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Author: Andrea Rogers
Editor: C. Neal Tate
Date: 2006
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Ukraine, formerly a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), has a land area of 603,700 square kilometers (233,090 square miles) and is the second largest country in Europe, similar in size to France or Texas. It is situated between Belarus to the north and the Black Sea to the south, with Russia to the northeast and east. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova, and Romania border its west and southwest. Most of Ukraine is made up of steppes and plateaus, with higher elevations in the Carpathian Mountains to the west. The Dnieper River runs through the center of Ukraine. The land is fertile and contains many minerals, characteristics that have earned Ukraine the nickname "the breadbasket of Europe."

According to the 2003 CIA World Factbook, Ukraine's estimated 48 million residents were 78 percent ethnic Ukrainians. The largest minority group was ethnic Russians, representing less than 20 percent of the population. Other

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ethnic minority groups in Ukraine include Belarusians and Moldovans, as well as people of Jewish and Polish descent.

The economy in Ukraine is largely industrial, but the country also produces a wide variety of agricultural products from its fertile lands. Russia is still Ukraine's largest trading partner in terms of both imports and exports. Ukraine lacks energy and depends heavily on other nations for natural gas energy supplies. The privatization of the economy has been slow, with many aspects of the economy remaining unstable.


The capital city of Ukraine, Kiev, was once the center of a vibrant and powerful Slavic state, which reached its peak in the tenth and eleventh centuries. But starting in the thirteenth century, Ukraine was often conquered and absorbed by other powerful neighbors and empires. During the next few centuries Ukraine was in almost constant turmoil, and it was eventually enveloped by the Russian Empire.

From 1917 to 1921 many Ukrainians fought unsuccessfully for their independence. The Bolsheviks seized Ukraine during their revolution, and by 1921 Ukraine had become part of the USSR as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Ukrainian people experienced extreme hardships under the control of the Soviet communists. They suffered two excruciating famines, and many peasants were killed while attempting to resist collectivization under Joseph Stalin's (1879–1953) rule. Leaders focused on "russifying" the Ukrainian population during Soviet rule in terms of both language and cultural identity. Russification refers to the policy the central Soviet regime imposed on its satellite republics to create nationalistic ties with Russia, such as forcing schools to teach only in the Russian language, thereby strengthening the importance of the USSR as a whole.

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During World War II (1939–1945) Ukraine became a battleground when German forces invaded the republic and the Soviet Red Army subsequently sought to remain in control of the region. Ukrainians fought on both sides of the war, with citizens involved in guerilla warfare against both the Soviets and the Germans. Millions of Ukrainians died in the conflict, including many Jews who were victims of the Holocaust. By the war's end much of the country had been decimated.

Ukrainian leaders during Soviet rule generally followed orders from Moscow, carrying out communist policies and procedures. The Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) was known for maintaining a republic, out of all the member republics of the USSR, which was most closely aligned with Moscow. Nevertheless, nationalist sentiments and unrest developed following World War II, and in the 1960s and 1970s a movement for a free, independent, and democratic Ukraine took hold. Leaders in Moscow responded by replacing the Ukraine head of state with Vladimir Shcherbitsky, a heavy-handed Communist Party loyalist, in order to regain control. Although Shcherbitsky fought to quell the mounting unrest, the Ukrainian people were moving toward significant social and political change.

The explosion of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in 1986 further fueled political unrest and the nationalist movement. The Soviet reaction to the disaster was slow; leaders in Moscow failed to evacuate the areas surrounding the plant for days and refused to allow details about the event to reach the Soviet people and the rest of the world. Many citizens of both Ukraine and surrounding countries suffered severe radioactive poisoning, and the environmental, physical, and health effects of the disaster still lingered almost two decades later.


By the late 1980s Ukrainians were calling for sovereignty. A major development in the road to independence emerged with the birth of the Ukrainian People's Movement for Restructuring (Rukh). The Rukh at first advocated an autonomous Ukraine within the USSR, but eventually the Rukh's agenda helped to ignite nationalist feelings across Ukraine. Rukh was a major player in achieving independence, encouraging a variety of political and social groups to demand political change, including local control. During this period, the leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931), instituted reforms that restructured the Soviet economy and allowed its member republics greater autonomy and freedom of expression. These reforms did not satisfy many Ukrainians, however, who sought more drastic political change.

By 1990 non-Communist Party leaders were emerging as a serious political force in Ukraine, and the country declared that local control superseded that of the USSR. An unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev served as the final catalyst for Ukraine's political transformation. The country declared its independence from the communist USSR in the wake of the failed coup on August 24, 1991.

