Ukraine: An Independent Nation

An Independent Nation

The Ukrainian parliament passed a declaration of sovereignty in July, 1990, and in Aug., 1991, declared Ukraine independent of the Soviet Union. Ukraine became a charter member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Dec., 1991. Leonid Kravchuk, a former Communist turned nationalist, became Ukraine's first president. Parliamentary and presidential elections were held in 1994, and Kravchuk was defeated by Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma.

Kuchma implemented a few market reforms, but the economy remained dominated by huge, inefficient state-run companies and did not improve significantly. Ukraine, briefly the world's third largest nuclear power, also ratified the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1994) and turned its nuclear arsenal over to Russia for destruction (completed 1996); in return, Ukraine received much-needed fuel for its nuclear power plants. The country's economic reforms and cooperation in disarmament helped it gain substantial Western aid and loans.

Tensions continued over the Crimean peninsula, a former Russian territory with a majority Russian population. In 1995, after Crimea challenged the Ukrainian government's sovereignty and threatened to secede, Ukraine placed Crimea's government under national control; its regional assembly, however, was retained. Another contentious issue was the division between Russia and Ukraine of the former Soviet Black Sea fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. A basic agreement, under which four fifths of the fleet would fall under Russian control, was reached in 1995, and in 1997 it was agreed that Russia would be allowed to base its fleet at Sevastopol for 20 years.

Communists won the most seats in the 1998 legislative elections. Kuchma was reelected in 1999 after defeating the Communist candidate, Petro Symonenko, in a runoff, and in December Viktor Yushchenko, the central bank chairman and an advocate of market reforms, was chosen as prime minister. In Apr., 2000, voters in a referendum approved constitutional changes that increased the president's powers over parliament.

In Sept., 2000, a muckraking opposition journalist was murdered. When tape recordings implicating Kuchma in his murder and other abuses of power subsequently were aired, Kuchma's support in parliament eroded, and there were demonstrations in early 2001 calling for his resignation. The government refused to investigate the journalist's death and was accused of suppressing press coverage of the incident. The dismissal of Prime Minister Yushchenko in Apr., 2001, by parliament was a blow to reformers; he was succeeded by Anatoliy Kinakh, an ally of President Kuchma. In the Mar., 2002, parliamentary elections Yushchenko supporters won roughly a quarter of the seats, as did supporters of the president. In November, Kuchma dismissed Kinakh as prime minister and appointed Viktor Yanukovych to the post.

Ukraine and Russia signed a treaty in Jan., 2003, that defined their common borders everywhere except in the Sea of Azov. In September, Russia began building a sea dike toward Ukraine's Tuzla island in the Kerch Strait (which provides access to the sea), provoking a crisis; a subsequent accord allowed for joint use of the strait, declared Azov an internal body of water, and called for the delimiting of the Russian-Ukrainian border. Also in September, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia signed an agreement to create a common economic space, but by the time an accord was signed (2009) to establish a customs union Ukraine's relations with Russia had soured and it did not participate.

In Dec., 2003, the Ukrainian supreme court ruled that Kuchma could run for a third term because the election for his first term had occurred before the current constitution took effect. The parliament also approved a constitutional change allowing it, rather than the voters, to elect the president, but opposition and international protests led the legislators to reverse their decision two months later.

The 2004 presidential election appeared to mark a significant turning point for Ukraine, and led to the events known as the “Orange Revolution.” The government candidate, Prime Minister Yanukovych, advocated close ties with Russia (and his candidacy was supported by Russian president Putin) while the opposition candidate, former Prime Minister Yushchenko, called for closer ties with the European Union and benefited from increased disillusionment with Kuchma. The October vote resulted in a narrow victory for Yushchenko, who had been poisoned by an unknown assailant during the campaign, but he failed to win a majority, forcing a runoff with Yanukovych. The November balloting was declared a victory for Yanukovych, but both it and the first round were denounced by most observers, who accused the government of holding an undemocratic election. Yushchenko's supporters mounted protests in the streets of Kiev and other W Ukraine cities, where his support was strong. Yushchenko also challenged the results in court. Meanwhile, Yanukovych and his supporters, who were more concentrated in the more heavily Russian east, denounced these moves, and the situation threatened to split Ukraine. Parliament narrowly declared the results invalid, an act with no legal significance, but in December the supreme court annulled the vote due to fraud and called for the runoff to be rerun. Subsequently, the constitution was amended to reduce the president's power to appoint the prime minister and most of the cabinet as part of an electoral reform package.

