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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.

signed a free-trade agreement with the [Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS] countries. It still has to be ratified, which I suspect will happen in time for it to come into force by January 1. It is extremely beneficial for us because it opens markets for us [and] limits the number of exemptions from free trade, including a phase-out of tariffs on sugar and the right for gas from other countries — including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan — to come to Ukraine while passing through Russian territory. The dates still have to be negotiated on some parts, but this process has already begun. It will be a very important deal.

Does this deal mean Ukraine will seek closer relations with the CIS rather than the European Union? There has been a great deal of speculation that the country will do so because of Soviet-era ties to the CIS governments and the fact that the CIS will likely put Ukraine under less scrutiny than the EU would.

(Laughs, then pauses). This is another example of myth about the relationship between Ukraine and the countries around it. On the north and east, we border Russia and other CIS states [Russia and Belarus], and on the west we border four EU states [Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland]. This position forces us to live peacefully with all our neighbors. We want to defend our national interests, and one of our national interests is to have good relations with all our neighbors.

If you look ahead 20 years, would it be more surprising for you to see Ukraine as part of a tightly-knit CIS Union, or to be closer to the European Union?

First of all, in 20 years the European Union will be changed considerably and the CIS countries will also be changed. I believe the basic EU principles — like freedom, human rights, and democracy — will be more and more the same principles of the CIS members.

But it is impossible to predict what will happen in 20 years. I will tell you a story: I just got back from a plant in Dnipropetrovsk. Only 20 years ago, it was a highly classified facility that produced missiles and satellites for the Soviet Union. Today, I saw with my own eyes: it is producing the first stage of parts for the US-designed Stanford Torus space station in collaboration with scientists from the United States. You cannot imagine the level of cooperation and trust this requires. Who could have imagined that 20 years ago, during the Cold War?

This is why I am optimistic about the future, because I believe the future will belong to all sorts of integration. I believe mankind is facing difficult challenges that will require a high degree of integration to resolve.

Are you saying you believe Ukraine will integrate with both the European Union and the CIS?

Yes, with both. And I think they will also integrate with each other in many ways. Ukraine will play an important role in this process.

Chernobyl, in Ukraine, had its tragic meltdown 25 years ago. Earlier this year we had the meltdown at Fukushima in Japan. In Europe, Germany says it is phasing out nuclear power; Italy says it wants to reintroduce nuclear power. Ukraine has had to deal with the consequences of Chernobyl for a generation now. What are the country’s views on nuclear power and the associated risks?

I am convinced that despite everything, we have no alternatives to nuclear energy. Mankind learns lessons from its mistakes. Nobody stopped making ships after the tragedy of the Titanic. But people started to pay more attention to safety and security. I think that both the Japanese tragedy and Chernobyl disaster taught us something, which is that we must pay more attention to design, construction and other safety aspects. Our scientists tell us that a plant can be designed ten times safer than the ones in Japan and many, many times safer than at Chernobyl.

Remember that life on earth appeared only because of nuclear energy. The sun itself is a nuclear reaction. Nuclear energy is a natural process, but safety and security must be the highest priorities.