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Ukraine Modern History

Just over 25 years after the independence of the Soviet Union, Ukraine seems to have a steadily looking west, with a distant hope of membership in both the EU and NATO. But the road to it has been paved with political and economic crises, and two popular uprisings were needed to establish the course.

After independence in 1991, Ukrainian domestic politics was characterized by a growing economic crisis as a result of the transition from planning economy to market economy and struggles around economic policy. In the fall of 1992, Leonid Kuchma, former head of a large arms factory, was named prime minister. Kuchma presented a reform program that included privatizations and major cuts in government spending. Reform policy faced obstacles in Parliament, which was dominated by members of the Communist era. In the summer of 1993, two million mining and industrial workers went on strike in protest of the declining standard of living. Kuchma resigned and parliamentary elections were held in March 1994.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Ukraine. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

The Ukrainian Communist Party, which was again allowed, became the largest party in the new parliament. The nationalists declined strongly. When the presidential elections were held in July of the same year, Kuchma in the second round defeated incumbent President Leonid Kravtjuk (see Older History), with 52 percent of the vote.

Conflicts over economic policy characterized the entire 1990s. The power measurement between the government, the president and the parliament was somewhat mitigated in 1996, when a new constitution was adopted. However, this did not dampen the power struggle between the economically and politically dominant groups in society held together by old friendships.

Contemporary History of UkraineThe power struggle between the "clans" came in the open after a failed assassination attempt in July 1996 at the newly appointed Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. In the spring of 1997, serious allegations of corruption were leveled against Lazarenko, which led to President Kuchma dismissing him. Lazarenko left the country and sought asylum in the United States, where he was later sentenced to jail for extortion, fraud and money laundering. According to the UN, he stole more than the equivalent of SEK 1.7 billion from the Treasury during his year as head of government.

Kuchma reign

After a troubled and violent election campaign in 1998, the Communist Party became the largest party. But no clear majority bloc could be discerned in the new parliament.

In the 1999 presidential election, Kuchma in the second round defeated the Communist Party leader. He unexpectedly appointed Prime Minister Liberal former governor Viktor Yushchenko, who initiated economic reforms. Kuchma himself was largely seen as an authoritarian ruler in the Soviet spirit.

At the end of 2000, a political crisis erupted over the disappearance of the regime-critical journalist Georgij Gongadze. Band recordings where Kuchma is said to discuss how to get rid of Gongadze triggered major demonstrations demanding the president's departure. Kuchma claimed that the tapes were forged.

Yushchenko's reform-oriented government was toppled in the spring of 2001 in a distrustful vote by an unholy alliance of communists and oligarchs, that is, politically influential financiers.

The 2002 parliamentary elections were marked by irregularities. The election was criticized both by representatives of the Ukrainian opposition and by foreign election observers. Yushchenko's newly formed Liberal electoral union Our Ukraine was the largest, but President Kuchma could count on the support of parliament by a large number of members elected as independent candidates. Viktor Yanukovych was appointed new Prime Minister. He was formerly governor of Donetsk, a Russian-speaking region in the east, which gained new political weight.

The campaign for the presidential election in autumn 2004 was stormy. The main candidates were the former Prime Minister Yushchenko and the sitting, Yanukovych. Yushchenko had strong support in the country's western and northern parts as well as in the big cities. Yanukovych was supported mainly by the Russian-speaking population in eastern and southern Ukraine, as well as by many oligarchs. Russian President Vladimir Putin also openly supported Yanukovych.

The Orange Revolution

In the second, crucial election round in November, polling stations pointed to Yushchenko as the victor, but the electoral commission gave the victory to Yanukovych. Election observers claimed that there had been widespread electoral fraud, and widespread protests erupted.

Demonstrations in Kiev soon swelled to mass rallies, where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians showed their support for Yushchenko with orange symbols. They set up tent camps and occupied several government buildings. The indignation grew to storm strength when a group of doctors in Vienna announced that the mysterious disease with severe rashes that had affected Yushchenko during the election movement was caused by poisoning with dioxin.

The pressure finally became so strong that the country's highest court decided that the second round of elections had to be changed. The new election was held on the second day of Christmas and, according to the election observers, it was much more honorable than the previous one. According to the official election result, Yushchenko now won with 52 percent of the vote against 44 percent for Yanukovych. The goal of what came to be called the Orange Revolution had been achieved without any blood being spilled.

