Europe

Ukraine country profile - Overview

  • 15 July 2015
  • From the section Europe
MAp of Ukraine

Ukraine gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has since veered between seeking closer integration with Western Europe and being drawn into the orbit of Russia, which sees its interests as threatened by a Western-leaning Ukraine.

Europe's second largest country, Ukraine is a land of wide, fertile agricultural plains, with large pockets of heavy industry in the east.

While Ukraine and Russia share common historical origins, the west of the country has closer ties with its European neighbours, particularly Poland, and nationalist sentiment is strongest there.

Image caption Ukraine became embroiled in war in 2014 when pro-Russian separatists seized regions in the east

A significant minority of the population uses Russian as its first language, particularly in the industrialised east. In Crimea, an autonomous republic on the Black Sea that was part of Russia until 1954, ethnic Russians make up about 60% of the population.

Russia once again seized and annexed Crimea in March 2014, amid the chaos following the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych, plunging European into its worst diplomatic crisis since the Cold War.

In 1932-1933, Stalin's programme of enforced agricultural collectivisation brought famine and death to millions in Ukraine, the bread basket of the USSR. Not until its twilight years did the Soviet Union acknowledge the extent of the suffering.

News of another Soviet-era calamity, the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, rang alarm bells around the world immediately. About 8% of Ukraine's territory was contaminated as were large areas in neighbouring Belarus. Millions have suffered as a result.

Independence

The first president after independence, former Communist Party leader Leonid Kravchuk, presided over rapid economic decline and runaway inflation.

His successor, Leonid Kuchma, oversaw a steady economic recovery, but was accused by the opposition of conceding too much to Russian economic interests.

This opposition to Mr Kuchma grew, further fed by discontent at media censorship, manipulation of the political system and cronyism.

The authorities' attempt to rig the 2004 presidential elections led to the "Orange Revolution", with reference to the colour of the main opposition movement.

Europe or Russia?

Mass protests, a revolt by state media against government controls and the fracturing of the governing coalition brought in European-Union mediation and a re-run of the election.

Image caption The euphoria of the Orange Revolution protesters gave way to disappointment as its leaders squabbled once in power

A fragile alliance of anti-Kuchma forces united behind pro-Western former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko, who won the presidency.

Mr Yushchenko succeeded in carrying out some democratic reform, but moves towards Nato and EU membership were slowed by divided public opinion in Ukraine and Western reluctance to antagonise a resurgent Russia.

Rivalry with his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, soured into open antagonism, and neither proved able to cope with the worldwide economic downturn after 2008.

Their opponent in the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych, won the 2010 presidential election. He swiftly re-oriented foreign and trade policy towards Russia, clamped down on media freedom, and had various opponents, most prominently Ms Tymoshenko, imprisoned in politically-motivated trials.

Although trade with EU countries now exceeds that with Russia, Moscow is the largest individual trading partner. Ukraine depends on Russia for its gas supplies and forms an important part of the pipeline transit route for Russian gas exports to Europe.

Moves to reach an association agreement with the EU - seen as a key step towards eventual EU membership - again fuelled tensions with Russia.

The government's decision to drop the agreement brought tens of thousands of protesters out onto the streets in November 2013, eventually forcing the collapse and flight of the Yanukovych government in violent chaos four months later.

Moscow reacted to Ukraine's domestic turmoil by sending troops to annex the former Russian territory of Crimea while stoking separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine, thereby bringing international tension to crisis point.

With the election of the pro-western Petro Poroshenko as president of Ukraine in May 2014 and parliamentary elections in October that consolidated the grip on power of the president's political allies, Kiev is now firmly western-leaning.

However, tensions between Kiev and Russian-backed separatists plunged the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk into war.

With the self-proclaimed "people's republics" holding their own leadership polls in November, the likelihood that the split between the two parts of the country could harden into a "frozen conflict" - with the eastern regions protected by Russian troops - seems greater than ever.

Image caption The Orthodox Church has several prominent places of worship, including the Kiev-Pecherskaya Lavra monastery, pictured with a sculpture made of traditional wooden Easter eggs

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