Ukrainians vote in the parliamentary elections in Sevastopol, Ukraine, Sept. 14. Millions of Ukrainians will go to the polls Oct. 26 to elect new members of parliament; all 450 seats were up for renewal. CNS photo/Anton Pedko, EPA

Elections seen as test of change in Ukraine

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • October 26, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine - Although they disagree about how unstoppable the process is and they have a varying degree of fear about what Russia might do, religious and political leaders in Ukraine say their society underwent a fundamental shift in February, making Ukrainians realize they have both dignity and responsibilities for their country's future.

The proof, they said, would begin to become clear Oct. 26 when millions of Ukrainians were set to go to the polls to elect new members of parliament; all 450 seats were up for renewal.

"Something changed" or "everything changed" were common phrases used by leaders of the Eastern Catholic, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as by politicians, human rights activists, international observers and government officials in late October during a press tour organized by the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Kievan Patriarchate -- the Orthodox community not in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church -- said Oct. 21 that unlike the states of the former Yugoslavia, "the Ukrainian nation received statehood as manna from heaven, without war, weapons or violence. Now we have to prove we are worthy of having an independent nation."

The 85-year-old patriarch, who had been the Russian Orthodox metropolitan of Kiev, is convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine is just the beginning of his aspirations to rebuild the Russian Empire.

But Ukraine has an internal enemy as well: corruption. Five days before the parliamentary elections, Filaret and his synod passed a resolution saying, "should any of the faithful participate in corruption -- either offering or accepting money -- they shall be excommunicated and denied holy Communion."

"The Church is calling on society to fight corruption," he said. "Without this, no amount of reform in Ukraine will ever work. This is our second enemy."

Daniel Bilak, the Canada-born managing partner of a law firm in Kiev and former government adviser, said corruption -- the use of public office for private gain -- was a habit in the Soviet Union, but reached extraordinary proportions in Ukraine under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced to flee Ukraine in February.

"We almost lost the country because of corruption," he said, noting that Yanukovych and his friends "essentially stole something like $74 billion from the state budget in four years," leaving social needs unmet, but also leaving the Ukrainian army with only 6,000 combat-ready troops. Volunteers, he said, are cooking for the volunteer fighters in Eastern Ukraine and citizens are donating money to clothe them and buy them helmets.

Bilak, a member of Filaret's church, praised the religious leaders who ministered to protesters on Kiev's Independence Square -- the Maidan -- from November 2013 to February 2014 when Yanukovych's forces fired on demonstrators, killing more than 100.

"It was very important to people that their churches stood with them, because their government did not," he said. "What happened on Maidan and what is happening in the East right now is our war of independence."

Hennadiy Druzenko, the new Ukrainian government's commissioner for ethnic policy and one of the chief organizers of volunteer medical services during the Maidan protests, said the long days in the freezing cold and the brutality of the government helped Ukrainians realize how wrong they had been to assume their leaders would take care of them.

"Maidan was multilingual and multiconfessional; it was really a Maidan of values -- that's what brought people together," he said. "It was our first real revolution and the destruction of paternalism. People really discovered they could take care of themselves and one another."

Druzenko and others reject a common perception that the fighting in Eastern Ukraine is pitting ethnic Ukrainians against ethnic Russians or Ukrainian speakers against Russian speakers. "Most Ukrainian soldiers on the front are Russian speakers. This isn't like Yugoslavia -- there are no ethnic or confessional frontlines. It is a clash of civilizations. On the one hand, there are those who want real democracy, on the other are those nostalgic for a paternalistic government that takes care of them."

Vitaliy Portnikov, a journalist and candidate for parliament who is Jewish, said that in Soviet times and again during Yanukovych's presidency, "religion was used as window dressing," but "on Maidan we witnessed the birth of real religion, with leaders standing with their people, ministering to them and for them."

Said Ismagilov, the mufti of Kiev and head of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, was present on the Maidan for the same reason other Ukrainian Muslims were there: "We did not want Ukraine to turn into a dictatorship; dictatorships always want to control religions."

The mufti was a candidate in the parliamentary election, although like the pollsters he believed his party -- which is not religiously based -- had little chance of garnering the five per cent of the vote needed to get a seat in the legislature.

"We want free and transparent and fair elections that will bring new faces to parliament, people who will follow the will of the people, the will for which so many died at Maidan," he said. "We hope for a purification of politics."

Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, the Vatican nuncio to Ukraine, defined Maidan as "a school of faith," a place where -- in an atmosphere of prayer and with the availability of ministers -- people began asking profound questions, "people started talking to one another and caring for one another."

Fr. Mykola Danylevych, deputy director of external relations for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in full communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, said Oct. 22 that while his church supports an independent and united Ukraine, leaders have had to be careful since the war in the East began "because our faithful find themselves on both sides."

However, he said, the separatists who started the war "are unbelievers or are far from the church, although they are formally Orthodox."

"Our flock is varied," he added. "The choice of whether to go East or West (for political ties) we leave up to our people."

Still, Danylevych said, a religious person must look for the good in every situation. The current strife means "all the world has found out there is such a place as Ukraine and, second, that Ukraine is not Russia. Pray for peace."

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