What's going on in Ukraine?

Saturday, 1st March 2014

All of sudden the world's media turns its attention to the transition of power in one of Europe’s most mysterious regions extending from Eastern Poland, Slovakia,Moldova and Romania in the West, Belarus to the north and the Russian Federation to the East.

While the mainstream media in the West lay the blame for the Ukrainian crisis clearly with Viktor Yanukovych's deposed Russophile government and its refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU, others note the role played by the US-based National Endowment for Democracy and myriad NGOs in funding and supporting the opposition Euro-Maidan movement, named after Kiev's eponymous central square. The uprising followed a script familiar to observers of other apparent insurgencies in places as disparate as Syria and Venezuela and come sjust 10 years after the much trumpeted Orange Revolution. The young appear to embrace organisations and policies favoured by an international coalition, while the incumbent administrations are invariably depicted in uncomplimentary anti-democratic terms. It must seem rather odd the National Endowment for Democracy support Islamic fundamentalists in Syria against Assad’s current secular government, opponents of economic redistribution and social justice in Venezuela (which remains one of the most unequal countries on the planet) and now xenophobes in Ukraine. However, a little perspective is in order. Ukraine remains of the poorest regions in Europe. At $7600 its 2012 GDP per capita is not only much lower than that in neighbouring Poland ($21,000), but also than Russia's at $17,000.

Since the Kievan Rus fell to the Duchies of Poland and Lithuania around 1400, the Ukraine has only existed as a notional ethno-linguistic region. Although it briefly enjoyed independence in 1920–21, it has only existed in its current borders since 1954 and as independent state since 1991. For most of its history Western and Central Ukraine formed part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. With the demise of Poland and expansion of Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 19th century, the Ruthenian region was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the remainder was incorporated into the Russian Empire. After the First World War, Lviv rejoined Poland as Lwow, while Ruthenia formed the easternmost region of the newly created Czechoslovakia. The remainder of the region became the Ukrainian SSR. Known as Russia’s bread basket, the region experienced one of the worst famines of the 20th century known as Holodomor, largely due to forced collectivisation, bad economic management and its inability to deal with extreme weather events. Many Ukrainians blamed the Moscow-based Bolshevik leadership and this played a major role in the subsequent collaboration of Ukrainian nationalists with occupying Nazis and their post-WW2 insurgency against Stalinist expansionism.

The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact allowed the Soviet Union to claim Eastern Poland and temporarily expand Ukrainian territory. After its short-lived, but turbulent Nazi occupation from 1941 - 44, Ukraine became a major beneficiary of the Soviet Union's western terroritial gains. It now incorporated Eastern Galicia, east of the Curzon Line, Slovak Ruthenia and parts of Romania. Millions of Poles were forced to move to Poland’s new Western Territories. Before the war, Ukrainians accounted for just over a third of the population in Poland's Eastern provinces. Ethnic cleansing began with the infamous Nazi Einsatzgruppen, responsible for rounding up and massacring Jews and and continued with attacks on remaining Poles and other ethnic minorities by the anti-communist Ukrainian Insurgent Army from 1944 to 1952.

Despite these tumultuous events, the Soviet era saw greater integration with the Russian Federation, with many Russians moving to the Ukraine and Ukrainians to Russia proper, in keeping with a general policy of ethnic mingling among the peoples of the USSR. Although Ukrainian enjoyed official recognition, Russian became the dominant language of education and administration. Since the fall of the former Soviet Union, Russian has lost considerable international prestige. Indeed Ukrainian is now the sole official language as a strong statement of cultural independence.

The hastily improvised coalition that has taken power in Kiev seeks, rather unsurprisingly, to join the European Union and, by consequence, NATO. This will very likely force the Ukrainian government to adopt otherwise unpopular economic convergence policies and allow Western European businesses to expand their retail and banking empires, with higher property and retail prices. Inevitably younger Ukrainians will migrate west, exacerbating a brain drain and demographic imbalance in Ukraine, and competing with other Eastern and Southern Europeans in a very precarious job market in wealthier EU countries. This place even greater downward pressure on wages at the bottom end of the salary scale.


  1. Kiev is the customary English transliteration of the Russian name for the city, Киев, while some authors prefer Kyiv based on the Ukrainian variant, Київ . While I sympathise with this approach, why do we still refer to the Flemish city of Brugge by its French name of Bruges or insist on translating the names of so many other European cities from Naples to Copenhagen?