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Poroshenko has achieved a second independence from Russia

As Moscow warns of repercussions, Kyiv finally rejoices with the good tidings from a tense synod.

October 15, 2018 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Photo: olafpictures (cc) pixabay.com

The news from the Constantinople Synod on 11 October can be described as a second round of independence from Russia for which President Petro Poroshenko can take credit. The first independence was of course achieved 27 years ago by Leonid Kravchuk when he “walked (Ukraine) between the rain drops” (as the joke went) out of the USSR.

Comparing Poroshenko with Kravchuk is not pure hyperbole as the granting of autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to Ukraine is as significant as the disintegration of the USSR. Russian President Putin described the collapse of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and he will now have to add 2018 as a second “geopolitical catastrophe”.

Why have the stars aligned now

Ukraine has been seeking autocephaly since it became independent when Metropolitan Filaret broke with the ROC to establish the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarch (UOC-KP). In 1990, under pressure from the nationalist drive to independence, the ROC revived the autonomous status of its exarchate in Ukraine and renamed it the Ukrainian Orthodox Church; but in reality, it was always an arm of the ROC.

An important factor working in favor of autocephaly is who is promoting it. As the former ideological secretary of the Communist Party in Ukraine, Kravchuk had little legitimacy in religious affairs. President Leonid Kuchma was even handed between the UOC and UOC-KP. Meanwhile, President Viktor Yushchenko’s strong support for the UOC-KP and focus on memory politics gave him an image of a “nationalist” who was anti-Russian. President Yanukovych, coming from the Donbas region with a strong Soviet identity, openly backed the ROC.

President Poroshenko is a member of the ROC and is not viewed as “anti-Russian” in Constantinople. Importantly, due to his influence, senior ROC clergy have supported the drive for autocephaly. The Ukrainian parliament, where Poroshenko’s faction is the largest, has issued appeals in support of autocephaly; the latest in April was supported by a record high number of 268 deputies out of 334 present. Poroshenko adopted a canonical approach to seeking autocephaly that left the ROC with little room in preventing it happening.

Not only a political split

The extent of the shock in Moscow can be seen in vitriolic attacks by the ROC on the Patriarch of Constantinople, threats to “defend Orthodoxy” and for the ROC to break with Constantinople. But, Putin has a two-fold difficulty in his corporate raiding of Ukrainian history and religion.

First, most ROC parishes lie in Ukrainian-speaking central and western “orange” Ukraine and therefore Moscow’s assumption that ROC’s believers are Russian speakers is completely wrong. 89 per cent in western Ukraine but only 40 per cent in eastern said religion impacted upon their life. Religious is less important for eastern Ukrainians, there are fewer parishes of any Church, parents do not bring their children up religiously and more are atheists. 67 per cent of all Ukrainians say they are Orthodox believers with the highest in central Ukraine (79 per cent) and western Ukraine (46 per cent). Anybody who has visited the Donbas will notice there are far fewer Orthodox Churches than in “orange” Ukraine.

Therefore, there will not be a “civil war” over religion as the majority of believers in the ROC live in “orange” Ukraine and they will peacefully join Ukraine’s new autocephalous Church.

Second, the ROC has lost legitimacy because of its support for Russian military aggression against Ukraine. This fact seems obvious to everybody except Moscow.

Support for the UOC-KP has grown from 15 to 29 per cent and that for the ROC has declined from 24 to 13 per cent. 43 per cent trust Patriarch Filaret of the UOC-KP (20 per cent do not) while only 15 per cent trust Patriarch Kirill, head of the ROC (45 per cent do not). Although the decline of the ROC began before 2014, the Razumkov Centre write “the main factor in the decline in trust to him (Kirill) is open support of Moscow Patriarchate and personally the Patriarch in Russian Federation’s aggressive actions against Ukraine.”

ROC became a side in the conflict

Since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and military aggression in eastern Ukraine, the ROC’s position has become increasingly untenable. ROC clergy have blessed Russian nationalist mercenaries travelling to the Donbas. Some ROC clergy have refused to serve at funerals of Ukrainian soldiers  a large proportion of who are from eastern and southern Ukraine (particularly Dnipro oblast). The ROC’s Metropolitan in Ukraine Onufry (Berezovsky) and senior clergy even refused to stand in parliament in honor of slain Ukrainian soldiers.

Inevitably, this deplorable attitude towards Ukraine and Ukrainians has led to two outcomes.

First, only 9 per cent of Ukrainians want to maintain a link to the Moscow Patriarch. Russia’s defence of “Russian speaking Orthodox” is therefore again an example – as in 2014 – of being unable to understand internal dynamics in Ukraine. Russian leaders are unable to grasp  how if their military aggression has turned Ukrainians away from the Russian World and Eurasian integration why would it not at the same time turn them away from belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate? Second, Russia’s military aggression has transformed Ukrainians who previously would have strongly opposed autocephaly into neutral by-standers. 