In late December a new vote resulted in a solid margin of victory for Yushchenko, but the result was not finalized until mid-Jan., 2005, because of legal challenges mounted by Yanukovych. In February Yushchenko appointed Yulia V. Tymoshenko, an outspoken political ally, as prime minister. Seven months later, however, Yushchenko dismissed Tymoshenko's government after conflicts between the cabinet and the presidency and accusations that the president tolerated corruption. The moderate economist Yuriy Yekhanurov succeeded Tymoshenko, but only after the president secured the support of Yanukovych's party by making concessions on investigations into electoral fraud in 2004 presidential election.

A dispute over the price of natural gas purchased from Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, led to a stalemate in late 2005. Ukraine had been purchasing gas at very favorable rates under a contract signed before Yushchenko won the presidency, and Gazprom now demanded a higher, market rate. In Jan., 2006, Gazprom halted its Ukrainian shipments, a move that also partially affected some downstream European customers. Although the dispute was soon resolved, the episode was generally regarded as a heavy-handed Russian response to Yushchenko's victory a year before. Opposition parties subsequently won a no-confidence vote against the cabinet over the agreement, but constitutional ambiguities made it unclear whether the vote had any validity or not.

Parliamentary elections in Mar., 2006, resulted in a setback for President Yushchenko, whose Our Ukraine party placed third, behind Yanukovych's Party of the Regions and the Tymoshenko bloc. In April the three former parties of the Orange Revolution—the Tymoshenko bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist party—agreed to form a coalition government, but the agreement shattered in July as both sides disrupted sessions of parliament and the Socialists bolted for a coalition with the Party of the Regions and the Communists. The three parties nominated Yanukovych as prime minister, but the president initially refused to recognize the new coalition on the grounds that, under the law, it had been formed too soon after the Socialists left their previous coalition. Yushchenko and Yanukovych subsequently signed a unity pact, and Our Ukraine joined the three party coalition led by Yanukovych, who became prime minister in August. In October, however, Our Ukraine left the governing coalition and went into opposition. The same month Ukraine signed a deal with Gazprom to import natural gas at below market-rate prices. In December the president and prime minister became locked in disputes over the budget and foreign minister. The president vetoed the budget several times, and after parliament sacked the foreign and interior ministers, the president issued a decree calling on the foreign minister to stay in office. Parliament responded by passing (Jan., 2007) legislation giving it the right to appoint the foreign minister, which the president contested in court.

The struggle between the prime minister and president reached new crisis point in April when the president dissolved parliament and called for new elections. The previous month a number of deputies allied with the president had joined Yanukovych's coalition, despite legal and constitutional provisions that appeared to forbid such a move (only parties are allowed to form coalitions in parliament), but it also represented a threat to the president's power. The prime minister refused to recognize the president's decree, and appealed it to the constitutional court. The events led the parties on both sides to mount a number of large demonstrations. After the president fired several constitutional court judges for misconduct and after mounting tensions, both sides agreed in late May to September elections, but squabbling continued in months preceding the elections.

Although Yanukovych's party won plurality of the seats in the new parliament, the Tymoshenko bloc and the president's bloc together secured a narrow majority. The president's bloc, however, received less than 15% of the vote and less than half the seats of the Tymoshenko bloc, a significant blow to Yushchenko. The Socialist party, which previously had held the balance of power between the president's supporters and opponents failed to receive enough votes to be awarded any seats. In December, the Tymoshenko and presidential blocs formed a coalition government, with Tymoshenko as prime minister, but the subsequent months often saw Tymoshenko and Yushchenko at odds and tensions in parliament between supporters of the two.

The government's desire to begin the process of joining NATO led in early 2008 to confrontations in parliament with the Party of Regions and also provoked strong opposition from Russia. Both reactions contributed to NATO's decision to postpone (Apr., 2008) establishing an action plan for Ukraine's admission. Ukraine again confronted threatened cuts in its natural gas supplies when Gazprom demanded payment of its debts in Feb., 2008; although cuts were averted then, the following month supplies were reduced for several days when the issue again required resolution. In May, Ukraine became a member of the World Trade Organization.

