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About Ukraine

Geography

Ukraine is situated in eastern Europe at 49°N and 32°E, and shares borders with Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. The Black Sea forms an arched coastline in the south, interrupted by the Crimean Peninusla, which juts out as the country’s southernmost point. The Sea of Azov is off the southeastern coast. The greatest distance inside Ukraine (from east to west) is about 1,350km (850 miles), and the country’s widest point (north to south) is 850km (530 miles), from Crimea to Belarus. The country covers an area of 603,700 sq.km (232,000 square miles); in comparative terms, that’s slightly larger than France but slightly smaller than Texas. Ukraine is also the second-largest country in Europe, if you want to count Russia as Europe. Ukrainians don’t, stating with pride that Ukraine is the largest democracy in Europe. Ukrainians also claim that their country lies at the very centre of Europe, pointing to the tiny Carpathian village of Dilove where Austrian geographers set up a stone marker in 1887. Indeed, Ukraine’s assertion as Europe’s geographical centre holds merit, but ironically only when Russia is counted as Europe.

Ukraine is mostly made up of vast steppe and flat plateaux and is world renowned for its rich black soil or chornozom. The Dnepr River runs south down the middle, dividing the country into traditional territories of right and left banks. Other major rivers include the Dnistr, Southern Buh, Pripyat along with the Danube delta south of Odessa. Roughly half of the Carpathian mountain chain lies inside western Ukraine, running diagonally southeast. The country’s highest peak is Mount Hoverla at 2,061m (6,762ft). Along the southeast coast of the Crimean Peninsula lie the Crimean Mountains, the highest being Roman Kosh at 1,543m (5,061ft). A few low rolling hills define Ukraine’s far east, and wide forests mark the northern borders, but other than these, Ukraine boasts almost no natural boundaries, a fact that explains a turbid past and the controversial political borders today. The country’s very beginnings and continual existence can be attributed to its position as a free-moving crossroads of land, river and sea routes between Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Climate

Ukraine has a temperate continental climate, which means cold white winters and beautiful warm summers. Spring and autumn seem somewhat short and mild, but can also be rather sunny. The further inland you go, the more extreme the weather, so that northeastern Ukraine suffers from the coldest temperatures in the country, while the south becomes very hot in summertime. The Carpathian Mountains also tend to experience more rainfall (750mm; 30 inches/year) and cooler summers than the rest of the country. On a whole, Ukraine’s average January temperature is -6°C, and the average July temperature is 24°C. For reference, that’s a lot warmer than Russia, but a bit colder than Italy.

The most notable exception to Ukraine’s wintry caricature is the southern coast of Crimea, which is decidedly dry and Mediterranean year-round, both in climate and vegetation. Either way, most foreign visitors are surprised by the climate they encounter: Ukraine is either far warmer or far colder than they had expected.

Population

The total population of Ukraine is estimated to be around 47 million, although a proper census has not been taken for more than a decade. Ethnic Ukrainians constitute the majority (78%) along with a significant Russian presence (17%). The remaining 5% include Poles, Belarusians, Hungarians, Romanians, Jews, Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Greeks and Roma. Ethnic distribution varies, but most Russians live in the eastern half of the country and in Crimea. Crimean Tatars obviously live in Crimea and Jews once made up at least a third of the population in Lviv, Odessa and Kiev. The people you meet will answer that they are one ethnicity or another, but keep in mind that Ukraine is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Europe, and has been from the beginning.

Despite Ukraine’s agricultural heritage and close ties to the countryside, over 70% of Ukrainians are city dwellers. Life expectancy is 75.3 years for women, but just 64.4 years for men, a worrisome statistic although still slightly higher than the world average. Following Ukraine’s independence in 1991, its population fell quite drastically, due first to some emigration to Russia. The hardships of the early to mid-1990s also took a toll, showing a significant increase in Ukraine’s death rate, a decrease in the birth rate, followed by huge waves of emigration of youth seeking better opportunities abroad. Since the year 2000, that trend has started to reverse itself, with life expectancy having stabilised and the standard of living improving to the point that Ukrainian labourers working abroad have begun to return. In addition to the country’s sizeable labour force, which has attracted the attention of international investors, Ukrainians also enjoy one of the highest literacy rates in the world -close to 99.8% — thanks to strong standards of universal education.

