This is the second story in a two-part series on the history of Ukrainian democracy since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union.
(CN) — To understand how another major war broke out in Europe 77 years after Adolf Hitler's defeat, it's a good idea to start at the beginning of Ukraine's three decades of independence to understand how it became a “sick man of Europe.”
Between its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the outbreak of what many scholars see as the start of a Ukrainian-Russian civil war in 2014, Ukraine's population shrunk by roughly 10 million people, from about 52 million to 42 million. After 2014, even more people fled Ukraine with some 2 million people becoming refugees and internally displaced citizens.
In the 1990s, Ukraine's gross domestic product fell by about 40%. It was a devastating decade for both Russia and Ukraine as they moved from a state-controlled economy to a capitalist one. Corruption became endemic and politics were defined by a competition between new oligarchic powers, many of them former communist functionaries who seized ownership of state assets and then enriched themselves.
Its first president from 1991 to 1994 was Leonid Kravchuk, an ethnic Ukrainian and former Communist Party agitprop specialist who's remembered for steering Ukraine toward independence but also for chaperoning an oligarchic system.
The next president, Leonid Kuchma, is also ethnic Ukrainian and was a Soviet aerospace engineer and manager. His two terms in office were characterized by corruption, election rigging, a tightening of the kleptocracy and the suppression of critical media outlets. By the end of the 1990s, he was blamed for imposing authoritarian rule on Ukraine.
At least two high-profile investigative journalists were killed under suspicious circumstances during his watch, and most notoriously, evidence showed he quite possibly ordered the murder of one of them, Georgiy Gongadze, in September 2000.
The killing of Gongadze, a Georgia-born journalist and political activist, became one of Ukraine's most consequential events, galvanizing its nationalist movement and sparking a spate of anti-government protests.
Gongadze was deeply involved in Georgian and Ukrainian politics both as an activist and journalist. He'd fought for Georgian independence against the Soviets before finding refuge in Kyiv.
In the spring of 2000, he created a muckraking publication, the Ukrainska Pravda, that ran exposes about high-level corruption inside Kuchma's government. In September that year, he was abducted and his body was found in a forest decapitated and doused in acid.
His murder sparked large demonstrations against Kuchma and laid the grounds for what came to be known as the “Orange Revolution,” a mass uprising between November and January in 2004–2005 that foreshadowed the “Maidan Revolution” 10 years later.
Faced with massive protests and mounting evidence of his involvement in Gongadze's assassination, including an audio recording that allegedly linked him to the killing, Kuchma declined to run for reelection and instead threw his support behind Viktor Yanukovych, an eastern Ukrainian politician, former prime minister and oligarch of Belarusian, Russian and Polish ancestry.
In the 2004 presidential elections, Yanukovych emerged victorious against his chief rival, a pro-Western, pro-NATO Ukrainian nationalist and former head of Ukraine's national bank, Viktor Yushchenko.
But the election turned chaotic: Evidence showed Yanukovych's win was tainted by vote rigging. Meanwhile, Yushchenko gained international coverage following dioxin poisoning that horribly disfigured his face. Massive, and often violent, protests against the tainted election results broke out.
Those events have been dubbed the “Orange Revolution” and led to the Ukrainian Supreme Court rejecting Yanukovych's win and ordering a new run-off.
Riding a wave of discontent, international support and public sympathy after his dioxin attack, Yuschenko handily won the court-ordered second run-off.
Once in office, Yushchenko, a president without deep ties to the old Soviet-era political machine, was warmly welcomed by the White House. He vowed sweeping reforms to make Ukraine a business-friendly, democratic, pro-Western and pro-NATO nation.