The first identifiable groups to populate what is now Ukraine were Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, and Goths, among other nomadic peoples who arrived throughout the first millennium B.C. These peoples were well known to colonists and traders in the ancient world, including Greeks and Romans, who established trading outposts that eventually became city-states. Slavic tribes occupied central and eastern Ukraine in the sixth century A.D. and played an important role in the establishment of Kyiv. Kievan Rus Prince Volodymyr converted the Kievan nobility and most of the population to Christianity in 988. Situated on lucrative trade routes, Kyiv quickly prospered as the center of the powerful state of Kievan Rus. In the 11th century, Kievan Rus was, geographically, the largest state in Europe. Conflict among the feudal lords led to decline in the 12th century. Mongol raiders razed Kyiv in the 13th century.
Most of the territory of what is modern Ukraine was annexed by Poland and Lithuania in the 14th century, but during that time, Ukrainians began to conceive of themselves as a distinct people, a feeling that survived subsequent partitioning by greater powers over the next centuries. Ukrainian peasants who fled the Polish effort to force them into servitude came to be known as Cossacks and earned a reputation for their fierce martial spirit and love of freedom. In 1667, Ukraine was partitioned between Poland and Russia. In 1793, when Poland was partitioned, much of modern-day Ukraine was integrated into the Russian Empire.
The 19th century found the region largely agricultural, with a few cities and centers of trade and learning. The region was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the extreme west and the Russian Empire elsewhere. Ukrainian writers and intellectuals were inspired by the nationalistic spirit stirring other European peoples existing under other imperial governments and were determined to revive Ukrainian linguistic and cultural traditions and reestablish a Ukrainian state. Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), national hero of Ukraine, presented the intellectual maturity of the Ukrainian language and culture through his work as a poet and artist. Imperial Russia, however, imposed strict limits on attempts to elevate Ukrainian culture, even banning the use and study of the Ukrainian language.
When World War I and the Russian revolution shattered the Habsburg and Russian empires, Ukrainians declared independent statehood. In 1917 the Central Rada proclaimed Ukrainian autonomy and in 1918, following the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd, the Ukrainian National Republic declared independence under President Mykhaylo Hrushevsky. After three years of conflict and civil war, however, the western part of Ukrainian territory was incorporated into Poland, while the larger, central and eastern regions were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922 as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The Ukrainian national idea persevered during the twenties, but with Stalin's rise to power and the campaign of forced collectivization, the Soviet leadership imposed a campaign of terror that ravaged the intellectual class. The Soviet government under Stalin also created an artificial famine (called “Holodomor” in Ukrainian) as part of his forced collectivization policies, which killed millions of previously independent peasants and others throughout the country. Estimates of deaths from the 1932-33 Holodomor alone range from 3 million to 7 million.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, some Ukrainians, particularly in the west, welcomed what they saw as liberation from Communist rule, but this did not last as they quickly came to understand the nature of Nazi rule. Nazi brutality was directed principally against Ukraine's Jews (of whom an estimated 1 million were killed), but also against many other Ukrainians. Babyn Yar in Kyiv was the site of one of the most horrific Nazi massacres of Ukrainian Jews, ethnic Ukrainians, and many others. Kyiv and other parts of the country were heavily damaged.
After the Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland in 1939, the western Ukrainian regions were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Armed resistance against Soviet authority continued as late as the 1950s. During periods of relative liberalization--as under Nikita Khrushchev from 1955 to 1964 and during the period of "perestroika" under Mikhail Gorbachev--Ukrainian communists pursued nationalist objectives. The 1986 explosion at the Chornobyl (Chernobyl in Russian) nuclear power plant, located in the Ukrainian SSR, and the Soviet Government's initial efforts to conceal the extent of the catastrophe from its own people and the world, was a watershed for many Ukrainians in exposing the severe problems of the Soviet system. Ukraine became an independent state on August 24, 1991, and was a co-founder of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, although it has not officially joined the organization.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Ukraine has a parliamentary-presidential system of government with separate executive, judicial, and legislative branches. The president nominates the defense and foreign ministers, and the Prosecutor General and Chief of the State Security Service (SBU), each of whom must be confirmed by the parliament. Beginning in 2006, a majority of deputies in the 450-member unicameral parliament (Supreme Rada) forms a coalition, which then names the prime minister, who in turn nominates other ministers. The Supreme Rada initiates legislation, ratifies international agreements, and approves the budget. Its members are elected to five-year terms. Following free elections held on December 1, 1991, Leonid M. Kravchuk, former chairman of the Ukrainian Rada, was elected to a five-year term, and became Ukraine's first president. At the same time, a referendum on independence was approved by more than 90% of the voters.