Yushchenko took office in January 2005 and appointed new Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was his ally during the revolution. The hopes were high that the country would now move towards strengthened democracy and political stability.

Tymoshenko kicked

But the agreement was short-lived. Soon, serious contradictions within the new management were revealed and allegations of corruption hailed. Already after eight months, Yushchenko dismissed Prime Minister Tymoshenko.

The Western-friendly government's relations with Russia also deteriorated. Negotiations on gas prices for 2006 became difficult and by New Year Russia shut down gas supplies (see Foreign Policy and Defense). The dispute was resolved in collaboration with Brussels, a sign of Ukraine's strategic position. But when an agreement on higher prices was concluded, the parliament in Ukraine revolted and voted down the government. However, President Yushchenko refused to let the government go.

When parliamentary elections were held in March 2006, they won the "orange" party alliances - Julia Tymoshenko's bloc and President Yushchenko's Alliance Ukraine. However, the largest individual party became the Yanukovych Region Party. Oppositions between the leading parties delayed the formation of government until August. Then Viktor Yanukovych - the loser of the presidential election - took over as prime minister, with the support of the communists and a social democratic party that had previously belonged to the orange side.

Several government crises followed, leading to new elections in September 2007. The region's party was again the largest by just over 34 percent, but Julia Tymoshenko's block increased the most, reaching almost 31 percent. After difficult negotiations, a new government was formed in December: now Tymoshenko returned as prime minister with the support of his own bloc and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine. However, the coalition came to be characterized by internal conflicts.

Yanukovych becomes president

The war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 shared the Ukrainian leadership. Yushchenko became party to Georgia, while Tymoshenko allied with the Russian-friendly Ukrainian opposition. Yushchenko's party left the government, and in October the president dissolved parliament and announced new elections. But the global financial crisis that just broke out put everything to an end.

In Ukraine, industrial production began to collapse in the fall, the budget situation became critical and the government was forced to seek crisis loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (see Finance). The new election was canceled, after Tymoshenko succeeded in getting a new government coalition with Yushchenko supporters and representatives of a smaller electoral union called the Lytvyn Bloc.

By the new year 2009, Russian Gazprom shut down gas to Ukraine again, but a new price agreement was soon in place. However, the economy was in free fall. President Yushchenko accused the government of trying to hide the seriousness of the economic situation, after Tymoshenko slowed budgetary tightening. The government's internal conflicts aggravated the crisis. During the spring, demonstrations were held demanding the resignation of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, and in the autumn a bitter campaign for the January 2010 presidential election began.

Before the election, Yushchenko's popularity was at the bottom because of the government's inability to cope with the economic crisis. The electoral movement developed into a duel between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko. Yushchenko was knocked out in the first round when he received just over 5 percent of the vote. In the second round, Yanukovych won by 49 percent against 45.5 percent for Tymoshenko. Despite Tymoshenko's assertion that electoral fraud has occurred, Western observers found that Yanukovych's relatively clear victory was correct and that the election was largely open and fair.

After Yanukovych was installed as president in February, he made a statement of no confidence in the government and Tymoshenko was forced to resign. A new government took office, led by one of Yanukovych's confidants, former Finance Minister Mykola Azarov. His government relied on Yanukovych's own Regions Party, Ukraine's Communist Party and the Lytvyn Bloc, as well as some opposition members who switched sides. Of 29 government ministers, more than a third came from the Russian-speaking Donetsk region, the president's home region, and none were women.

Democracy is weakening

For starters, the shift in power was welcomed both by the home opinion and the outside world, which hoped for a democratic development. But quite soon an increasingly authoritarian regime emerged. Local elections held in October 2010 were not considered acceptable democratic level.

Media freedom was limited and censorship was reintroduced. According to critics, Yanukovych also exerted pressure on the Constitutional Court, which in October 2010 annulled a constitutional change that came into force a few years earlier and limited the president's power. Before the 2012 parliamentary elections, new electoral rules were introduced. Party blocs were forbidden to stand and a system was reintroduced where half of the MPs would be elected by majority vote in one-man constituencies. The changes in the electoral law were assumed to favor the incumbent government, as the opposition was largely organized in electoral unions, and many of those expected to be elected in one-man constituencies were wealthy businessmen favored by contacts with the government, or government officials who were easily presumed to be pressured - or mutilated. - to join the majority in Parliament.

