Ukraine has been in the news recently for two different incidents.
First, a boisterous fistfight broke out in the Ukrainian Parliament at the end of May during a legislative discussion over Ukraine’s official language policy. The 450-member body was debating a policy that would elevate Russian to the level of a second language, the same as Ukrainian throughout about half of the country, including the capital of Kiev. Passionate debaters on both sides came to blows, resulting in torn shirts, choking and several Parliamentarians being thrown over their desks.
In other news, Ukraine, along with Poland, is hosting the European soccer championships this month, a major event that will be broadcast in more than 200 territories around the world. Just before the games were set to begin, a BBC documentary showed shocking footage of anti-Semitic and racist chanting, Nazi salutes and attacks on minorities at several soccer matches in Ukraine. After seeing the footage, black former England player Sol Campbell cautioned fans to skip the tournament and instead watch it from home. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said that racist hooliganism will not be permitted in stadiums during the tournament.
An Abridged History of Ukraine
These two newsworthy events shed some light on the complicated history of Ukraine.
During the 18th century, Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian Empire and became part of the Soviet Union following the collapse of czarist Russia in 1917. During two periods in the 1900s, more than 8 million Ukrainians died due to the Soviet Union’s failed agricultural collectivization program that resulted in mass famine. Another 8 million died during World War II.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine finally achieved its independence, but it has since suffered widespread political corruption.
Ukraine has often been divided by its ties between Russia and Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Ukrainian nationalist sentiment is especially strong in the western part of the country that borders Poland. The industrialized eastern part of the country sees more Russian influence. Many ethnic Russians who use Russian as their first language reside there.
After independence, Ukraine was ruled by former Communist Party official Leonid Kravchuk, who oversaw a period of economic decline. His successor, Leonid Kurchma, brought about some economic stability but was accused of yielding to Russian interests.
In 2004, government authorities rigged the election, resulting in peaceful mass protests called the Orange Revolution. Pro-Western democrats, socialists and nationalists supported the candidacy of Viktor Yushchenko, who won the re-run of the election. In 2010, pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych won the presidential election and reoriented the economy to favor more trade with Russia.
Ukraine is geographically situated on the pipeline transit route for gas supplies going from Russia to Europe. In 2006, Russia abruptly raised gas prices to Ukraine, causing strain on the fragile economy. The Ukrainian economy suffered another blow from the economic crisis of 2008 due to the economy’s dependence on steel exports.
Key Facts About Ukraine
- Population: 45.1 million (UN, 2011)
- Capital: Kiev
- Major languages: Ukrainian (official), Russian
- Major religion: Christianity
- Main exports: military equipment, metals, pipes, machinery, petroleum products, textiles, agricultural products