Moscow seeks to form ties through ethnic Russians

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Many people predicted that Ukraine would rapidly divide in two after it became independent in 1991 following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Many people predicted that Ukraine would rapidly divide in two after it became independent in 1991 following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Foreign politicians, diplomats and experts pointed to what seemed cataclysmic political fault lines that they predicted would lead to upheaval, possible civil war, but certain division.

Of its 48 million population, eight to 10 million are ethnic Russians, most of whom want closer links with Moscow. The Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, backed by Vladimir Putin, has ruthlessly exploited ethnic Russian passions to recreate a vestige of a Moscow-led political bloc. But many Russian-speaking Ukrainians support the opposition.

The opponents in the presidential election were the pro-Russian Mr Yanukovych and the pro-Western liberal candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. The opposition accused the government and Mr Yanukovych of stealing the election, allegations supported by the EU, the US, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council of Europe and Nato.

Mr Yanukovych emphasised the differences between parts of the country, while Mr Yushchenko stressed the ties between all parts of the nation.

In medieval times much of the territory of present-day Ukraine was the powerful state of Kievan Rus, centred on Kiev. Prince Volodymyr, the ruler of this state, accepted Christianity for himself and his people. Russia traces its existence and its church from Kievan Rus and that is why many, even liberal, Russians find it difficult to accept Ukraine's independence.

The Kievan Rus empire fell apart after Mongol invasions. Those who remained on the steppelands were joined by serfs or noblemen escaping from Polish lords or the rule of the Tsars. These people banded together in military groups who became the Cossacks to defend their lands from Tatar invaders and incursions from Russia and the Polish empire.

Ukrainian protesters trace their passion for democracy to the Cossacks, who elected their leaders. In the 18th century, the Cossacks were overwhelmed and their territory divided between the Russian empire and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Ukrainians in the west were cut off from their countrymen under Russian control.

The western and central regions of the country have a population that is mostly ethnic Ukrainian and Ukrainian speaking. Most of western Ukraine is Uniate Catholic. Western Ukraine was for centuries part of the Hapsburg empire and between the world wars it was part of Poland. Until Stalin annexed it at the same time as Hitler occupied the rest of Poland, the people of western Ukraine had not experienced Russian rule.

Although the rulers of western Ukraine were often harsh, Ukrainians retained their language, customs and national identity. The people of eastern Ukraine were Ukrainian Orthodox Christians and spoke the same language as their compatriots in the west but gradually Russia chipped away at Ukrainian identity.

Mr Yushchenko said: "When Putin speaks of his people in a country spanning 11 time zones, he doesn't talk about west and east Russians, he talks of Russians. Yanukovych speaks of different Ukrainians because he wants to divide and rule. But Ukraine is one and undivided."