What I didn't know about Ukraine
What on earth is going on in Ukraine? I'm sure you've seen the images of fire, death and protest on the news, and heard words like Putin, referendum, invasion, and maybe even Crimea. But what's really going on over there?
A little background first. Ukraine is a very different nation to NZ. It has only been independent since the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, and its borders look really different now to the last time they had independence for a few years back in the early 1900s. This means that the country has a bad case of split personality disorder - divided roughly East and West.
East Ukraine spent most of the last 250 years ruled by Russians-it's good farming country there, great for feeding an empire-who sent Russian speakers to live there, and passed laws to make everyone speak Russian. Unsurprisingly, many East Ukrainians still speak Russian, and see Russia as a natural ally.
West Ukrainians basically disagree. They speak Ukrainian and are sick of the chronic corruption in politics and government-to them, echoes of the hated Soviet regime-that have plagued Ukraine's economy since independence. They see Western democracy, particularly the European Union (EU) as the best partner for a stronger, more successful Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, every presidential election since 1991 has been an almost 50/50 split vote between candidates seen as either pro-Russia or pro-EU. The last President, Viktor Yanukovych (we'll call him Viktor from now on) is from the East, and he literally fled the country to Russia in mid February, after violent protests from mainly West Ukrainians, who pretty much forced Parliament to depose him.
Why? In November, Viktor vetoed popular moves to have closer trade links to the European Union, and instead accepted a $15 billion 'bail-out' package from Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Putin has his own trade union that he's trying to put together with a bunch of former Soviet states, and he's quite keen that Ukraine-a major producer of food, and the site of vital gas pipelines from Russia to Europe-be part of his crew and not Europe's. During the protests Viktor also introduced anti-protest and media-silencing legislation that intensified public anger, and led to his ousting.
What about Crimea? In 1992 the Crimean parliament adopted their own constitution that declared that they were an autonomous, self governing state, and then a day later wrote in a new line that confirmed that they were still technically part of Ukraine. You guessed it, they're East Ukrainian with a pro-Russian majority.
After President Viktor was turfed out, Crimean protestors from both sides turned on each other, and Putin ordered Russian soldiers from legitimate bases within Crimea to occupy several key locations, because he had "a duty to protect Russians wherever they live." Since then, the Crimean Parliament has voted to declare full independence from Ukraine, and has announced a referendum that would see Crimea return to Russian rule.
No matter the results of the referendum on March 16, a volatile new chapter of Ukraine's history is being written.