Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Monday, 7 March 2011

Ukraine searching for a place in Europe

Olexiy Solohubenko
BBC World Service

Kiev Monastery of the Caves, Kiev, Ukraine
Twenty years after Ukraine became independent is the country's position at the heart of Europe merely a matter of geography?

When empires collapse, countries happen.

This is the story of independent Ukraine. It had two chances of independence - the first was short-lived.

In the upheaval following World War I and with revolution in the air across Europe, Ukraine followed the example of Poland and Finland to gain independence out of the ruins of imperial Russia.

In Ukraine's case, national self-determination was to be short-lived. Bolshevik troops crushed the feeble Ukrainian armies and in 1922 the country was incorporated into the USSR.

But not all of Ukraine became Soviet. Its western regions, belonging to Poland, Romania and Hungary, were only incorporated through various land swaps and acquisitions after World War II to make the country roughly the size it is now - with one notable exception.

The gift of the Crimea

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev
Khrushchev was born close to the border between Russia and Ukraine

In 1954, the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to stage lavish celebrations for the 300th anniversary of Pereyaslavl Rada, a treaty by which Ukraine became a Russian protectorate.

For Ukrainian nationalists the event marked an annexation of Ukraine by Russia. For Russian patriots it meant a reunification of two brotherly Slavic nations. Whatever the interpretation, Krushchev's gift was huge - the Crimea.

This peninsula had been captured by Catherine the Great from the Turks and Tatars in the 18th Century and by the time Ukraine took over it was mostly Russified, the indigenous Crimean Tatars having been exiled by Stalin in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.

This is how modern Ukraine, Europe's second largest country after Russia, came into being.

In other countries such vagaries of history will remain just history. But not in Ukraine.

Old divisions along imperial lines determine not just religion, mindset or language in Ukraine but - more importantly - its politics and strategic choices.

Viktor Yushchenko supporter in Kiev
Supporters of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko rallied in 2004

The Orange Revolution of 2004 was not just a popular protest against rigged elections. It was also an attempt to redefine Ukraine as part of Europe rather than a post-Soviet splinter.

The defeat of the Orange camp by the forces of President Yanukovych meant a realignment of Ukraine towards closer links with Russia, a manifestation of which is the extended lease for the Russian Black Sea Fleet which can now stay in the Crimean base of Sevastopol until 2042.

Price worth paying?

While the decision to extend the lease may be one of the most controversial in two decades of Ukrainian independence, the bedrock for it is quite plain.

Ukraine needs energy. Its power-hungry steel and chemical industries need lots of oil and gas, most of which comes from Russia. Two gas switch-offs by Russia in the winters of 2006 and 2009 sent cold shivers across Ukraine, and further downstream in Eastern and Central Europe.

Population: 45.4 million
Capital: Kiev
Monetary unit: 1 hryvnya
Major languages: Ukrainian (official), Russian
Major religion: Christianity
Source: BBC Ukraine Country Profile

While coal is still mined in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, it is expensive, environmentally harmful and can't produce enough to feed steel giants such as the as KSM Steel Mill owned by Mittal Steel. And nuclear power generation hasn't picked up after the Chernobyl disaster a quarter of century ago.

Whatever the government, the question for Ukraine is: at what price will it be able to buy oil and gas from Russia and how stable will the deliveries be?

To pay for such deliveries, Ukraine needs to export - grain, steel, metals, weapons and chemicals. Its privatised industry is heavily export-oriented, and in good times it ensured double-digit GDP growth.

In bad times, however, depending on exports to the rest of the world signalled catastrophe. In the global economic downturn of 2009, Ukrainian GDP plummeted by a staggering 15% and the country had to borrow heavily from the IMF.

So far recovery is weak, debt is high and it is not clear when the country will bounce back to its pre-crisis level.

Human condition

Such economic calamities are hard enough for countries which are members of the European Union like Greece or Ireland. Imagine the knock-on effect on 46 million Ukrainians whose GDP per capita is just over $2,000 per year, down from almost $4,000 only two years ago, according to figures from the World Bank.

Numbers vary, but it is estimated that more than six million Ukrainians have to work abroad, with over four million in Russia alone.

Such levels of emigration were last observed at the turn of the 20th Century, when millions of Ukrainians went to work in the prairies of Canada or the coal mines of Pennsylvania. At that time the Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko called his homeland an "Africa in the heart of Europe."

Homeless people queue in the Ukrainian city of Odessa
The cold winter took 284 lives in two months in 2009/10

High levels of poverty in Ukraine are exacerbated by a grossly underfunded health service and low pensions. With a poor population, tax revenues and levels of domestic consumption remain low.

Shiny shop windows in Kiev's centre or expensive cars clogging the city roads may confuse the picture. In fact, it is a good illustration of one more challenge facing Ukraine - huge social divides and inequality.

And then there are freedoms. One undeniable gain of the Orange Revolution has been a much greater degree of media freedom and personal liberty. After all, Ukraine is one of the few places in the post-Soviet space with genuinely competitive elections and a robust political discourse - sometimes, a rowdy one.

Worryingly, many of these freedoms are under threat, either through political pressure, or through judicial persecution of former leaders, or through the growing monopoly on power of those forces supporting President Yanukovych.

Ironically, Ukraine is indeed at the heart of Europe - the continent's geographical centre is located near the town of Rakhiv in Western Ukraine.

Yet, faced with serious challenges in politics, economy, the well-being of its citizens and concerns over its record in observing political freedoms, the next few years will show how genuine the Ukrainian leadership's pronouncements are about being part of Europe, or whether being at the heart of Europe is merely a matter of geography.

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