Administration

Ukraine is divided into 24 oblasts and one autonomous republic, Crimea. Each oblast has a regional capital, and Kiev is the national capital. Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Lviv and Odessa are the largest cities.

Government

Ukraine regained independence in 1991 and now functions as a constitutional democracy, led by a president and ruled by a 450-seat parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Members of the Rada serve five-year terms and their seats are allocated on a proportional basis to those parties that gain 3% or more of the national electoral vote. The exact balance of power between the president and Rada is still a point of conflict in these early years of democracy, while political corruption has been a plague to every administration back to Prince Vladimir.

Leonid Kravchuk won the first elections of an independent Ukraine in 1991 but his presidency was troubled by incredible inflation and so much public unrest that the next elections were brought forward, and Leonid Kuchma was voted in as the new president in 1994, then re-elected in 1999 for a second five-year term. The Kuchma presidency saw some small improvements in the field of domestic economics, due largely to the oligarch businessmen that he empowered during his regime, who came to be known as the Kuchma clan. Kuchma is remembered as a stubborn autocrat who lacked vision and relied on mafioso tactics to run the country, stashing hundreds of millions of dollars outside the country and ridding himself of any dissenting voice. One such reformer was the then prime minister Viktor Yuschenko, who was sacked following some much-needed economic reforms, including stabilisation of the currency. Kuchma’s presidency continued with a slew of corruption scandals propped up by a shady legal process. Increased repression and a lack of freedom of speech led to major demonstrations in Kiev throughout the latter half of 2002, and to widespread discontent among Ukrainian voters.

Nearing the end of his term, Kuchma sought a successor with whom he could carry out a classic post-Soviet handover of power, while securing protection for himself and his family. He picked Viktor Yanukovych, who emerged from the Donbas clan of southeastern Ukraine and was well funded by industry interests. Meanwhile, Victor Yuschenko had forged aviable coalition with the charismatic Yulia Timoshenko, later founding the opposition party of Nasha Ukrayina — Our Ukraine. Throughout 2003, Our Ukraine was able to drum up majority support countrywide, despite major government action against their campaign. After the Kuchma regime tried to steal the presidential election in late 2004, Our Ukraine led an urgent call to the streets. The outpouring of public fervour and the sheer determination of the ensuing protest went down in history as the famed Orange Revolution.

Ukraine’s Supreme Court has always acted as the more independent branch of Ukraine’s government: with mounting international pressure and the streets still filled with protestors two weeks after the election, the Supreme Court ruled to annul the elections and reset the run-off between candidates Yuschenko and Yanukovych. Under the watchful eye of international monitors and the Ukrainian people, Viktor Yuschenko won the final round of elections and was officially inaugurated as President of Ukraine on 23 January 2005.

The Orange Revolution marked a turn towards confidence for the Ukrainian people. They had become heroes to the rest of the world, and the euphoria of the revolution raised high hopes that all the problems of the past would simply disappear under a true democracy. Clearly, some immediate changes were noted, tod yet as democracy flourishes in Ukraine, so do some of its challenges. Alas, many lost heart when Yushchenko decided to sack his government in September.

2005 due to charges of corruption and the resignations of key members of Yushchenko’s cabinet. The sacking included the dismissal of then prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, who resented Yushchenko’s decision and vowed a comeback in March 2006 elections.

The voters’ circus that ensued was shocking to the rest of the world, but fitted well with other periods of Ukraine’s history, when a rainbow of factions rushed the political field. Optimists would say that it represented the healthy signs of a vigorous democracy, others noted how the pro-Russian Regions Party won the majority of votes, expressing a strong opposition to Yuschenko. After months of confusing deliberations and indecision between the various political blocs, President Yuschenko entered into a reluctant political pact with his former enemy Viktor Yanukovych, naming him prime minister and handing over several cabinet seats to his party. Together, these strange bedfellows faced a number of concerns, including the gas crisis, Ukraine’s membership in NATO, relations with Russia, economic reform, corruption, and everything that plagues Ukraine. Finding a middle ground among Ukraine’s divergent domestic and foreign policy goals has been a real challenge, worsened by a general lack of compromise among political leaders.

