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After independence, Ukraine turned into a ‘sick man of Europe’ as democracy faltered

The war over Ukraine is being held up as an existential battle between democracy and autocracy. But a look at Ukraine's political history since it gained independence in 1991 reveals a picture of a troubled country.

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.


For many in Ukraine and Russia, though, Yushchenko's election and the Orange Revolution — a movement driven in large part by a new world of online platforms and forces — looked more like a soft coup orchestrated by the White House.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin, now little more than five years into his presidency and seeking to foster warm ties with Washington, was deeply perturbed by events in Ukraine. He worried they were a blueprint for what could be tried in Russia to unravel politics and even dismantle the world's largest country spanning 11 time zones.

The notion that Yushchenko was an American-made president was reinforced by the fact that his wife, Catherine Claire Chumachenko, was born in Chicago into a family of Ukrainian refugees from World War II. She'd worked in the U.S. State Department under the Reagan and Bush administrations before moving to Ukraine after it gained independence. There, she helped create the Ukraine-USA Foundation and worked as the Ukrainian country manager for giant international accounting firm KPMG during the 1990s.

As it turned out, Yushchenko's promises of reform were largely a dud: Corruption remained endemic under his presidency; his pro-business reforms proved unpopular and ineffective; nasty anti-Russian, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma segments of Ukrainian society were emboldened; and a bruising political fight with his chief rival on the Ukrainian nationalist side, oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko, broke out.

When Ukrainians went to the polls again in 2010, the voters delivered a gigantic blow to pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists: Yanukovych won.

This time, Yanukovych's election was deemed fair by international observers and he took over the Bankova, as Ukraine's presidential offices in Kyiv are known.

Yanukovych ran on a mildly pro-Western and pro-EU platform, but argued that Ukraine's future needed warm relations both with Russia and the West.

Events spiraled out of control as Washington and Moscow intensified their struggle over Ukraine, which was now a bankrupt, impoverished and dangerous “sick man of Europe,” as a 2012 assessment by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned.

“When Ukraine became independent in 1991, there were expectations that it would in the near future become a wealthy free market democracy and a full member of the European and Euro-Atlantic communities,” the Carnegie paper said. “Ukraine never fulfilled those expectations. Instead, it is seen as an underachiever, sometimes as a sick man of Europe, and perhaps even as a potentially failed state thanks to its geopolitical situation, historical burdens, and the mistakes made in institutional development and policy.”

That assessment proved to be devastatingly prescient. In 2013, Yanukovych was faced with mounting public debts and turbulence as Washington, Brussels and Moscow vied for control over his country's vast geography and untapped potential. In a surprise move, he decided to accept a multi-billion-dollar bailout from the Kremlin in exchange for rejecting a deal with the EU to make Ukraine more integrated into the EU's free-trade zone.

Moscow was opposed to the EU-Ukraine deal on many grounds. A major factor was the fear Ukraine might become flooded with EU goods and services, thereby undercutting Russian trade with Ukraine.

Before the outbreak of war, Russia and Ukraine were major trading partners and connected in many social, cultural, business and political spheres. To stop Ukraine from opening its markets to the EU, Putin offered to continue supplying super-cheap gas to Ukraine and provide a substantial financial rescue package.

But Yanukovych's decision to do a U-turn on the road to the EU sparked massive protests with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets of Kyiv.

Nevertheless, polls continued to show that in reality Ukrainians were deeply divided over the issues of EU and NATO membership. In fact, Yanukovych was reflecting the will of his electorate, which was drawn mostly from Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine. The protesters, on the other hand, came from an opposition made up of western Ukrainian nationalists, well-educated urbanites and many in the upper and middle classes who wanted to enjoy visa-free travel in Europe and other benefits from EU alignment.


Just as happened during the winter of 2004–2005 when the Orange Revolution broke out, a sea of protesters occupied Kyiv's main square, the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, which translates to Independence Square, and demanded the ouster of Yanukovych.

Weeks of protests turned increasingly bloody and even deadly as police tried to break up the demonstrations and demonstrators responded with violence. As the protests grew, far-right, neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalist militias appeared in Maidan Square, and a tense situation turned into an heinous mess on Feb. 20, 2014.

