Thursday, July 31, 2008

Letting Them Be

Comment by Georgy Bovt

Special to Russia Profile

Victor Yushchenko Calls for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to Separate From Russia’s

Last weekend, celebrations of the 1020th anniversary of the Christening of Russia took place in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. But given Ukraine’s desire to continuously re-affirm its sovereignty, along the numerous factors that presently aggravate the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, any kind of constructive dialogue between the two countries in the near future is impossible, as even such holidays have political implications.

Victor Yushchenko, the president of Ukraine, uses every chance he has to strengthen Ukrainian sovereignty, as he understands it. He never misses an opportunity to do so. Therefore, it has been obvious for a long time that the celebration of the 1020th anniversary of the Christening of Russia would be employed by the Ukrainian president precisely for this purpose, which is why from the very beginning, the celebration was bound to have a political resonance. Russian secular and churchly authorities saw it coming. Perhaps this is why some politicians were originally intent on “putting up a fight with Ukrainian nationalists” and on not giving in under any circumstances. For example, it was clear in advance that Deputy Konstantin Zatulin would not be permitted to cross the Ukrainian border, because the Ukrainian authorities are following the notorious “black list” policy with regard to Russian politicians, especially those who dare to make public statements that insult or challenge Ukrainian sovereignty. Zatulin is one such politician: along with the Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, he has made the most controversial remarks regarding the fact that Crimea and Sevastopol should not “belong” to Ukraine.

Zatulin went to Ukraine anyway. And, of course, he was deported.

The topics of Crimea and the “unjustly given over to Ukraine” (in the interpretation of a number of Russian politicians) Sevastopol have become customary stumbling blocks in the relationship between the two states, while the subjects of church and religion have caused no controversy for a comparatively long time. This made the escalation of tensions that took place in connection with the celebration of the 1020th anniversary of the Christening of Russia only more predictable.

The Ukrainian authorities met the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I (the country’s highest officials greeted him at the airport) in an emphatically solemn and ceremonious manner, while their attitude toward the visit of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II was just as emphatically unfriendly and even scornful.

While greeting Bartholomew I, president Yushchenko even dared to make some political statements, going as far as to make a public appeal to create a “separatist,” independent Orthodox church in Ukraine, which would be subordinated directly to Constantinople, not to the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Constantinople Patriarch should be given credit too – he did not support this initiative. When he later met with Alexy II, he supported the idea of a dialogue between the two churches to settle any controversial, disputable matters: “When any problems arise between the brotherly Orthodox churches, dialogue is all the more useful,” said Bartholomew I during his meeting with Alexy II in the Kiev Pechersk Lavra.

In his turn, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Foreign Church Relations Department, Metropolitan Kirill, hurried to make an assuring statement that the separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow is not forthcoming: “This topic is not on our agenda. It is in some people’s heads… These are different matters – political projects and church life. And it is very important for political projects to not interfere with the church life and to not destroy it.”

Nevertheless, political projects continue to remain in some people’s heads, and as of right now it is not very clear as to what exactly can knock the former out of the latter: in recent years, the Ukrainian regime headed by Yushchenko has launched a humanitarian attack aimed not only at increasing interest and respect for Ukrainian culture and language, but also at juxtaposing Ukrainian culture with Russian and Ukraine’s history with Russia’s. In essence, Yushchenko is taking the “Baltic path:” the Soviet Baltic republics made their way to independence namely by arousing, in the late 1980s, interest in all things pertaining to their ethnic history.

Ukraine obtained its independence in a different manner, but today the Ukrainian elite is essentially faced with the task of finally and fully legitimizing the Ukrainian statehood, in the humanitarian field among others.

In all likelihood, while the policy of strengthening Ukrainian sovereignty continues to be realized in the next few years, negotiations with our Ukrainian counterparts on practically any issues are doomed to face difficulties, since it will be challenging to have a conversation about specific economic problems, interests and deals, and hearing something about Golodomor and about whose fault it was in response. You talk about trade or gas transit problems, and the other side replies with something formal, while referring to the necessity of separating the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Russian one, because this is presently seen as politically more significant. Or you talk about somehow arranging a way to keep the base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, and the other side starts telling you that Sevastopol is not in the least the city of Russian naval glory, but the city of Ukrainian glory in the same field, and this is a fundamental difference. On the whole, it becomes obvious that nobody is really planning to come to any agreements on essential matters.

What can we agree on when more and more differences surface at the level of culture and history? No matter how paradoxical this sounds, at the beginning of the 21st century, it becomes difficult to agree on practically anything. And this is why I, for example, do not see any prospects for negotiations about Sevastopol, and not even about the WTO, which Ukraine just recently joined and now burns with desire to set its own conditions for Russia’s acceptance into the organization.

It seems that the young Ukrainian statehood, and primarily the young Ukrainian political elite, simply needs to “sow its wild oats.” This is like trying to have an “educational conversation” with a teenager at an awkward age – in this case, normal logic and usual methods do not work; the first thing you need is titanic, extreme patience. Any new attempt to irritate such partners will spur all kinds of nonsense, like a demonstrative, “out of spite” visit by the most polemical and militant Russian deputies, is of as much use as thrusting a stick into an anthill. Unless, of course, it is not an attempt to completely demolish this anthill.



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