Most attention, however, aroused the legal processes that started Tymoshenko and a number of other high-ranking representatives of the former government. Many accused Yanukovych's regime of engaging in political repression, exercised by the courts.

Tymoshenko was prosecuted for abusing her office and for causing the state financial damage through a gas agreement with Russia in 2009. Prosecutions for this political decision could be brought under the support of a law from the Soviet era. In October 2011, Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison and several other charges followed. Tymoshenko claimed that Yanukovych was behind the charges in order to silence his most difficult political rival. In 2012, three ministers in the Tymoshenko government were sentenced to imprisonment for between three and five years for various forms of abuse of power.

With Tymoshenko in jail, her party of the Fatherland failed to threaten power holders when parliamentary elections were held in October 2012. The result meant a new victory for the Yanukovych Region Party and its support parties. But the election was severely criticized both by the opposition and the West for abuse of state resources in the electoral movement, unbalanced media coverage, poor arrangements and pure cheating.

The opposition continued to protest against the government for alleged voting and to allow parliamentarians to vote in place of absent members in violation of current rules. The protest was aimed at the fact that many of the elected people were businessmen who, by and large, never appeared in Parliament, but only assumed their will to guard their interests. Fighting broke out in Parliament on several occasions. From the beginning of February 2013, opposition members for a time implemented a physical blockade of parliament, which crippled all legislative work.

Tug of war between the EU and Russia

In the fall of 2013, Ukraine ended up in a tug of war between the EU and Russia, both of which wanted to bring the country closer. The EU, among other things, demanded reform of the judiciary but most concretely that Yulia Tymoshenko would be released, while Russia threatened with severe consequences for the countries' trade exchange if Ukraine were to decide on a closer relationship with the EU. President Yanukovych and the Party of Regions voted down all proposals for the release of Tymoshenko, which seemed to close Ukraine's potential for closer cooperation with the EU for several years to come.

The EU still suggested that a cooperation agreement could be possible, but the development took a new turn when the government announced in November that it had canceled preparations that would lead to the signing of an association agreement. The message triggered widespread protests among the population and led to the largest demonstrations since the orange revolution around the turn of the year 2004-2005. The protests had its center on the Independence Square in Kiev, called Majdan (the "square").

The leading opposition parties supported the protesters' demand for the departure of the president and the government. The government critics portrayed the conflict as a choice between a democratic and free Ukraine in cooperation with Europe or a corrupt sound state to Russia (see also Conflicts-Ukraine).

A new generation of so-and-so-often anonymous politicians began to emerge. They had had enough of the corruption that characterized Yanukovych and his regime, closely allied with the country's wealthiest business leaders, and which was pushing the state against economic bankruptcy. The protests began in the capital Kiev but spread to other cities in western Ukraine and became increasingly well organized. Among the protesters were also representatives of right-wing nationalist groups, which was used by the Yanukovych and the Russian government to claim that the uprising was led by fascists. In Moscow, opposition to Yanukovych was compared with the Ukrainian nationalists who during World War II collaborated with Nazi Germany against the Soviet army. The protests and unrest continued into the new year and led to the government's departure at the end of January 2014.

The appointment of a new government was delayed and Ukraine ended up in a political stalemate where no solution to the crisis was in sight. In mid-February, the conflict intensified dramatically as bloody clashes erupted between riot police and protesters. Over a few days, over 100 people were killed and several hundred injured. Ukraine appeared to be on the brink of civil war, but after long negotiations with opposition leaders and EU diplomats, Yanukovych succumbed. He agreed to form a unity government, rewrite the constitution and advance presidential and parliamentary elections.

When the activists behind the demonstrations rejected the agreement and demanded that Yanukovych resign immediately, the president fled. Several members of his party switched sides and Parliament voted to dismiss him. During a few dramatic days, the entire power elite was replaced, a unity government nominated by protest activists and with some demonstration leaders on ministerial posts, and Yanukovych was called for mass murder. He was also charged with embezzling tens of billions of dollars. His son Oleksander had during his father's time as president built up one of the country's largest corporate empires with operations in the gas, coal, real estate and banking sectors. The Yanukovych family is suspected to have been involved in most major business deals made in Ukraine.

 
 

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