Shortly after becoming independent, Ukraine named a parliamentary commission to prepare a new constitution, adopted a multi-party system, and adopted legislative guarantees of civil and political rights for national minorities. A new, democratic constitution was adopted on June 28, 1996, which mandates a pluralistic political system with protection of basic human rights and liberties. Amendments that took effect January 1, 2006, shifted significant powers from the president to the prime minister and Supreme Rada.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by law, although religious organizations are required to register with local authorities and with the central government. There is no formal state religion. Minority rights are respected in accordance with a 1991 law guaranteeing ethnic minorities the right to schools and cultural facilities and the use of national languages in conducting personal business. According to the constitution, Ukrainian is the only official state language. In Crimea and some parts of eastern Ukraine--areas with substantial ethnic Russian minorities--local and regional governments permit Russian as a language for local official correspondence.
Freedom of speech and press are guaranteed by law and the constitution, and authorities generally respect these rights. Prior to the 2004 "Orange Revolution," however, authorities sometimes interfered with the news media through intimidation and other forms of pressure. In particular, the failure of the government to conduct a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation into the 2000 disappearance and murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, in which then-government officials have been credibly implicated, negatively affected Ukraine's international image. Three police officers were convicted and received prison sentences in March 2008; a fourth suspect, a senior police official, was arrested in July 2009. Freedom of the media and respect for citizens' rights increased markedly in the wake of the Orange Revolution.
The Crimean peninsula is home to a number of pro-Russian political organizations that advocate secession of Crimea from Ukraine and annexation to Russia. Crimea was ceded by the RFSSR to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954, in recognition of historic links and for economic convenience, to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine's union with Russia. In July 1992, the Crimean and Ukrainian parliaments determined that Crimea would remain under Ukrainian jurisdiction while retaining significant political, economic, and cultural autonomy.
The campaign leading to the October 31, 2004, presidential election was characterized by widespread violations of democratic norms, including government intimidation of the opposition and of independent media, abuse of state administrative resources, highly skewed media coverage, and numerous provocations. The two major candidates--Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leader (and former Prime Minister) Viktor Yushchenko--each garnered between 39% and 40% of the vote and proceeded to a winner-take-all second round. The November 21 runoff election was marred by credible reports of widespread and significant violations, including illegal expulsion of opposition representatives from election commissions, multiple voting by busloads of people, abuse of absentee ballots, reports of coercion of votes in schools and prisons, and an abnormally high number of (easily manipulated) mobile ballot box votes. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Kyiv and other cities to protest electoral fraud and express support for Yushchenko, and conducted ongoing peaceful demonstrations during what came to be known as the "Orange Revolution."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) International Election Observation Mission found that the November 21 run-off election "did not meet a considerable number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe and other European standards for democratic elections." Other independent observers were similarly critical. On November 24, the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared Yanukovych the winner with 49.46% compared to 46.61% for Yushchenko. The U.S. and Europe refused to accept the result as legitimate due to the numerous, uninvestigated reports of fraud. On November 27, Ukraine's Supreme Rada passed a resolution declaring that the election results as announced did not represent the will of the people. On December 1, the Rada passed a vote of "no confidence" in the government. On December 3, Ukraine's Supreme Court invalidated the CEC's announced results and mandated a repeat of the second round vote to take place on December 26. An agreement mediated by European leaders resulted in new legislation being passed by the Rada and signed by the President December 8. The electoral law was reformed to close loopholes that had permitted pervasive electoral fraud. The constitution was amended to transfer power, especially with respect to appointment of ministers, from the president to the prime minister.
The December 26 re-vote took place in an atmosphere of calm. While irregularities were noted, observers found no systemic or massive fraud. The OSCE Mission noted that "Ukraine's elections have moved substantially closer to meeting OSCE and other European standards." On January 10, 2005, after the CEC and the Supreme Court had considered and rejected numerous complaints and appeals filed by the Yanukovych campaign, the CEC certified the results: Yushchenko had won 51.99% of the votes, with 44.20% for Yanukovych. President Yushchenko was inaugurated January 23, 2005.