Important for Ukraine’s second independence from Russia was the decision of the Constantinople Synod to declare that Russia had been uncanonically controlling Ukraine since 1686. The process of Constantinople taking back under its wing Ukraine began on September 7 when  Patriarch Bartholomew I placed Ukraine under the canonical jurisdiction of US Archbishop Daniel of Pamphilon and Canadian Bishop Ilarion. They head respectively Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in the US and Canada which belong under Constantinople’s canonical jurisdiction. For Moscow this was a double blow as these Bishops came from the Ukrainian diaspora which was the subject of incessant ideological campaigns against “Nazi collaborators” and “fascists” in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras.

Russia would not be Russia if they did not continue to score home goals, but it would be wrong to assume only Putin is a poor football player.

President Borys Yeltsin transformed Kuchma into a Ukrainian patriot when it took him three years to travel to Ukraine in the 1990s to sign a border treaty (which Ukraine unilaterally scrapped last month). In the meantime, Kuchma turned to the West and became a strategic ally of NATO and supporter of its enlargement to the east. Putin capped this by launching military aggression against the island of Tuzla off the Crimean coast in 2003 forcing Kuchma to cancel a state visit to Latin America and dispatch security forces.

Putin’s hybrid warfare in the Balkans added to the re-alignment of stars in favor of Ukraine. Russia’s organisation of a (failed) violent coup in Montenegro to thwart it joining NATO was followed by the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from Greece attempting to de-rail the country’s rapprochement with Macedonia. Last month week, Greece refused to issue visas for the ROC Patriarch’s entourage.

In the face of Russian arrogance and chauvinism, traditionally pro-Russian Bulgaria and Greece became neutral towards autocephaly – in the same manner as Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. As relayed to me by a senior Ukrainian presidential aide, a ROC delegation attending a Bulgarian Orthodox Church Synod was typically pushing its weight around and the head of the Bulgarian Church rose and said “Gentlemen, this is Bulgaria not Russia.”

There are three reasons why Ukrainian autocephaly is the second “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.

Size and Power: the Constantinople Patriarch sees the emergence of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a way of cutting the ROC down to size. An autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church would be one of the top three biggest in the world. In the former USSR, two thirds of ROC parishes were in Ukraine (mainly in the Centre and West). Today, despite Ukraine having a third of Russia’s population, both countries have approximately the same number of Orthodox parishes (14,000).

National Identity: The USSR and Russian Federation have used the adoption of Orthodoxy in 988 to lay claim to Kyiv Rus as the “first Russian state.” This falsehood is sometimes repeated by Western journalists and is nearly always found in Western “histories of Russia.” Russian and Western historiography ignores the existence of Ukrainians until many centuries later.

Russians believe, and Putin constantly reiterates, Kyiv Rus gave birth to the “Russian” people (understood as three eastern Slavs) and their desire was always to remain in union in the Tsarist, Soviet and contemporary eras. Anybody opposed to this perpetual unity was and is a “fascist” and “nationalist” and working for Western empires, governments and intelligence agencies.

 In 2007, the Russian World was launched to unite adherants of “Russian” (eastern Slavic) civilisation around the ROC as the core of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The three eastern Slavs were viewed in a likewise manner as the core of the USSR.  Russian leaders believe Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and, as Putin said to the NATO-Russia Council in April 2008, Ukraine is an artificial state.

Geopolitics: An autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church translates into the ROC no longer being the biggest Orthodox Church as the Ukrainian and Romanian Orthodox Churches will be now roughly equal in size. Constantinople will have a staunch Ukrainian ally in its dealings with the ROC. While the ROC is xenophobically anti-Western (like Putin’s regime) the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be pro-European. Ukraine’s emerging identity is premised upon European integration and distancing from Russia.

Just as Kravchuk’s independence from Russia provided the first impulse for Ukrainian nation-building so too will Poroshenko’s second independence from Russia. Autocephaly will deepen existing changes in Ukrainian identity already reflected in opinion polls. Tatiana Zhurzhenko describes the “pro-Russian east” as having shrunk to the Donbas.

Since 2014, Russian soft power has disintegrated in Ukraine and Orthodox autocephaly is the final nail in its coffin. Only one per cent of young Ukrainians support the Russian model of development with 69-71 per cent opposed to its introduction throughout Ukraine, including 56 per cent of Russian speakers. This is an outgrowth of Russia associated in the eyes of Ukrainians with “aggression” (66 per cent), “cruelty” (57 per cent) and “dictatorship” (57 per cent).

With the ROC as the last source of Putin’s soft power influence now gone, Ukraine’s movement out of Russia’s orbit is nearly irreversible. There is just one more step to undertake  of reformers defeating populists and again winning the 2019 elections as they did in 2014, taking Ukraine through to 2024.

The creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church is Ukraine’s ultimate answer to Putin’s military aggression.

Taras Kuzio in a professor in the Department of Political Science National University “Kyiv Mohyla Academy” and Non-Resident Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS. Joint author of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order.


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