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January 31, 2014

9 questions about Ukraine you were too embarrassed to ask

WASHINGTON — Ukrainians have been protesting since Nov. 21, when President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal for closer integration with the European Union, instead drawing the country closer to Russia. They are still in the streets in huge numbers and have seized regional government buildings in several parts of the country. In Kiev, the capital, clashes between protesters and security forces have become violent, killing several people. On Tuesday, the prime minister resigned. No one is quite sure what will happen next.

What's happening in Ukraine is really important, but it can also be confusing and difficult to follow for outsiders who don't know the history that led up to and, in some crucial ways, explains this crisis. Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: this is not an exhaustive or definitive account of Ukraine's story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.

1. What is Ukraine?

Ukraine not "the Ukraine" is a country in Eastern Europe, between Russia and Central Europe. It's big: about the area of Texas, with a little less than twice the population. Its history goes back thousands of years - the first domesticated horses were here - and has long been characterized by intersections between "east" and "west." That's continued right up to today's crisis.

Ukraine has a long history of being subjugated by foreign powers. It's only been independent since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and it broke away. The last time it was independent (for a few short years right after World War One; before that, briefly in the 1600s) it had different borders and very different demographics. That turns out to be really important.

2. Why are so many Ukrainians protesting?

The protests started, mostly in the capital of Kiev, when President Yanukovych rejected an expected deal for greater economic integration with the European Union. The deal was popular with Ukrainians, particularly in Kiev and that part of the country (although not as popular as you may have heard: about 42 or 43 percent support it).

But this is about much more than just a trade deal. Symbolically, Yanukovych's decision was seen as a turn away from Europe and toward Moscow, which rewarded Ukraine with a "stimulus" worth billions of dollars and a promise of cheaper gas exports. Moscow had subjugated or outright ruled Ukraine for generations, so you can see why this could hit a nerve.

 But this is about more than just geopolitics. Yanukovych and his government, since taking power in 2010, have mismanaged the economy and have been increasingly seen as corrupt. In 2004, there had been mass protests against Yanukovych when he won the presidential election under widespread suspicions of fraud; those protests, which succeeded in blocking him from office, were called the "Orange Revolution" and considered a big deal at the time. But now he's back.

The protests had actually been dying down until Jan. 16, when Yanukovych signed an "anti-protest law" that also deeply restricts free speech, the media (especially from criticizing the government), driving in a group of more than five cars, even wearing a helmet. Protests kicked back up with a vengeance, not just in Kiev but in a number of regional capitals, outright seizing government administration buildings in some.

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