In Sept., 2008, the governing coalition broke up after Tymoshenko's bloc and the Party of Regions joined together to reduce presidential powers; disagreements between the governing parties concerning how to respond to Russia's invasion of Georgia also led to the collapse. After attempts to reestablish the coalition failed, Yushchenko, despite his relative unpopularity, called for early elections, a move that was actively opposed in parliament and the courts in subsequent weeks by Tymoshenko. Ukraine secured a $16.4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in November; the money was needed to help stabilize Ukraine's currency and private banking system. Some of the disbursements of the loan subsequently were delayed, however, by the parliament's failure to pass the required budget legislaton. The country's industrial sector, especially in E Ukraine, was also hit hard by the global recession. In December, the governing coalition was finally re-formed, this time with the addition of a third, smaller party.

In Jan., 2009, Gazprom again cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine; the issues were largely the same as those three years earlier. The cutoff eventually also led to the stoppage of the flow of gas shipped through Ukraine to other European countries, for which Russia and Ukraine each blamed the other. Central and SE European nations mainly were affected by the stoppage. After three weeks and pressure from the European Union a new, ten-year agreement was reached in which Ukraine secured lower current gas prices in exchange for higher future ones; the EU subsequently agreed to make significant investments in Ukraine's gas infrastructure, prompting a negative response from Russia. A drop in energy needs as a result of a slowing economy led Ukraine in late 2009 to seek modifications in its energy agreement with Russia.

Continuing tensions between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko led to the ouster of the foreign minister in Mar., 2009, and the defense minister in June; both posts are presidential appointments. In April, the parliament set the presidential election for Oct., 2009, but Yushchenko challenged the date as too early, and the constitutional court ruled for the president. In June, the vote was rescheduled for Jan., 2010. Also in June, ongoing negotiations between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych finally ended without an agreement. Relations with Russia remained largely sour, with Russian President Medvedev in August denouncing Yushchenko as anti-Russian, an act seen as an attempt to influence the upcoming presidential election. In Sept., 2009, however, Tymoshenko and Putin agreed in principle to reduce, in light of the recession, Ukraine's required gas purchases under the January agreement.

In the first round (January) of the 2010 presidential election, Yanukovych placed first, with Tymoshenko second, but no candidate won a majority, forcing a runoff (February) that Yanukovych won by a small margin (but he again gained less than 50% of the vote). The vote also evidenced Ukraine's continuing divisions, with Yanukovych winning in the predominantly Russian-speaking east and south, while Tymposhenko ran strongly in the Ukrainian-speaking west and center. Tymoshenko subsequently lost a confidence vote in parliament, and Yanukovych's Party of Regions formed a governing coalition with Mykola Azarov, a former finance minister, as prime minister.

In April, in a rapprochement with Russia, Ukraine agreed to extend Russia's lease on the Sevastopol naval base until 2042 in exchange for what were said to be discounts on Russian natural gas, but in 2012 Azarov acknowledged that the deal did not result in discounts. The new government also rejected pursuing NATO membership while seeking to speed progress toward joining the European Union. In Oct., 2010, the constitutional amendments adopted in Dec., 2004, were overturned on the grounds that they had not been approved by the constitutional court; the decision strengthened the powers of the president.

Later in 2010 Tymoshenko and several other members of her former government were arrested and charged with a variety of criminal offenses, leading the European Union enlargement commissioner to warn (Jan., 2011) Ukraine not to use criminal law for political ends. Additional charges were brought in 2011, and in Oct., 2011, Tymoshenko was convicted of abuse of power and imprisoned. In Mar., 2011, former president Kuchma—Yanukovych's one-time political patron—was charged with abuse of office in the 2000 disappearance and murder of an opposition journalist, but the charges were dismissed in Dec., 2011. Tymoshenko's case directly affected relations with the EU in December when the EU held off signing a cooperation agreement with Ukraine because of the belief that the charges against her were politically motivated; increased cooperation with the EU continued to be stymied by the political situation in Ukraine in subsequent months.

During early 2012 there were natural gas transshipment problems from Russia to Europe, and Russia's Gazprom blamed Ukraine; negotiations in 2011 between the two nations over the price of gas and transshipment issues had been inconclusive. Gazprom subsequently rerouted a significant amount of transshipped gas through Belarus, where it controlled the pipelines. In Feb., 2012, Russia banned cheese imports from several major Ukrainian producers, allegedly over adulteration, but the dispute was seen as an attempt to apply political pressure on Ukraine similar to Russian food-related bans involving other nations. In mid-2012 the government enacted a bill making Russian an official regional language in Russian-speaking areas of the country; the law was denounced by the opposition and by advocates of Ukrainian.