Ukrainians still look back on the Orange Revolution as a vital catalyst for social and governmental change, which has led to an improvement in the right to freedom of speech, the public accountability of elected officers, and institutional reform within the government. Ukrainian politics is far more invigorating than any of the national sports shown on Ukrainian television, and there will always be a new story to follow. Ukrainians tend to be both highly pensive and politically vocal, so that if you don’t read about it before your trip, you will hear about it on your trip.

International Relations

Ukraine occupies a difficult position in the world as the country is wedged between giant Russia, the recently expanded European Union, the turbulent Middle East and the Caucasus. Following independence from the Soviet Union, Ukraine sought distance from Russia through attempted EU and NATO membership, but the process was delayed by obvious complications and lack of preparedness.

Recent relations between Ukraine and Russia are fraught with much antagonism and bickering. Russia disapproves of Ukraine’s push towards the West and leverages their shared history, cultures and economies to keep Ukraine subservient. After putting to rest early disputes about energy payments and control over the Black Sea fleet, Ukraine panicked in 2003 when Russia began construction of a long dam across the Kerch Strait with the aim of joining it to Tuzla, a minute Ukrainian island in the Sea of Azov. Such symbolic aggression continued prior to the Orange Revolution, when the Kremlin’s sinister interference into Ukraine’s electoral politics did not improve relations between the two countries. On New Year’s Day 2006, Russia shut off gas supplies to Ukraine (not for the first time) and suddenly demanded market rates for future fuel resources. This time the international community intervened, especially the EU, which faced an energy crisis of its own if the gas dispute remained unresolved. A new deal was reached, forcing Ukraine to pay double what it had been paying and spawning a political crisis in the Rada. Thus Russia meddles with Ukrainian politics while Ukrainians argue amongst themselves about the extent of their partnership with their largest neighbour. A troubled friendship continues. Protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty from Russia will always be a prime national security interest.

Today, Ukraine’s primary foreign policy goals involve full integration with Western democracies and the global market economy, starting with full membership in the WTO, EU and NATO. Such ambitious goals have met with obstacles as domestic politics repeatedly hampers the efforts of progressive leaders. A continued lack of reform meant that Ukraine was passed up for WTO membership in 2005. In this same light, the Ukrainians have approached European integration far more realistically, working closely with the permanent EU-Ukraine Dialogue, which oversees all forms of joint EU co-operation and tracks Ukraine’s progress towards adopting European standards and moving closer to EU membership.

Ukrainian opinions on NATO vary widely, particularly among the older generation who remember NATO as the enemy. With the type of strong military force it inherited from the Soviet Union, and the geo-strategic position it holds in the region today, Ukraine continues to be a leading priority for the international alliance. In 1994, Ukraine signed an agreement with the United States to get rid of its nuclear arsenal in return for US$1 billion in aid. In 1997, the NATO-Ukraine charter was signed as a treaty of co-operation in conflict prevention. Relations turned sour when it was discovered that President Kuchma had allowed the illegal sale of a nuclear radar system to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Ukraine still holds a sizeable arsenal of small arms and military technology which, given the country’s economic situation, make Ukraine a preferred destination for illegal arms dealers worldwide. When a munitions dump exploded in southern Ukraine in 2004, the country feared that its ageing arsenal had also become problematic for Ukrainians themselves. Since Yushchenko has become president, Ukraine has signed the Intensified Dialogue with NATO, with future membership contingent upon Ukraine’s fulfilment of necessary military and political reforms.

Ukraine is a member of the United Nations and served on the United Nations Security Council from 2000-01. Ukraine is also a member of GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova), an international organisation founded as an alternative to the defunct CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), but which is now in danger of becoming defunct itself. In addition to close ties with Georgia, Ukraine benefits from particularly strong relations with Poland, Great Britain and the United States. Ukraine was one of the very first European countries to criminalise human trafficking and Ukrainian troops joined the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq until late 2005.

People

Anyone who has been to Ukraine knows that getting to know people is far more important than visiting any prescribed sights. Long after you’ve forgotten the name of some church in Kiev, you will recall individuals and their stories, even if your conversations were carried on by made-up sign language. The title «Ukrainians» is meant to include everyone and anyone who lives in Ukraine — a truly diverse gathering of 48 million people. Ethnic Ukrainians make up the majority, but even that majority is made up of various shades of «Ukrainian-ness». The classic caricature of the Zaporizhian Cossack is still perceived as the ultimate Ukrainian personage, but travellers will find Ukrainians to be lots of things: a Poltava cabbage farmer, a Kiev professor, a Crimean Tatar, an Odessa Jew, a Galician student or a Russian coal miner.