On that day, Ukraine's police and secret police were accused of opening fire and killing about 50 protesters; but subsequent investigations have revealed that in fact shadowy far-right elements allegedly were behind the shootings. Ukraine has failed to properly prosecute the Maidan massacre and other atrocities committed during the uprising.

In all, about 100 protesters were killed over the course of the Maidan uprising and they were given martyr status as the “Heavenly Hundred” by post-Yanukovych governments.

The atrocity tipped the scales and crowds stormed the presidential palace in an insurrectionary wave. Scores of police were injured and several were killed during clashes. Yanukovych fled to Russia, reportedly taking with him heaps of cash and loot. His mansion — a gaudy palace allegedly made from ill-begotten gains — was ransacked.

In the wake of Yanukovych's ouster, Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, came under the control of Ukrainian nationalists who sought to rid the country of Russian, Communist and left-wing influences.

The Kremlin acted with fury, accusing Washington of orchestrating a coup against Yanukovych. Within days of Yanukovych's flight from Ukraine, Putin ordered Russian special agents and troops stationed in Crimea, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet has long been based, to seize the peninsula.

So-called “little green men" — Russian soldiers without identifying patches — took over and installed a new administration. An independence referendum was held on May 25 and Crimeans, a majority of them Russian speakers and many fearful of Ukraine's new anti-Russian government, overwhelmingly said they wanted to sever ties with Ukraine and join Russia.

The West declared the referendum a sham. Nonetheless, Moscow quickly made the annexation of the peninsula official and thereby safeguarded its crucial naval base at Sevastopol.

At the same time, the situation in Ukraine was spiraling out of hand as an armed rebellion erupted in eastern Ukraine where the leaders — Russian nationalists, Soviet nostalgics and a few Kremlin insiders — demanded autonomy from Kyiv and began seizing government buildings.

Ukraine was plunging toward civil war: Press reports were littered with attacks on journalists and activists, revenge killings and atrocities, including the death of 48 people in clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups and gangs in Odesa on May 2, 2014.

Then on July 17, 2014, the conflict turned into an international disaster. Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, with scores of Dutch travelers aboard, was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

Investigations showed the likely culprit to be a Russian-made rocket launcher driven across the border into eastern Ukraine. Its crew allegedly fired at the airplane, perhaps believing it was a Ukrainian military plane rather than a passenger jet.

By then, Ukraine had a new president. But he was another oligarch, this time a hardline ethnic Ukrainian called Petro Poroshenko. He vehemently sought to crush the pro-Russian armed rebellion in the east and that led to deadly fighting and destruction.

Ethnic Russians, meanwhile, saw their influence over Ukrainian politics diminish even further after more than 2.3 million Crimeans now no longer voted in Ukrainian elections and up to 4 million people from eastern Ukraine became disenfranchised either by their status as internally displaced refugees or because they were living in rebel-held areas not recognized by Kyiv.

With anger at Russia and Russians exploding in Ukraine, the Verkhovna Rada, now firmly under the control of anti-Russian politicians, passed a slew of controversial — and widely viewed as undemocratic — laws meant to bring about the “decommunization” of Ukraine.


The laws banned three Ukrainian Communist parties from participating in politics because of their alleged support for Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea. Party members were prosecuted for treason, even though many expressed opposition to Russia's actions.

Besides banning the country's Communist parties, the laws made Communist symbols illegal. Hundreds of Communist-era statues were removed and dozens of towns and villages had their names changed. Suppression of the Russian language became common, news outlets and social media sites deemed to be peddling Russian propaganda were closed, and attacks on so-called “traitors” and “collaborators” intensified.

In tandem with the “derussification” and “decommunization” of Ukraine, Kyiv accelerated the celebration of Ukrainian nationalists, even though they'd collaborated with Nazi Germany and participated in genocide against Jews, Poles and Russians. Special honors and heroic titles were granted to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist leader and fascist ideologue, and other World War II-era fighters. Such overtly anti-Russian gestures only infuriated the Kremlin and ethnic Russians further.