Following a parliamentary declaration of independence, Ukrainian voters overwhelmingly chose to uphold their independence in December 1991. Leonid Kravchuk (b. 1934) was elected as the independent Ukraine's first president. Subsequent to independence the country faced many difficulties—economic, environmental, and political—with many former communist elitists resisting true democratic changes. For example, President Kravchuk, formerly a member of the CPU, failed to create policies to establish a free market economy. The country was also very slow in adopting a new constitution.

Upon independence Ukraine was one of three founding members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), along with Russia and Belarus. The CIS, which immediately expanded its membership to include eleven countries,Page 221  |  Top of Article allowed many of the former Soviet republics to work together in the aftermath of the USSR while each country established independence. Ukraine is also a member of the United Nations (UN), retaining the seat it had been granted while still part of the USSR.

The slowness of post-independence economic reform led to the country's 1999 economic output being 40 percent lower than it was in 1991. In fact, Ukraine was in near crisis by the mid-1990s with a devastated economy. Life post-independence left many people very poor and without the basic infrastructure and goods to easily build wealth.

Another major problem that Ukraine faced at independence was ethnic friction between the Crimean Peninsula region and the rest of the nation. The Crimea is largely populated by ethnic Russians, who desired a split from Ukraine in order to rejoin Russia. Ukraine resisted Crimean attempts at secession; in 2004 the area remained part of the country but an autonomous republic.


In June 1996 a new constitution came into force in Ukraine; the country was the last of the former Soviet republics to establish a constitution. The government constitutes a republic. All citizens eighteen and older have the right to vote. In addition to the autonomous Republic of Crimea, the country is divided into twenty-four oblasts, which are similar to states, and two municipalities. The constitution officially named Ukrainian the formal language, although the use of the Russian language remains widespread.

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The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is a political and economic alliance of twelve of the fifteen former Soviet Republics. As of 2005 the CIS included Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania chose to remain outside the CIS.

The CIS was formed in 1991 during the collapse of the former Soviet Union. On December 8, 1991, a treaty establishing the CIS was signed by the leaders of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Other former Soviet republics signed the agreement on December 21. Georgia, the last to join, entered the CIS in 1993. A collective security treaty was drawn up in 1992 and signed by nine of the twelve member countries by the close of 1993.

Although the members of the CIS regard themselves as independent states, the alliance is based on military and political cooperation. An economic union among the member states was scheduled for 2005. The CIS, which is headquartered in Minsk, Belarus, has its own flag, executive secretary, and Olympic team.

By 2005, however, it seemed possible that the CIS might face dissolution. The replacement of the leaders of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan with pro-Western politicians between 2003 and 2005 might be a sign that the alliance was no longer useful to some of its members.

The President, Prime Minister, and Cabinet. The president of Ukraine is the head of state, elected for a five-year term. The president until 2004, Leonid Kuchma (b. 1938), was first elected in 1994. His prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych (b. 1950), was installed in 2002. Many accused this administration of being resistant to true democratic reforms and implicated it in corrupt political activities, resulting in a loss of the election in late 2004. President Kuchma played a central role in the final drafting and adoption of the constitution, and one of his requirements for the document was that it provide for a strong executive branch.Page 222  |  Top of Article Although he was largely elected because of his promise to support close ties with Russia, Kuchma later admitted his intention to steer the country toward a more European model of governance and policy.

The president's powers are sizable, in large part because the constitution grants the position a great deal of authority. It also reflects the governance style associated with the country's communist past. In effect, the president retains ultimate control over the government, despite its three branches.

The prime minister is the head of the government. This post is appointed by the elected president and approved by the country's legislative branch, the Supreme Council. The president retains the right to dismiss the prime minister or to suspend the political authority of the position.

The president also appoints a Cabinet of Ministers, which carries out the day-to-day operations of the government bureaucracies and oversees the public administration system. These ministers are responsible to both the president and the legislature.

The Supreme Council and the Courts. The Supreme Council, the lawmaking body of the Ukrainian government, is a unicameral elected body. Known as the Verkovna Rada, the Council has 450 members, each elected for a four-year term. The election system combines a majority and a proportional component. Half of the seats are awarded proportionately to political parties that receive 4 or more percent of the vote in national elections. The other 225 seats are awarded to individuals based on a majority vote. This system serves to strike a balance between the power of the major political parties and that of individual elected officials. Leaders elected to the Rada are known as people's deputies.

The legal system of Ukraine is based on civil law. The country has a Constitutional Court, as well as a system of general courts, over which the Supreme Court has authority.

The role of the Constitutional Court is to uphold and define constitutional order and the rights and freedoms granted by the constitution, ensuring that the government complies with the responsibilities of a democratic society. It is not possible to use the Constitutional Court as an appellate body for challenging decisions made in the general court system.

In a notable decision, the Constitutional Court ruled in 2003 that President Kuchma could run for a third term in October 2004, despite the constitutional limit of two presidential terms. The ruling allowed the third election because Kuchma was originally elected in 1994, prior to the constitution's adoption. The court ruled that the limit should not apply retroactively.