Only a few, very broad, generalisations are worthy of describing Ukraine’s people. First off, Ukrainians live closely to the earth. Every season has meaning, as does the blossoming of each plant. Urban Ukrainians will leave the city during the summer to live in their small cottages (dachas) and to work their individual plots. Historically, Ukrainians survived the winter by eating food they had produced themselves. Despite all the technological advances and pervasive e-culture of modern Ukrainian society, the people will always have a strong tie to the countryside and an appreciation of the simpler side of life.

As with most societies, families play a key role in Ukrainian life and loyalty is an integral value. Members of an extended family depend on one another; it’s a strong support network that goes far beyond the limitations of the West’s independence and individualism. Grandparents may raise children, young people look after the elderly and food and cash are shared all around.

Ukrainians like to have a good time by eating and drinking, singing songs, and telling stories and jokes. They like to talk a lot and most have a natural intellectual bent manifest in their conversational musings. By custom, Ukrainians are very hospitable and will gladly open their home to a stranger they have just met. Guests are always offered some sort of refreshment — at least tea, if not a meal, and Ukrainians always throw a good party.

Language

Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine, except in Donbas where Russian is officially recognised and in Crimea, where both Russian and Tatar are recognised (and spoken). The Russian language is still used throughout much of the country, but Ukrainian is coming into wider use with the growth of national consciousness. In the Carpathians, there are also areas where dialects of Romanian, Hungarian and Polish are spoken.

Ukrainian is an Indo-European language of the eastern Slavic family of languages. The original root language is now referred to as Old Church Slavonic, as it is still used in the Orthodox liturgy. Discernible versions of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian had emerged from Slavonic by the mid 12th century. Two Byzantine missionaries, St Cyril and St Methodius, travelled to Ukraine in the late 9th century and established a written language for the land, hence the Cyrillic alphabet, which combines Greek and Latin letters to fit Slavic sounds.

After centuries of linguistic repression, it has become very important for Ukrainians to speak Ukrainian in a show of independence, individual identity and solidarity. This is the first time in the country’s history that free linguistic expression has been permitted and society is taking full advantage. Thus everything is written in Ukrainian and in most of western Ukraine people will speak only Ukrainian. At the same time, Russian is a very important language in Ukraine, and visitors often wonder how similar/different the two languages actually are. The closest comparison to the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian might be Spanish and Portuguese. Ukrainians tend to have no difficulty understanding Russians, while ethnic Russians have more difficulty with Ukrainian. Ukrainian sounds much softer and is much more poetic in some respects, while Russian has benefited from centuries of high culture and literature, during which time Ukrainian was severely repressed and spoken mainly by the rural peasant population.

Newscasters and travellers are always trying to draw some kind of linguistic map for Ukraine that shows clear-cut boundaries and vivid trends. While it is fairly easy to generalise (Odessa, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Simferopol, and Kharkiv are all Russian-speaking cities; Kiev, Lviv, the Carpathians and Poltava are all Ukrainian), Ukraine’s true linguistic landscape is as rich as its physical terrain and absolutely no rules apply fully. Throughout all of Ukraine you can hear a variety of interesting dialects and versions of both Ukrainian and Russian, and most people speak a fairly common mixture of the two, called surzhyk. Indeed, as choice of spoken language becomes de-politicised, Ukraine is developing into a multilingual European society, where Ukrainian is preferred and more generally used, but everyone can still speak Russian, if not some other language. A common sight nowadays (even on television) is one person speaking in Ukrainian, and another responding back in Russian, with both parties understanding one another and continuing the conversation in the two different languages.

Travellers should try to be sensitive to whatever the locals are speaking, although if you speak neither it’s hard to tell. Contrary to exaggerated claims, nobody will shoot you for addressing them in the «wrong» language. Still, the more effort you make to learn some Ukrainian (and Russian), the more likely you are to earn the respect of whoever it is you are speaking to.

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