Nikolai Azarov.
Nikolai Azarov. Photo by Emil Salman
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Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov is in Israel this week on his first official visit. Azarov, 64, has been a member of Ukraine's political elite for almost a decade. He became prime minister on March 11, 2010, and is considered a moderate whose focus is the economy. In foreign policy, he is considered pro-Russian, and when it comes to Israel, he is proud to note his role in eliminating the requirement for entry visas for Israelis traveling to Ukraine and Ukrainians traveling to Israel.

Mr. prime minister, how would you define current relations between Israel and the Ukraine?

They're very good. The cancellation of the entry visa requirement is another clear indications of the improvement in relations. These are relations based on mutual trust, not only between politicians, but also between nations. The mutual desire to enhance relations has brought us closer to creating a free trade zone between Ukraine and Israel. Ukraine is interested in free, competitive trade relations, as well as in boosting trade in industrial, agricultuial and high-tech products, for the mutual benefit of both countries.

How are things progressing in this regard?

Very rapidly. With the European Union, for example, it took five years of negotiations until they decided to accept a "document of cooperation" that would begin to investigate the possibility of annulling visa requirements with Ukraine. For our part, we had already canceled visa requirements vis-a-vis the EU five years earlier. What we have here with Israel is a shared desire to move closer, so everything is progressing much more quickly and efficiently. We can already report a 20 percent increase in the number of tourists, and that's in a very short time. That's a real achievement. We mustn't forget that half a million people of Ukrainian descent live in Israel. These are people who do not want to lose their connection with relatives or friends. They want to maintain business and personal relations. We will act together so that binational ties continue to grow stronger.

In what other ares will there be cooperation?

Given the current international reality, countries need to cooperate against terror. And security is an important way of strengthening cooperation in other areas as well.

Can you respond to reports that the Palestinian engineer, Dirar Abu Sisi, was kidnapped on Ukrainian soil by Israeli intelligence agents?

We don't have clear information right now. The matter is being investigated by officials responsible for state security. Until we know something for certain, we can't respond.

Theoretically, if the information turns out to be correct, what would that mean?

I don't want to imagine that such things are carried out on the soil of a friendly state.

What major changes are you and President Viktor Yanukovych trying to bring about?

The last elections in the Ukraine brought about a change in policy direction, and, in my opinion, they enhanced the sense of security among our citizens about the future. We have moved away from past policy that divided states around us as enemies or partners, sometimes without any viable reason. Ukraine current aspires to create good neighborly relations with everyone, while protecting our own national interests. Israel is not a neighbor in a geographic sense, but it definitely complies with the definition of a "good neighbor," in cultural, geopolitical and even linguistic terms.

Does moving closer to Russia, with Yanukovych's election as president, create for the Ukraine new interests in the Middle East?

Russia and the Ukraine are not mere neighbors. These are two nations that have lived together for centuries. Conflicts generated by the previous leadership [in the Ukraine] belong to the past. To be sure, the Ukraine has its own interests, but we have many interests in common with Russia. You shouldn't forget that Russia provides sources of energy for the Ukraine. Cooperative relations with Moscow have no detrimental effect on relations with Israel. Our relations on both tracks are well-considered: We have no problems with Russia, and we have no problems with Israel. We don't forget for a second that people from the Ukraine who live here in Israel maintain linguistic, cultural and emotional ties to their native country, and that is another point in favor of upgrading relations between the countries.

What benefit will accrue to the Ukraine as a result of economic cooperation with Israel?

You can find the answer to that question among the staff I've taken with me on this visit to Israel - senior officials from the ministries of agriculture, health and others. Our priority is sophisticated technology and agricultural projects. Unfortunately, Ukraine has lost its status as a leading supplier agricultural produce, and we are not even close to the annual harvest reaped by an Israeli farmer on land that is much less fertile than our own. That is a sign that we have something to learn here. Improvements in the fields of cattle breeding, wheat production and other areas [are what we are seeking].

A little more than a month ago you said that the Ukraine will pay pension benefits to people who left the country, and are eligible. Is this moving forward?

Very little time has passed since then, so experts are still investigating the matter. The directives I gave are very clear, and the agreement has to be ready by next year - 2012.

A Ukrainian businessmen, Alexander Feldman, said that in his opinion, business and property rights in the Ukraine are not sufficiently protected.

On Tuesday, I had a meeting with local businessmen. I told them: "Don't tell me what's good in our country; tell me what's not right." Nobody responded, perhaps out of deference or good manners. Any country, including Ukraine, wants to protect its investors. Improving conditions for foreign investors is a priority for the government. That will promote the national interest. The goal is to attract businessmen and facilitate their activity, not encumber it.

President Shimon Peres and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych have reached an oral agreement that provides for the involvement of Israeli security companies in the Euro 2012 soccer games.

It isn't a written agreement, but I think we will benefit from the considerable experience that Israelis have in this area, even though we managed to organize some huge events recently without any difficulties. Ukraine suffers from a dearth of high quality hotels, and that could prove a hindrance to foreign fans, who are accustomed to comfortable conditions. I would invite Israeli businessmen to build high-standard hotels [in our country]. We offer 10 years without taxation. The Ukraine is a scenic country. It's an interesting place to visit.

Where do cultural exchanges between Israel and Ukraine stand?

In the past, there have been culture days featuring Israel in the Ukraine, and visa versa. I won't be telling you anything new if I mention the cultural heritage of the Jewish people in the Ukraine. In addition, there are also the many visits paid by religious Jews to place such as Uman. We will take steps to develop religious tourism between both countries.

What are your impressions on your first visit here?

[Jerusalem] is an impressive city. The holy places are a must for any tourist. It's just unfortunate that the timetable is very tight, and doesn't allow us to stay a little longer.