Ukrainian Election: Religion and Culture Wars

When Ukrainians speak of their yearning to join the European Union, what is their innate understanding of the west or “western values”?  Such questions are assuming greater importance as Ukraine’s presidential election approaches in March.  Though western leaders may have thought Kyiv was on track to embrace social tolerance and secularism a couple of years ago during the Maidan revolution, recent developments seem to suggest otherwise.  Indeed, if anything President Poroshenko has embraced traditional social values and religion as mainstays in his reelection bid.  Will Poroshenko’s strategy meet with success and what is the likely response from civil society?  Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Ukraine where I discussed such issues with leading NGO’s, experts and observers.

In a move which has given pause to secularists, Poroshenko has fallen back on religion by seeking to create an independent or “autocephalous” national church (though the church is not strictly part of the state, it is closely linked).  The Moscow Patriarchate, which forms part of the Russian Orthodox Church, has viewed itself as the only legitimate Orthodox Church in Ukraine.  Kyiv, on the other hand, claims the Moscow Patriarchate is a mere tool wielded by the Kremlin to extend its influence throughout Ukraine.   Recently, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople acceded to the president’s request by forming the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, thus formalizing Kyiv’s split with the Russian church.

Poroshenko says that fostering more religious independence is necessary in order to counteract Russian influence, though it’s also patently clear the president wants to burnish his nationalist credentials amidst mediocre poll ratings.  The decision obliges clerics to choose sides between Moscow-baked Ukrainian churches and the new church.  Mincing no words, the president’s most recent campaign posters blare out “Army! Language! Faith! We are going our own way! WE – ARE UKRAINE!”

Religion and the Campaign

For more on these matters, I turned to Olexiy Yakubin, a senior lecturer in political science at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, who told me that religion is not likely to play a big role in the election as people are more focused on issues like war and the economic standard of living.  Poroshenko, who lacks a solid record of political accomplishments, is unlikely to turn things around through his embrace of religion.  However, by playing on religion, Poroshenko might encourage a sense of “Russophobia” and cultural nationalism.

“The authorities are pushing religion for political reasons,” said Denis Pilash, a veteran of Maidan political protest on the progressive circuit and co-editor of Kyiv’s Commons Journal.  “The government doesn’t have any social or economic ideas, and Poroshenko hasn’t accomplished reforms of the judicial branch which he’d promised, so he is succumbing to playing the nationalist and religious card.”

Moreover, on a purely practical level Pilash was unsure if Poroshenko’s religious strategy was entirely viable, since it might be difficult for Ukraine to disencumber itself culturally from Russia.  The Ukrainian Orthodox Church employs the Ukrainian language in services, but authorities might have to compromise on the issue by allowing Church Slavonic or Russian if they hope to attract recruits from the Russian Orthodox Church.  “Some people want to continue the connection to their own church,” Pilash continued, “as they prefer to pray in this old way.”

Thorny Politics of Church and State

Just how religious is Ukraine as a country?  To be sure, up to seventy six percent of people profess a belief in God, and by elevating religion Poroshenko builds on Ukraine’s new Christian holiday known as Pokrova.  But creating one unified church may represent a bridge too far, since only thirty percent back the new autocephalous church, with twenty percent opposed and fifty percent indifferent.  Though Poroshenko may pick up support in the more nationalist and religious west, where fifty eight percent favor autocephaly, he may lose support in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, where just ten percent support religious independence.

The 1996 constitution certainly guarantees the separation of church and state and Kyiv has pledged to respect religious pluralism, but this hasn’t stopped some from expressing concern.  “Politicians are pouncing on religion to grab more power, as in Poland,” Pilash remarked, adding that Ukraine was fortunate in the past because no one church branch had a monopoly on religious power, a situation which may now be poised for change.

Galina Fedkovich, a lawyer at Women’s Perspectives, an NGO based in the western city of Lviv, echoed such sentiments.  Speaking to me at the group’s offices, she remarked that even before Poroshenko announced his latest moves, there were indications the traditional separation of church and state had been eroded.  Take, for example, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which went to parliament to lobby against ratification of the Istanbul Convention on domestic violence.  Such lobbying, Fedkovich remarked, “goes against the constitution and the law.”  “Look,” she added, “I have no problem with the church promoting its values and points of view within their own congregations, but they don’t have the right to expand this to the entire country.”

Voyage to Lviv

When protesters on the Maidan embraced the European Union, were they idealizing, say, France, with its long secular tradition, or Poland which has followed a somewhat different trajectory?  In the latter country, the church has increased its role in public life since the 2015 arrival of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, and lawmakers have literally conducted pilgrimages while considering tightening restrictions on abortion.

Could Ukraine be headed down a similar road to Poland?  For more I spoke with Dmytro Sherengovsky, Director of International Academic Relations at Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University.  Lviv is particularly religious, Sherengovsky commented, though “at the street level, people tend to be more liberal than their Polish counterparts.”  On the other hand, the academic admitted that LGBT students were not represented on campus.  Sherengovsky’s words echoed those of Yakubin, who had told me back in Kyiv that “obviously, top politicians won’t raise the LGBT issue, since all of them declare adherence to traditional values in one form or another.”

“We’re still Ok here,” Fedkovich noted, “and fortunately we don’t have the same situation as Poland and reproductive rights.”  Nevertheless, she warned against complacency, since the regional authorities help to fund family forums in Lviv promoting traditional family values and family planning which “very much goes against reproductive rights of women to decide when, and how many children you have, contraception and the like.”  By agreeing to fund the forum, the state has gone against the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).  Ukraine is a signatory to the convention, and though the government has implemented an action plan in tandem with the agreement, “one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing.  On the one hand we have obligations under international documents…and on the other hand we provide funding for family forums which promote totally contradictory ideas, policies and points of view.”

Now that Ukraine has consolidated the church, it’s possible that conservative values will gain an even greater foothold.  Fedkovich, however, seemed to believe that regardless of which church had the most power, many religions stand against gender policies, women’s rights and reproductive rights.  Asked if she were optimistic that the presidential candidates might discuss feminist issues during the campaign, Fedkovich wasn’t very optimistic, commenting “I think the closer we get to the election, the situation will get worse and worse.  Poroshenko is appealing to religion and we always wind up voting against candidates as opposed to voting for them.”

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