuckles.) Well, let’s ask the question in a different way: Is it correct that a government official can act the way Tymoshenko acted? If those who criticize the Ukraine believe she acted correctly, then that changes the argument. But I will say I was surprised to see how quickly assessments were made without any attempt to understand the situation. Only the courts can make a legal ruling.

Summarize your view of the situation involving Ms. Tymoshenko. How would you explain it to someone who knows nothing about it?

There is a great deal of myth and speculation about this case. If you read the ruling of the courts, you would see there is no politics involved. This is the great misconception: that it was a political decision to imprison her.

Then in that context, please explain the judicial decision.

The court sentenced her, not for the conclusion of the gas agreements, but for violations that were carried out during the negotiations. [Editor’s note: The controversy involved an expensive natural-gas supply deal that Tymoshenko signed with Russia.]

What I mean is that Ukrainian laws were violated in the extremely unfavorable conclusion of the negotiations, which has caused great hardship in the Ukraine.

I will explain: If Tymoshenko signed the same contact while following all the applicable laws, the case would have never been brought to court. But during the negotiations, the chairman of the Ukrainian national-gas company said he would not sign the contract unless ordered to by the government, because it was too unfavorable. Tymoshenko showed the chairman a document she said was an official decision from the government. But there was no government decision, it was her own decision that she misrepresented.

But as prime minister, didn’t she represent the government?

Just imagine that [German chancellor Angela] Merkel brings the Bundestag together for a decision, but they do not approve. Nonetheless, she decides to go forward anyway. I expect the criticisms of this would be very loud.

What was her motivation for pushing through such an unfavorable deal?

(Chuckles.) We can only speculate about her motivation. But I will note that her private company had debts to the Russian Ministry of Defense worth $405 million. We can only wonder if that was a factor, but understanding her motive is not necessary in order to examine the realities of the case. [Tymoshenko has maintained her innocence.]

What is Ukraine’s view regarding possible European integration or Russian integration? I have read many contradictory things. What exactly is it that Russia is proposing? And what is it that the European Union has told the Ukrainian government?

Well, we just