The general courts deal with other legal proceedings that are nonconstitutional in nature: civil, criminal, and administrative matters. The Supreme Court is the highest authority within the system for appeals and decisions.

According to the U.S. Department of State, as of 2004 the court system in Ukraine remained subject to political manipulation, as it was funded by the Ministry of Justice. Inadequate funding has often been cited as a problem that prevents the courts from running smoothly. The ability of the court system to function in an efficient manner and provide fair trials has thus been called into question.


A variety of political parties are active in Ukraine, ranging from communist to democratic in their ideals and principles. Elected members of parliament come from a wide range of these political parties. Overall, Ukrainian citizens arePage 223  |  Top of Article able to organize politically without government interference, with some exceptions. For example, many outsiders have accused the government of actively discouraging the unionization of workers.

Human rights in Ukraine in the early twenty-first century had still not reached the level expected of a democratic society. Both Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Department of State noted extensive human rights problems associated with government corruption and coercion.

In particular, the Human Rights Watch reported that the vast majority of election commission chairpersons have been pro-presidential supporters. Reports of intimidation and political pressure during elections cloud Ukraine's democratic processes. In addition, because many media outlets are state-owned, they have frequently been unable to broadcast fair and impartial coverage of political events. Journalists have also complained of government pressure and censorship.

Three investigative journalists disappeared in Ukraine in 2000 and 2001. The 2000 disappearance of a journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, who had criticized President Kuchma, led some observers to implicate the president and his officials in the incident. President Kuchma publicly denied any involvement in the disappearance. Protests were organized to speak out against the disappearance and the president's alleged connection to it; riot police used physical force to subdue and arrest many of the protesters. These arrests reflected the lingering communist-style governance techniques in Ukraine, and the instability or absence of typical democratic rights such as the freedom to protest against the government. The 2001 disappearance of two additional journalists also remained unsolved as of 2004.

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The disappearances of several well-known Ukrainian journalists in 2000 and 2001 served to focus opposition to President Leonid Kuchma (b. 1938). Georgy Gongadze, the editor of the Internet newspaper Ukrains'ka Pravda, disappeared on September 16, 2000; his headless body was found in a forest outside Kiev in November of the same year. Although Gongadze's widow sent an open letter of protest to Kuchma on the first anniversary of her husband's disappearance, the official investigation of the murder continues as of 2005. Other suspicious deaths include those of Ihor Aleksandrov, director of a television station, who was beaten to death on July 3, 2001; and Myhailo Kolomiets, head of a news agency, found hanged in Belarus on November 20, 2002. Kolomiets's death is thought to have been a murder staged to look like a suicide.

As a result of these incidents, Kuchma's political opponents as well as human rights advocates called for greater transparency in government. The cassette or "Tapegate" scandal of 2001, in which audiotapes recorded in Kuchma's office revealed his involvement in various illegal activities, intensified demands for greater freedom of the Ukrainian press. Thousands of demonstrators marched in Kiev to demand Kuchma's resignation in 2003.

Kuchma remained in office in spite of the protests, but his presumed rigging of the presidential runoff election of November 21, 2004 set off a wave of tremendous public protest, including strikes all over the country and the continuous occupation of the streets of the capital by crowds of hundreds of thousands. The Ukrainian Supreme Court annulled the election and a new runoff was held on December 26, which was won by Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the opposition party, who promised, among other things, to investigate seriously the Gongadze and similar cases. Yushchenko took office in January 2005.

Under President Kuchma the country experienced other human rights restrictions, such as religious persecution, election irregularities, and intrusions on personal privacy. Furthermore, many government officials have avoided prosecution for crime or corruption, another remnant of the country's political past.

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The widespread abuse of prisoners is another acknowledged human rights violation that has continued to surface in Ukraine post-independence. Reports of abuse and torture, sometimes until prisoners waive their constitutional right to an attorney, have been duly noted by the U.S. Department of State. Democratic change has been slow in Ukraine, as with other former Soviet nations with no history of democratic practice.


Human Rights Watch. 2003 Human Rights Watch World Report. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003. .

Kort, Michael G. The Handbook of the Former Soviet Union. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996.

Kuzio, Taras. Ukraine: Perestroika to Independence, 2d ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

"Ukraine." CIA World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2005. .

Prizel, Ilya. "Ukraine Between Proto-Democracy and 'Soft' Authoritarianism." In Democratization and Authoritarianism in Postcommunist Societies, Vol. 3: Democratic Changes and Authoritarian Reactions in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, eds. Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

U.S. Department of State. 2003 Human Rights Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2003. .

Whitmore, Sarah. "A Difficult Season: Constitutional Change in Ukraine." Central Europe Review 2, no. 32 (September 2000). .

Wilson, Andrew. The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Andrea Rogers

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3447400330