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Five things to know about Ukraine

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Ukrainians go to polls Sunday, with Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old comedian turned politician, set to win the leadership of a conflict-riven country seen as a buffer between Russia and the European Union.

Volodymyr Zelenski
Comedian Volodymyr Zelenski

Here are five facts about a country that in recent years has been brought to the brink by uprisings, war and loss of territory.

– Russia ties –

“Ukraine” literally means “on the edge” and its history has been closely tied to that of its giant neighbour, Russia.

Modern-day Russia and Ukraine are thought to share their origins in the ancient state of Kievan Rus, now the region around Kiev.

Much of what is now Ukraine was part of the Tsarist Russian empire although the western regions belonged at different times to various neighbours, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The country later became part of the USSR. In the early decades of Soviet rule it suffered during a devastating famine known as the Holodomor caused by Joseph Stalin’s policies.

Tensions between Kiev and Moscow have flared in the decades following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

After a pro-Western popular uprising led to the ouster of Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula and supported separatists in the east of Ukraine.

The conflict has so far cost around 13,000 lives.

– Economic trouble –

With the start of the 2014 crisis, the Ukrainian economy went into freefall. That year, GDP dropped by more than 6 percent, and the following year it fell almost 10 percent. In 2015, inflation hit more than 40 percent.

The economy has since shown some signs of recovery but the country of 45 million people remains one of the poorest in Europe.

An average monthly salary is $340 (300 euros), according to figures from the start of 2019.

The country relies on transit fees for Russian gas towards Europe and Kiev has expressed concern it will be bypassed by new Russian energy projects.

During disputes in 2006 and 2009, Moscow cut supplies to Ukraine during the winter, sparking knock-on shortages in Europe.

– Corruption –

Corruption is endemic in Ukraine and all major candidates for the presidency have vowed to tackle it.

The NGO Transparency International puts Ukraine at 120 out of 180 countries in terms of public perception of corruption — better than its 2014 rating of 142, but well below its EU neighbours.

According to a Gallup poll, just nine percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their government, the lowest in the world.

There is public frustration at what is seen as an out-of-touch, corrupt political elite — which explains the meteoric rise of politician Zelensky.

Anti-corruption campaigners regularly suffer physical attacks. Activists say they have recorded around 100 such attacks over the past four years.

– Chernobyl –

The world’s worst nuclear accident took place in Ukraine on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

Thirty people were killed in an explosion and many hundreds died of related illnesses, though the exact figure remains disputed. Soviet authorities initially tried to cover up and play down the disaster.

Eventually 350,000 people were evacuated from within a 30-kilometre radius around the plant, an exclusion zone that remains uninhabited, apart from some 150 elderly residents who returned despite an official ban.

Authorities now say it will only be safe for humans to live there again in 24,000 years.

– Borscht –

While some in the West think of borscht as synonymous with Russian cuisine, Ukraine claims the beetroot-based soup as part of its national heritage dating back to the 14th century.

A number of other dishes are contested by Russia and Ukraine, including Chicken Kiev. Some versions of its history attribute the invention of the dish to a Russian chef.

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky appeared on track Thursday to become Ukraine’s next leader as incumbent Petro Poroshenko fought for his political survival three days before a presidential run-off vote.Polls showed Zelensky, a 41-year-old standup comic and television star with no political experience, sailing to victory in Sunday’s second-round vote.
Comedian Volodymyr Zelenski[/caon]
His surge in popularity is a rebuke to Ukraine’s political elite, who have struggled to revive the economy and put an end to a conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.

Critics fear that a Zelensky presidency could throw the country into chaos, but the comedian has promised to surround himself with able advisors and on Thursday was set to reveal his “dream team”.

Anticipation was also building ahead of a presidential debate due on Friday, the first and only one of the presidential campaign.

The two candidates confirmed on Wednesday they would take part in the debate in a sports arena that seats 70,000 people.

Zelensky’s spokeswoman Iryna Pobedonostseva said he was looking forward to facing off with his rival.

“Preparations for the debate are in full swing. You will see the results tomorrow,” she told AFP.

Zelensky suggested he would have an easy time in the debate given Poroshenko’s record.

“I don’t want to call anyone names, insult anyone or engage in mud-slinging,” he told local media.

“After what has been done over the last five years I believe I can simply keep mum.”

Poroshenko, who took power in 2014 after a popular uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed leader, has asked Ukrainian voters to give him a second chance.

Supporters credit Poroshenko, 53, with rebuilding the army, securing an Orthodox Church independent of Russia and winning visa-free travel to Europe.

– ‘Everyone has gone mad’ –

He has said he needs more time to push through economic reforms and that a political neophyte at the helm of Ukraine would be Moscow’s dream come true.

Poroshenko has sought to cast himself as the only Ukrainian politician who can take on Russian President Vladimir Putin and settle the war with separatists in the east, a conflict that has claimed some 13,000 lives.

Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was knocked out in the first round of voting last month, said it was time to accept a new political reality.

“Mathematics already tells us that Volodymyr Zelensky will win the second round,” she said in a video address on Wednesday.

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“This is objective reality. It’s time to think of how to live with this,” she said, calling for calm and unity.

The latest survey published on Thursday gave Zelensky 73 percent of the vote and only 27 percent to Poroshenko, consistent with other recent polls.

Poroshenko has fought hard to recover lost ground in a bruising campaign after Zelensky leapfrogged the political establishment in the first round of voting on March 31.

The star of sitcom “Servant of the People” — in which he plays a school teacher who becomes Ukrainian president — has capitalised on widespread frustration over the economy and corruption in the country of 45 million people.

The campaign has been bitter, with the candidates trading insults on television and in social media. Both men even underwent drug tests at Zelensky’s insistence.

Nerves have begun to fray in a country that went through popular uprisings in 2004 and 2014. The latest edition of magazine Novoe Vremya declared on its cover: “Everyone has gone mad.”

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