Ukraine held parliamentary and local elections on March 26, 2006. International observers noted that conduct of the Rada election was in line with international standards for democratic elections, making this the most free and fair in Ukraine's history. Unlike the first rounds of the 2004 presidential election, candidates and parties were able to express themselves freely in a lively press and assembled without hindrance. There was no systemic abuse of administrative resources as there had been under the previous regime. Pre-term parliamentary elections were held on September 30, 2007, and international observers judged this vote to be in line with international democratic standards in an open and competitive environment. Party of Regions finished in first place with 34.3%, and BYuT came in second with 30.7%. BYuT and Our Ukraine, which came in a distant third (14.1%), garnered enough votes to form a thin three-seat majority. The Communist Party and Bloc Lytvyn, headed by Rada Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, also crossed the 3% threshold.
The new coalition formed on December 18, 2007 nominated Yulia Tymoshenko as Prime Minister; she was confirmed December 18, 2007. The cabinet was split 50-50 between representatives from BYuT and Our Ukraine (which is now called Our Ukraine-People's Self Defense). For most of February 2008, there was a deadlock within the Rada due to objections by opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions to Ukraine’s request for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Beginning in 2008, the Rada experienced chronic deadlock, which was exacerbated by a feud between then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and then-President Viktor Yushchenko.
The first round of Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election took place on January 17. International and domestic observers assessed the vote as having met most international standards. As no candidate received 50% or more of the vote, the two candidates with the most votes--opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych (35%) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (25%)--progressed to a second-round runoff. The second round took place on February 7 in a vote that observers again assessed as largely free and fair. On February 14, the Central Election Commission announced that Viktor Yanukovych had won the election with 49% of the vote, compared to Yulia Tymoshenko’s 46%. However, on February 17, the Administrative Court of Ukraine suspended the election results in response to an appeal by Tymoshenko alleging fraud. Tymoshenko withdrew her appeal on February 20, saying that the court would not consider her appeal fairly. Yanukovych was inaugurated as President on February 25. On March 11, the Party of Regions, the Communists, the Lytvyn Bloc, and 16 non-aligned members of parliament (MPs) established the “Stability and Reform” ruling coalition in the Rada composed of 235 MPs. Also on March 11, the Rada confirmed President Yanukovych’s nomination of Mykola Azarov as Prime Minister and replaced the entire cabinet of ministers. Opposition MPs and others argued the coalition had been formed illegally, as a coalition could only be composed of factions, not individuals. The Constitutional Court of Ukraine ruled on April 8 that the Party of Regions-led coalition was constitutional, stating that individuals MPs do in fact have the right to take part in forming parliamentary coalitions. The ruling consolidated the position of the Azarov government.
After independence, Ukraine established its own military forces of about 780,000 from the troops and equipment inherited from the Soviet Union. Security forces are controlled by the president, although they are subject to investigation by a permanent parliamentary commission. Surveillance is permitted for reasons of national security. Under defense reform legislation passed in 2004, Ukraine is strengthening civilian control of the military, professionalizing its non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps, modernizing force structure to improve interoperability with NATO, and reducing troop numbers, all with an eye toward achieving NATO standards. Current force levels are approximately 150,000 (plus 50,000 civilian workers in the Ministry of Defense). NATO offered Ukraine an "Intensified Dialogue on Membership Issues" in April 2005. Ukraine had previously signed an agreement with NATO on using Ukraine's strategic airlift capabilities and has been an active participant in Partnership for Peace exercises, in Balkans peacekeeping, and in coalition operations in Iraq. Ukrainian units served in the U.S. sector in Kosovo and served in the Polish-led division in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Currently, Ukraine participates in six United Nations peacekeeping missions and has up to 50 troops serving in supporting roles in Iraq. In January 2008 Ukraine formally requested a NATO Membership Action Plan, noting that a final decision on membership would be determined by a national referendum. In April 2008, NATO allies stated that Ukraine would eventually become a member of the alliance and that its request for MAP would be considered at some point in the future. President Yanukovych and his government have stated that Ukraine is adopting a “non-bloc” approach and will not pursue membership in any defense alliances, including NATO. President Yanukovych has, however, committed Ukraine to pursing close practical cooperation with NATO.
Information by U.S. Department of State