In the Oct., 2012, parliamentary elections the Party of Regions won a plurality of the seats, with Tymoshenko's party second. European and other monitors criticized the election campaign as being less fair than previous ones, the voting was married by irregularities, and the vote count took weeks to complete, leading some monitors and opposition figures to charge the government with attempting to steal elections. The Party of Regions formed a coalition government; Azarov again became prime minister (Dec., 2012). In Apr., 2013, two cabinet members under Tymoshenko who had been convicted of abuse of office were pardoned, but the former prime minister was not.

Trade tensions again flared with Russia in Aug., 2013, over Ukraine's trade negotiations with the European Union, but Ukraine ultimately rejected an agreement with the EU and won improved gas rates and loans from Russia. The failure to sign an EU agreement led in Nov., 2013, to antigovernment demonstrations by protesters who favored joining the EU. The protests, which were marked at times by clashes with security forces, continued into 2014; in January Azarov resigned as prime minister.

In February, after a deal to restore the 2004 constitutional amendments appeared to collapse, protests surged in Kiev and elsewhere, and elicited a stronger, more deadly police response. An agreement to end the crisis, keeping Yanukovych in power until December, was rejected by protesters, and he soon lost the support of the parliament and security forces and fled Ukraine. Oleksander Turchynov became acting president, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk prime minister; the parliament repealed the 2012 regional language law, and Tymoshenko was released. The new government discovered the treasury had been looted under Yanukovych and the country was in dire financial straits.

In Crimea, pro-Russian forces seized government buildings, and in closed-door (and reportedly invalid) votes Crimea's prime minister was replaced and a referendum on joining Russia scheduled. Local “self-defense” forces in conjunction with thinly disguised Russian military forces seized key facilities and surrounded Ukrainian bases in Crimea. The March referendum's reported turnout (80%) and result (99% in favor of joining Russia) was implausible given Crimea's political history and ethnic makeup. Russia quickly annexed the region, and the outnumbered Ukrainian military withdrew.

There also was scattered unrest in E Ukraine, especially in Donetsk, and at the same time, Russia massed troops near the E Ukrainian border, ostensibly for maneuvers, but the troops remained there in subsequent weeks. In April there was a more coordinated outbreak of pro-Russian militancy in E Ukraine, primarily in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Russia issued veiled threats that it might intervene militarily. Russian citizens joined the rebels, some in prominent positions, and arms crossed the Russian border to the rebels. Meanwhile, Gazprom hiked the price it charged Ukraine for natural gas, leading to inconclusive negotiations concerning payments and charges for natural gas; in June, Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Ukraine. In early May Ukraine secured a $17 billion aid package from the International Monetary Fund in return for economic reforms.

Rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions held “referendums” in mid-May that approved self-rule; rebel leaders there then called for union with Russia. Petro Poroshenko, a business executive who had held ministerial posts, easily won election as president in late May; many polling places in SE Ukraine were closed. Government forces began reversing rebel gains significantly in June; also that month, Ukraine signed an association agreement with the EU. A government cease-fire in late June was abandoned after no progress was made toward peace. Government forces subsequently made gains in N Donetsk region, and rebels consolidated their forces around Donetsk city. In August and September Russian forces intervened to reverse the gains and force (September) a cease-fire, but the cease-fire suffered from frequent violations, especially around Donetsk, where the rebels sought to recapture territory. There also were small-scale bombings in a number of Kiev, Odessa, and other Ukrainian cities. More than a million were displaced by the fighting by the end of 2014, with many of those fleeing to Russia, and the conflict led to an economic contraction in Ukraine in 2014.

In July, meanwhile, two parties withdrew from the governing coalition in order to force new parliamentary elections. In the October elections, Yatsenyuk's People's Front and the Poroshenko bloc placed first and second, with pro-Western parties generally making a strong showing; a five-party government with Yatsenyuk as prime minister was formed the next month, and subsequently enacted an austerity program and officially abandoned Ukraine's nonaligned status. Also in October, the EU brokered a deal between Ukraine and Russia to restore gas shipments. The rebels held their own vote in November, which won support from Russia, but was denounced by Ukraine as a violation of the cease-fire agreement. The rebel election led to increased tensions in E Ukraine.

