Why the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is an earthquake for Putin

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Metropolitan Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Kiev, participates in a ceremony marking the 1030th anniversary of the Christianization of the country, then known as Kyivan Rus’, in Kiev, Ukraine, July 28, 2018 . REUTERS / Valentin Ogirenko

On September 7, Ukraine moved closer to a globally recognized international church. On this day, Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I placed Ukraine under the canonical jurisdiction of the American Archbishop Daniel of Pamphilon and the Canadian Bishop Ilarion of Edmonton who lead the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in both countries under the canonical jurisdiction of Constantinople. Since 1685, the Russian Orthodox Church has claimed that Ukraine is in its canonical territory, but not anymore. The two appointments prepare for the granting to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of autocephaly (independence) from the Russian Orthodox Church.

It is no exaggeration to write that the granting of autocephaly of the Russian Orthodox Church to the millions of Orthodox believers in Ukraine is as important as the disintegration of the USSR for Ukraine.

Granting a Tomos to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the last step Ukraine must take to become truly independent.

Why are the stars aligned now?

Ukraine has been researching autocephaly since independence. When Metropolitan Filaret broke with the Russian Orthodox Church to establish the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Patriarch of Kiev (UOC-KP), the latter was never recognized by Constantinople. In 1990, under pressure from the nationalist push for independence, the Russian Orthodox Church restored the autonomy status of its exarchate in Ukraine and renamed it the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). The UOC has been loyal to Moscow, while the UOC-KP represents an independent Ukraine.

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Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military aggression in eastern Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church and the UOC have been unable to maintain their neutrality. The clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church blessed the Russian nationalists visiting the Donbass. Some UOC clergy refused to attend the funeral of Ukrainian soldiers and UOC Metropolitan Onufry (Berezovsky) and senior clergy refused to appear in parliament in honor of Ukrainian soldiers you are beautiful.

There is another factor working in favor of independence now. As the former ideological secretary of the Atheist Communist Party in Ukraine, President Leonid Kravchuk had no legitimacy on Church-State issues, while President Viktor Yushchenko strongly supported the UOC-KP and was seen as anti-Russian . President Leonid Kuchma was impartial, while Yanukovych openly supported the Russian Orthodox Church.

President Petro Poroshenko is a deacon of the UOC and Constantinople does not consider him “anti-Russian”. Mainly, due to its influence, the higher clergy of the UOC supported the UOC-KP and the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in the search for autocephaly. The Ukrainian parliament strongly supports independence. Poroshenko took a legalistic approach to researching autocephaly which left the Russian Orthodox Church little room for maneuver.

Russia has also exaggerated its hand in the Balkans and that has also helped. Russia’s involvement in a violent coup attempt in Montenegro to prevent it from joining NATO was followed by the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from Greece attempting to derail the country’s rapprochement with Macedonia (allowing the latter to join NATO and the EU).

The decision to grant autocephaly to Ukraine should be understood in three ways:

First, size and power. Greece and the Patriarch of Constantinople are fed up with Russian interference and see the emergence of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a way to downsize it. In the USSR, two-thirds of the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church were in Soviet Ukraine. Today, although Ukraine has a third of the Russian population, the two countries have roughly the same number of Orthodox parishes (14,000).

In the USSR, the majority of parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church were in western and central Ukraine, and this is still the case today. It was therefore always wrong to describe Ukraine divided between a “Catholic West” and an “Orthodox East”. There are far fewer Orthodox churches in the Donbass.

There will be no “civil war” for religion, and most of the UOC faithful will peacefully join the new Autocephalous Church in Ukraine.

Second, national identity. The USSR and the Russian Federation used the adoption of orthodoxy in 988 to claim Kyiv Rus as the “first Russian state”. This lie is sometimes repeated by Western journalists and almost always in Western “Russia stories”. Russian and Western historiography ignores the existence of Ukrainians until several centuries later and forever links them to Russians and Belarusians.

The Russians believe, and Russian President Vladimir Putin constantly repeats, that Kiev Rus gave birth to the three East Slavs and that their desire in Tsarist, Soviet and contemporary times has always been to remain united. Nationalists opposed to this idea worked for various Western empires, governments and intelligence agencies.

In 2007, the Russkiy mir (Russian World) was to unite Belarus, Russia and Ukraine around the Russian Orthodox Church and become the nucleus of the Eurasian Economic Union. Putin and Russian nationalists understand the word Russkiy to include the three branches of the “Russian” people (Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians) and to regard the Ukrainians as “Little Russians”. Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and, as Putin told the NATO-Russia Council in 2008, Ukraine is an artificial state.

Ukraine rejects Russkiy mir ideology and support for membership in the Eurasian Economic Union has collapsed. Autocephaly will enhance the growth of Ukrainian patriotism, support national integration and encourage a final divorce from Russia.

Third, geopolitics. An independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church would mean that the Russian Orthodox Church is no longer the largest Orthodox Church in the world. The Ukrainian and Romanian Orthodox churches will be roughly the same size. Constantinople will have a staunch Ukrainian ally in its relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. While the Russian Orthodox Church is predictably anti-Western like Putin’s regime, the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be pro-European.

Autocephaly will deepen existing changes in Ukrainian identity reflected in opinion polls. Ukraine’s emerging identity is based on European integration and estrangement from Russia.

Since 2014, Russia’s soft power in Ukraine has collapsed. Only one percent of young Ukrainians support the Russian development model while 69 to 71 percent of Ukrainians oppose it, 56 percent of whom are Russian speakers. It is an outgrowth of Russia associated in the eyes of Ukrainians with “aggression” (66%), “cruelty” (57%) and “dictatorship” (57%).

With the Russian Orthodox Church now the last source of Putin’s soft power, Ukraine’s movement out of Russia’s orbit is irreversible. The creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church is Ukraine’s ultimate response to Putin’s aggression.

Taras Kuzio is a non-resident scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and is the author of “Putin’s War Against Ukraine” and co-author of “The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to l ‘European Order.

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

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