40 years of silence
When the Nazis were expelled in 1944, fighting continued between Ukrainian partisans and the Soviet Union. Only towards the end of the 1940’s did the Soviet Union have full control over Ukraine, but then hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians had been killed and probably even more sent to Siberia. No real Ukrainian opposition could then be heard until the 1980’s, when dissatisfaction with the state’s handling of the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl led to an opposition upsurge.
At that time, the Soviet state was so dilapidated that the communist monopoly of power was loosening. Ruch, and related groups, gained considerable influence after the first partially free elections in 1990, and in August 1991, Ukraine declared independence after a failed coup attempt in Moscow.
After that, Ukraine wavered for over 20 years between attempts at liberal reforms and a basically continued Soviet policy. The real gap between the blocs was mainly regional, between Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers. Common to the governments that took turns in power was that fundamental reforms failed and that corruption increased, as did the dissatisfaction of the population.
A democratic step was taken in the so-called Orange Revolution in late autumn 2004, when protesters (with orange symbols) protested that the Russian-backed former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych had been proclaimed president after blatant electoral fraud. The protests took place almost entirely in the western part of the country and forced a re-election, in which the more liberal Viktor Yushchenko won.
Yushchenko and his prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko met with enthusiasm, but hopes were dashed. Ukraine became a more open country and was modernized on the surface, but important economic reforms failed. The two leaders seemed to oppose each other more than they seemed in the best interests of the country.
Industrial production declined and the economy deteriorated rapidly. Russia marked its disapproval of Ukraine’s pro – Western leadership by using gas supplies to the country, from the semi-state company Gazprom, as a means of political pressure. Several times Gazprom turned off the tap or threatened to do so.
At the next presidential election in 2010, the disappointment of the dispersed revolution was so great that Viktor Yanukovych was able to win without cheating. He quickly improved relations with Russia, strengthened his own power through the Constitutional Court and pushed through a new electoral law that benefited his own party. He received strong support from parliament after an election that was criticized for unfair forms.
Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced in 2011 to seven years in prison for abuse of power; she was accused of concluding a bad gas deal with Russia. The legal case was considered politically controlled and was heavily criticized by the EU.
But at the same time, Yanukovych negotiated with the EU on political cooperation and free trade. The agreements were in principle finalized in March 2012, but the treatment of Tymoshenko caused the EU to postpone the signing. The EU demanded that Ukraine first release her and reform the judiciary and the electoral system.
Canceled agreement upset
When further negotiations yielded results in 2013, and an agreement began to be finalized, Russia put Ukraine under strong pressure to join a Russian-led customs union instead. President Vladimir Putin threatened with serious economic consequences for Ukraine if the country approached the EU.
On 21 November, just one week before the agreements were to be signed, Parliament refused to release Tymoshenko, and work on the EU agreements was suspended. The Prime Minister acknowledged that this was done at the direct request of Moscow.
While hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians demonstrated against what they perceived as the government’s betrayal, Russia promised cheaper gas and subsidized purchases of Ukrainian government bonds, in practice a loan of the equivalent of 15 billion US dollars. No demands were made for political or economic reforms.
Sunday after Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people gathered on Independence Square in Kiev, called the Majdan. Among the activists were two right-wing extremist movements, the Svoboda party elected to parliament in 2012, and the newly formed Right-wing sector (Pravyj sector) with roots in nationalist organizations and among violent football supporters. Their participation in the protests was used by the government and the Russian leadership to dismiss all protesters as “Nazis, extremists and criminals”.
In mid-February, the situation worsened when more than 100 protesters were shot dead, many according to testimonies by special police on rooftops.
The president fled
The EU imposed financial penalties sanctions against a number of people held responsible for the violence. Yanukovych was pressured to negotiate with the opposition during EU mediation and agreed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections at the end of the year, start writing a new constitution and form a coalition government. But when activists on the Majdan demanded that the president resign immediately, Yanukovych fled to Russia.
In his absence, the majority in parliament tipped over in favor of the opposition. Yanukovych was ousted, a number of ministers were fired and arrested, security forces sided with the new leaders and Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison.
A new, broad government was appointed with both liberal politicians and party-affiliated trade unionists, activists from Majdan and some representatives of right-wing extremist Svoboda.
Russia, which condemned the “illegal junta”, called home its ambassador and suspended all support for Ukraine. Russian military forces along the Ukrainian border were put on high alert and began a major exercise.
On the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, Russia staged in February 2014 a kind of local “revolution”, carefully planned in Moscow, according to what Putin later revealed. The local parliament was occupied, the elected government was overthrown and Russian politicians took power. Soldiers from the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, who according to an agreement with Yanukovych would be allowed to stay there until at least 2042, took part in the takeover and received reinforcements from Russia.