Fighting continued into 2015, primarily around Donetsk and Mariupol. A new peace accord signed in Feb., 2015, called for a cease-fire and other measures, including political decentralization for the rebel areas and restoration of government control over the border (both by the end of 2015). Rebels, however, refused to honor the cease-fire around Debaltseve, a key town between Donetsk and Luhansk, and continued to fight there until they held the town; there also was fighting near Mariupol. Subsequently, the cease-fire was violated by recurring fighting, though on a diminished scale after Aug., 2015; Russia was accused of continuing to deploy weapons systems in E Ukraine.

In July, 2015, Ukraine suspended Russian gas purchases, but they resumed in October after an agreement involving Ukraine, Russia, and the EU, then halted again toward the end of November. The country adopted further economic reforms and secured debt write-offs in the second half of 2015; a trade and political pact with the EU also was ratified, but the EU ratification process delayed its coming fully into force until Sept., 2017.

In November, sabotage of electrical transmission lines cut power from Ukraine to Crimea, but some power was restored for a time. In January Ukraine stopped transmission after the contract to supply Crimea expired, but by then Russia had increased the electricity available from local and Russian sources. Also in December, Ukraine ordered a halt to trade with Crimea and refused to repay $3 billion owed to Russia; Ukraine said Russia had refused to renegotiate the terms to bring them in line offered other international creditors.

In 2016 tensions between the president and prime minister undermined Yatsenyuk's government, and led to pressure on the prime minister to stepped down as both sides found themselves accused of frustrating further reforms. In April, Yatsenyuk resigned and was succeeded as prime minister by Volodymyr Groysman, the parliament speaker and a member of the president's party. Yatsenyuk's party supported the new government.

Beginning in Apr., 2016, there was a significant increase in cease-fire violations in E Ukraine, and some areas subsequently experienced regularly recurring fighting, with particularly heavy fighting in late 2016 and early 2017. In early 2017 an informal commercial blockade of rebel areas by Ukrainian activists and the rebels' subsequent seizure of factories and coal mines in retaliation led to an official Ukrainian commercial blockade of rebel areas in March. A significant cyberattack in June, 2017, that initially affected Ukraine but quickly spread internationally was believed by Ukrainian officials and some others to have been mounted by Russia and disguised as a ransonware attack.

In 2018 the government secured agreement from the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople to move forward with the recognition (2019) of the independence of Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the Russian Orthodox church. In Nov., 2018, tensions with Russia increased after it seized three Ukrainian naval vessels that sought to transit the Kerch Strait to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov; Russia claimed the ships had illegally entered its waters. In May, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled that Russia must release the ships and their crews, but it did not. In July, Ukraine seized a Russian tanker in apparent retaliation, asserting that it had taken part in the Russian seizure operation; the Ukrainian crews were released in a prisoner swap in September and the boats later returned.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a political newcomer and popular comedian who trained as a lawyer, defeated Poroshenko in the Apr., 2019, presidential election, winning by a landslide in the runoff. In the subsequent early parliamentary elections (July), Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party won 43% of the vote and a majority of the seats. Oleksiy Honcharuk subsequently became prime minister.

In September, Zelenskiy and Ukraine were embroiled in U.S. politics when President Trump was accused of withholding military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to pressure Ukraine to investigate, despite a lack of evidence, accusations Joe Biden and his son had had corrupt dealings in Ukraine and that Ukraine, not Russia, had sought to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. In October and November forces on both sides were withdrawn from the front lines in E Ukraine, and the following month Ukraine and Russia agreed to implement a comprehensive cease-fire there, though sporadic fighting continued.

In Mar., 2020, Honcharuk resigned after he was criticized by the president, and Denys Shmyhal, the deputy prime minister, succeeded him. A new cease-fire in July, 2020, largely held. In Oct., 2020, the constitutional court overturned a number of anticorruption reforms; controversially, several judges under investigation did not recuse themselves from the case. In December, the parliament voted to restore powers of the anticorruption agency that the court had struck down. Corruption remains a significant problem in Ukraine, and has hindered economic reform. During the fall of 2021, Russia began amassing troops on the Ukranian border, eventually deploying approximately 100,000 troops. Although its motivations are unclear, the Ukraine government is preparing for a possible invastion by Russia while Western powers are trying to negotiate and deescalate the situation. As of early 2022, the situation remains unresolved.

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