Meanwhile, the war in Donbas — as the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are called — continued to grind on. The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk came under frequent bombardment from Ukraine's artillery.

Efforts to broker ceasefires and peace treaties by Germany and France failed to stop the fighting. Washington, meanwhile, refused to participate in peace negotiations and instead was busy training and arming Ukraine's military to NATO standards.

Western-backed officials had even become integrated into Ukraine's government. U.S.-born Natalie Jaresko became finance minister, Lithuania's Aivaras Abromavicius economy minister and Aleksandre Kvitashvili, a Georgian, the health minister. Poroshenko granted them citizenship just hours before their appointments.

Critics contended that Kyiv was becoming a puppet state of the West with its leaders taking orders from Washington, laying the ground for Ukraine to become a NATO member on Russia's borders and also an American-style free-market model as plans were developed to privatize large parts of the economy —allegedly for the benefit of multinational corporations and to open the country's fertile lands to agribusiness.

For its part, Moscow became increasingly involved militarily in a bid to destabilize Ukraine and disrupt any attempt by its new pro-Western leadership to join NATO. In 2018, the Verkhovna Rada took the unprecedented step to add the goal of NATO membership into Ukraine's constitution.

The war in Donbas dragged on. Troops dug in as World War I-style bunkers and trenches appeared on the front lines; the “line of contact” between opposing forces became littered with mines, barbed wire and booby traps; snipers were a constant threat.

Dangerous ideologues were attracted to the conflict from both sides. On the Ukrainian side, Nazi swastikas and other Third Reich iconography became commonplace; on the Russian side, the Soviet hammer and sickle banner reappeared as did portraits of Stalin on posters and coffee cups.

Years of combat and guerrilla operations turned the soldiers on the Donbas front lines into hardened veterans and bloodthirsty killers. Both sides were accused of committing atrocities.

In all, about 14,000 people were killed in the Donbas conflict, which had been raging for eight years by the time Putin ordered a full-scale invasion in February.

In 2019, Ukrainians went to the polls once again and a fresh face entered the fray: Unexpectedly, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who'd captured the imagination of Ukrainians by playing a fictional teacher-turned-corruption-fighting president in a widely-watched television show, beat Poroshenko in a landslide. He picked up 73% of the vote on a platform based around fighting corruption and ending the war in Donbas.

But his high-minded rhetoric about unity quickly turned out to be just that. In a matter of months, Zelenskyy changed his tone on the Donbas war after he came under pressure and faced threats of violence from Ukrainian nationalists.

Far-right forces had used violence before to stop peace negotiations. In 2015, a member of the far-right Svoboda Party allegedly threw a grenade into a police line, killing four officers and injuring dozens of others. The grenade was launched just as the Kyiv parliament discussed carrying out a peace deal Ukraine had signed with Russia to end the Donbas conflict. Under the so-called Minsk Accords, Ukraine was supposed to allow Donetsk and Luhansk the possibility of gaining autonomy, a step toward federalizing Ukraine.

In a major U-turn, Zelenskyy went from being the peace candidate to a war president who made frequent trips to the front lines and refused to negotiate with the rebels.

Meanwhile, the political tensions in Ukraine kept rising. Poroshenko came under investigation for alleged war profiteering. Another major opposition figure, Viktor Medvedchuk, was arrested and accused of treason in 2021. Medvedchuk, an oligarch and friend of Putin, was the leader of what remained of Ukraine's pro-Russian political forces.

Under Zelenskyy, more media outlets were banned for their alleged links to Russia, even though some of the outlets were adamantly independent and simply critical of Ukraine's leadership. Allegedly pro-Russian politicians, activists and cultural figures suffered discrimination and prosecution for their activities.

Meanwhile, the war in Donbas continued and even intensified as both sides built up their forces and deployed ever more sophisticated weaponry.

The Ukraine conflict went from bad to catastrophic as a detente between the Kremlin and the White House could not be reached and both sides plunged into a total war.

Since Putin's invasion, basic freedoms, the rule of law and democratic principles have been trampled on with even greater violence, leaving Ukrainians and Russians fearful of speaking out because they face harsh punishment — even death — for taking the wrong side in a war that's become all-consuming and so devastating.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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