Ukraine in post-war Europe struggled before gaining independence

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February to overthrow the democratically elected government has reignited the powder keg of historic European conflict and its effects on the former Soviet republic.

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During World War II – which may have its roots in the instability that spread after World War I – an estimated five to seven million people died in Ukraine and 10 million were left homeless after the destruction of 700 towns and villages and 28,000 villages by the Germans. under Adolf Hitler.

Ukraine came under German control two years after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. But in mid-1943 the occupying forces began to slowly withdraw after battles with the Soviet Red Army, and at the end of October the Soviets managed to push back the Germans and all. of Ukraine was back under their control.

However, the economic toll was immense: around 40% of Ukraine’s national wealth had disappeared due to the massive destruction of manufacturing plants, agricultural equipment and machinery, as well as a severely damaged transportation network. damaged.

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Despite the disaster of the war and all the losses, Ukraine saw an expansion of its land mass. An agreement between the Czech and Soviet governments saw Transcarpathia ceded to Ukraine in 1945. The Polish-Ukrainian border was redrawn to include Volhynia and Galicia. And northern Bucovina was recognized as part of Ukraine in the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty.

Also at the end of the war, Ukraine became a founding member of the United Nations and signed peace treaties with Italy, Finland, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, Germany’s allies at one time. of war.

Ukraine’s post-war economy, under the Soviet leadership of Joseph Stalin, prioritized heavy industry over consumer needs. This choice, associated with a famine in 1946-47, caused nearly a million additional deaths.

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When Stalin died in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev took over the Soviet leadership in Moscow. Khrushchev – who was originally from Ukraine – was sent there in 1938 to solidify Stalin’s iron grip on the party and the nation, which he supported.

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Over the following decades, Ukraine became a power for the Soviets. It was the center of the Soviet arms industry and high-tech research, and was also turned into a military outpost.

However, Ukraine’s economic performance continued to deteriorate throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear accident – which exposed around five million people to high levels of radiation – kindled the embers of nationalism among the population.

In the same year, Mikhail Gorbachev launched a restructuring campaign to avoid the growing economic problems facing the USSR. Spurred by mass movements in the Baltic countries and other Soviet republics, nationalism began to catch fire in Ukraine in 1987.

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Two years later, there was a full-fledged national revival for an independent Ukraine. The people made it official in a referendum in December 1991, voting for independence and permanently leaving the Soviet Union since the Ukrainian Bolsheviks took control in 1922.

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Democracy was in a delicate state before the invasion

The road to a stronger democracy in Ukraine has seen many obstacles along the way.

Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has struggled with democratic reforms as the oligarch-controlled distribution of power and resources gripped the fledgling country.

Changing the constitution took five years, as the parliament (Rada) and successive presidents – Leonid Kravchuk from 1991 to 1994 and Leonid Kuchma from 1994 to 2005 – fought for political power.

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In 2004, parliament took over the way Ukraine managed its political leadership.

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But after Viktor Yanukovych was elected in 2010 and with the help of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, these constitutional changes were reversed, giving the president more powers.

The move ultimately spurred Euromaidan protests that began in Kiev’s Independence Square in November 2013 against perceived government corruption and proposed closer ties with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. A wave of protests and civil unrest then spread across the country for several months.

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“Ukrainian democracy has come a long way since its first manifestations after 1991,” summarized the Keenan Institute of the Wilson Center, an American think tank, in a 2018 overview. “It boasts of a vibrant civil society, well-organized and powerful political parties, and a diverse pluralism of national, social and geopolitical influences.”

However, the war with Russia over Crimea that began in 2014 and the subsequent invasion last month, coupled with a socio-economic crisis, have prevented Ukraine from creating a stronger democracy.

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Mary I. Bruner