In 1999, prior to the Leonid Kuchma's second inauguration as president of Ukraine, a prayer meeting involving all confessional leaders of the newly independent country was held at the Church of Holy Wisdom in Kiev: an important ecumenical moment in the reconstruction of civil society in the former Soviet republic, and a practice subsequently codified legally in a presidential decree. Thus the same protocol was followed prior to the inauguration of Viktor Yushchenko in January 2005: representatives of Ukraine's various religious communities came together to pray for the incoming president and the well-being of the nation.
This past February, at the inauguration of President Viktor Yanukovych, this impressive pattern of ecumenical cooperation was not repeated. Rather, Yanukovych invited Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to give his blessing to the new Ukrainian administration in a service at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev. No other religious leaders were invited. No religious leaders other than those affiliated with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (one of three Orthodox communities in Ukraine, and the one that functions as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Patriarchate of Moscow) have been invited to meet the new president.
Shortly before Ukraine's 2010 presidential election, a representative of Yanukoviyh's party visited Cardinal Lubomir Husar, the major-archbishop of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine. The Yanukovych representative evidently wanted an assurance that the Greek Catholic Church (the repository and guardian of Ukrainian national identity during the Soviet period, even as it scraped out an underground existence as the world's largest illegal religious body) would not endorse one of Yanukovych's rivals for the presidency. Cardinal Husar replied that the Greek Catholic Church, consistent with Catholic social doctrine, never endorsed individual candidates; rather its role was to raise issues of moral consequence for the country. Yanukovych's representative then asked Cardinal Husar a rather blunt question, which amounted to “Well, what do you want?” The cardinal replied, “All we want is for all confessions to be treated equally according to the constitution.” Yanukovych's representative, evidently stunned, left.
Cardinal Husar has not gotten what he asked for, which is simply that the Yanukovych government act as a democratic government should, showing a proper respect for all religious communities. Yet in the brief months since Yanukovych was inaugurated, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate has become, for all practical purposes, a new state church. It clearly enjoys presidential favor. It alone is invited to bless public events. And its overseers in Moscow have not hesitated to involve themselves directly in Ukrainian political affairs.
Thus when the controversial nomination of Dmytro Tabachnyk as minister of education ran into trouble from members of President Yanukovych's own party, who had questions about Tabachnyk's integrity, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow lobbied President Yanukoviyh to go through with the appointment of an education minister who has slandered Catholics, especially Greek Catholics, and who has been known to assert that western Ukraine (the heartland of Ukrainian Greek Catholicism) isn't really Ukraine, culturally or linguistically. Kirill's intervention was successful and Dr. Tabachnyk was duly appointed. Thus Ukraine's new minister of education is a man who has denied that the Soviet-enforced Ukrainian Terror Famine of the 1930s, a pivotal drama in modern Ukrainian history in which perhaps as many as six million Ukrainian kulaks were deliberately starved to death, was a genocide.
Things are quickly getting ugly in Ukraine. The new head of the security services is a media magnate, one of whose first acts in office was to ask for the secret police files on his competitors. Father Borys Gudziak, the president of the Ukrainian Catholic University in L'viv (one of the country's most important independent institutions of culture and learning), believes himself to be under surveillance, with his phone tapped; Gudziak expects state pressure on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (which Russian Orthodoxy tried to extinguish in 1946) to increase.
The alliance of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow with Russian state power is flourishing and the results, next door in a Ukraine whose political leadership is now closely attuned to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, are not savory: for ecumenism, for Ukrainian democracy, and perhaps even for Ukrainian independence.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.