Religion Will Be on Ukraine’s Ballot
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Just in time for the start of the presidential election campaign, Ukraine has a new, unified Orthodox Church. Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, is trumpeting the creation of the church as a boon to national security, but the move could backfire for him before the March 31 vote.
In October, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, led by Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople, traditionally considered first among equals by other Orthodox Church leaders, reversed a 332-year-old decision to let the Moscow Patriarchate ordain Ukraine’s Orthodox leader, the Metropolitan of Kiev, and recognized the clergy of two splinter churches in Ukraine that Moscow regards as impostors. The churches were told to unite and bring on board as many priests loyal to Moscow as possible; the resulting unified church was promised independence, or autocephaly. The unified Ukrainian church is likely to receive official recognition from Bartholomew next month.
On Dec. 15, Poroshenko attended the unification conference even though the Ukrainian Constitution ensures the separation of church and state. He told the audience of priests that spiritual independence was as important as the political kind. He described the prospective granting of autocephaly as a step toward Ukraine’s decolonization from Russia.
The president is being coy about his plans to run again; at a news conference on Dec. 16 he only said he wouldn’t announce immediately after the church unification. Last summer, however, billboards appeared in Kiev carrying the legend, “Army! Language! Faith! We’re going our own way! We Are Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko.” Even if this wasn’t an election slogan, Poroshenko recently has stayed on message.
In October, the Ukrainian parliament gave its preliminary approval to a new bill that requires local media to have Ukrainian versions (until recently, Russian was the preferred language for internet and print media) and imposes fines for using other languages in a number of contexts. In November, following the Russian seizure of Ukrainian warships in the Kerch Strait, Poroshenko declared martial law for 30 days. Although the parliament reined in his extraordinary powers and the measure’s extent, this was an opportunity for the president to promote his credentials as commander in chief and his achievements in building up the country’s military; Ukraine has also banned all Russian men between the ages of 18 and 60 from entering, stressing again its determination to pull away from Russia.
It’s December, time for the “faith” pillar, and Poroshenko’s Facebook feed is full of pride in the new church. “We have stopped the aggressor, we have saved the country, we have built a combat-ready military,” he posted on Dec. 15. “We promote the Ukrainian language -- a component of the Ukrainian people’s strength and success. Lately, we have become even more convinced that a united Orthodox Church is also a key element of Ukraine’s independence.”
This strategy is fundamentally divisive.
About 30 percent of Ukrainians between the ages of 14 and 29, an age group that has been exposed to obligatory Ukrainian at school, speak Russian at home and a further 18 percent alternate between Russian and Ukrainian. Though most Ukrainians believe the national language should be the only official one, the new bill makes life harder for the many Russian speakers.
Imposing martial law didn’t win Poroshenko many political points. A recent poll showed almost 60 percent didn’t support it; many said it should have been introduced when Russia annexed Crimea and stoked unrest in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Support is considerably higher for Poroshenko’s move in the more anti-Russian west of the country, but even that doesn’t have majority backing. Polls still show Poroshenko in third place or lower among potential candidates, after former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky.
The creation of a new church isn’t an unambiguous win for Poroshenko, either. While, according to a recent poll, about 47 percent of Ukrainians support it, 24 percent say it will exacerbate the divisions. They likely are right.
Poroshenko and his aides had hoped that 10 Moscow Patriarchate bishops would attend the unification conference. In the end, only two did. “This is the result of pressure, and certainly not on our government’s part," Poroshenko said Dec. 16.
One of the two, Metropolitan Oleksandr Drabinko, explained in a Facebook post that he was joining the new church because the Moscow Patriarchate “hadn’t found in itself the desire to overcome the division among Orthodox believers in Ukraine.” But he and the other attendee, Metropolitan Simeon Shostatsky, were assailed by the Moscow Patriarchy’s chief spokesman, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who wrote: “Let’s not forget there was one Judas among the 12 apostles; had there been 90 apostles, one could expect there to be six or seven Judases, not two.”
It could have been a strong move on the new church’s part to elect a former Moscow Patriarchate bishop as its head, signaling to others they’d be welcome to switch. Metropolitan Simeon, whose seat is in Poroshenko’s home region, Vinnytsia, was rumored to be in the running. But the winner was 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphanius Dumenko, a little-known cleric who had served as the right hand of Patriarch Filaret Denisenko, the head of the bigger of the two splinter churches. Epiphanius has long stood for Ukraine’s religious independence, and his diocese was especially active in supporting the Ukrainian military. He’s also a fluent Greek speaker, which endears him to Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew, now the arch-enemy of the Moscow-led church. Not, in other words, a unifying figure. Rather, he is someone Moscow Patriarchate priests will fear will be after their churches, monasteries and parishes with all the might of the state behind him.
Whether the nationalist platform will win the day for Poroshenko remains to be seen, but the president really has few other options. There aren’t many economic successes to talk up, and a recent study estimated that Ukraine loses $8.6 billion a year to corruption and mismanagement. Poroshenko has to stress that he’s busy building a nation, and the rest can wait till more peaceful times. At least that’s a clear argument and a tough one to run against.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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