With strong historic influences and the freedom it now enjoys as an independent republic, Ukraine is slowly building up a unifying identity that will hold its multi-ethnic peoples and varied cultures together. While some traditionalists are resolute against change, younger generations encourage more development for their nation, opening up to the world in search of new challenges and excitement. Co-hosting the UEFA European Football Championship 2012 will be a big honour and a big opportunity for this country, yet another event that can impact its promising economy.

Like its Russian neighbour, Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox; this faith has influenced the country’s architecture, literature and music. The Ukrainian population has sizable Russian, Belarussian and Romanian minorities. Alongside Ukrainian, Russian is widely spoken here.

The country has a continental climate, with cold winters and hot, dry summers. Its black soil is kept fertile by the plentiful spring and autumn rainfall and the bountiful summer sunshine.

Ukraine has always been agriculturally rich, growing sugar, wheat, maize, buckwheat, vegetables and fruit. Its popular traditional dishes are a delight to the gastronomically adventurous: varenyky (boiled dumplings with mushrooms, potatoes, sauerkraut, cottage cheese or cherries), borsch (soup of beets, cabbage and mushrooms or meat) and holubtsy (stuffed cabbage rolls filled with rice, carrots and meat).

The country also has abundant mineral resources, particularly iron ore, coal, gas, salts, and clay. It was an industrial centre for the Soviet Union, producing planes, ships, cars, trains, and agricultural machines. It also makes computer and electronic equipment, precision instruments, and televisions and radios. Ukraine has an enormous rail network, with over 22,000 kilometres of tracks. It is one of Europe’s largest energy consumers, much of it nuclear.

Ukraine’s main river, Dnieper, is considered the cradle of Ukrainian and Russian civilization. The land was the heart of the 9th century Kievan Rus empire. When it disintegrated, the territory was divided among a number of regional powers. By the 19th century, most of Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian Empire, with the rest under Austro-Hungarian control.

In 1922, Ukraine became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic's territory was enlarged westward before and after World War II, and again in 1954. It was the second most important Soviet Republic after Russia.

Ukraine was born again as a country in 1991 when the dissolution of USSR was proclaimed by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Ukraine’s development is typical of most former Soviet Union members, with the exception of the Baltic States. Its economic experience has been a rollercoaster ride, from economic stagnation right after gaining independence, made worse by the Russian Crisis in 1998, to a surprising shift towards positive economic growth since 2000.

Ukraine still has a raft of problems, the state of its environment among them. Some areas—and some of its population—still suffer from the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear power explosion in 1986. It continues to have severe industrial pollution.

2005 marked the most obvious democratic development in Ukraine: the shift from a pro-Russian leader to a banker-turned-economist as President.

Viktor Yushchenko’s win was a result of the Orange Revolution, staged after the rampant election rigging and fraud in the 2004 presidential elections. Yushchenko also gained sympathy worldwide due to his suffering from dioxin poisoning, which left him scarred and disfigured. He promised a government free from corruption, as well as better relations with EU and the US. His presidency was short-lived, however, as internal conflicts among his Orange Revolution allies (chief among them Yulia Tymoshenko, the current Prime Minister) and accusations of corruption led to his being replaced in turn by the man he had earlier beaten in the 2004 elections, Viktor Yanukovich.

There has been a reduction of human rights violations and restrictions on civil liberties. However, political stability is still elusive as a result of squabbling between pro-West groups and the post-Communist oligarchs. Structural reform is occurring at a snail’s pace. The elite and the state dominate the economy; connections and briberies count for a lot here.

Ukraine’s strong economic growth for the past eight years (with an average annual GDP growth of 7.3% from 2000 to 2008) now looks unlikely to be sustained. Steel prices and exports have dropped drastically—and steel accounts for more than 50% of Ukraine’s exports. Ukraine’s most important steel and machine-building equipment market is Russia, which is now heading into recession.

Foreigners are not restricted from buying property in Ukraine. All secondary residential transactions are in US dollars, while primary sales are quoted in hryvnia, but still paid in dollars.