Ahead of the November 21 presidential runoff between Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Russian Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOCMP) has strongly come out in support of the pro-Russian candidate — Yanukovych.
The Moscow church has stopped pretending to be impartial, its official stance before the first round of voting on October 31. Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, the UOCMP head, endorsed Yanukovych’s presidential bid, addressing Orthodox believers on the flagship evening news of the state-run UT1 TV on November 10. “I view him [Yanukovych] as a true Orthodox believer, who would deserve to be the head of our state,” Volodymyr said. He revealed that Yanukovych was blessed for running in the elections at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra — the main monastery of the UOCMP and where Volodymyr has his residence — shortly before his nomination for president this past summer. “No other presidential candidate received our blessing,” Volodymyr said. He said that Patriarch Alexei II of Russia had also blessed Yanukovych.
The UOCMP is a rival of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOCKP), which is headed by Patriarch Filaret. The church of the Kyiv Patriarchate split from the Russian church in 1992, arguing that an independent country should have an independent church. The UOCMP has about three times more dioceses than the UOCKP; however more than 30% of believers in Ukraine identify themselves with the Kyiv Patriarchate, while only up to 20% support the Moscow Patriarchate (more than half of Ukrainian Christians are Orthodox). But the Kyiv Patriarchate’s institutionalization has been difficult. It has not been recognized as a legitimate church by other Orthodox churches, and the Russian Orthodox Church has denounced Filaret. Both churches have dioceses throughout Ukraine, but the Moscow Patriarchate is much stronger in the Russian-speaking east and south, while the Kyiv Patriarchate’s power base is the west of the country, especially Galicia. There is also a third Orthodox church in Ukraine — the Autocephalous Church — but it is very small, compared to the UOCMP and the UOCKP.
The UOCMP’s support for Prime Minister Yanukovych is predictable for two reasons. First, it is essentially the Ukrainian branch of the Russian church, and Moscow does not conceal its support for Yanukovych. Second, under President Leonid Kuchma, especially since 1999, the UOCMP has gradually replaced the UOCKP as the unofficial favorite church of the government. But this is probably the first time when this church has canvassed so actively for the pro-Russian candidate, using nationwide television and its network of parish priests across the country. During the 2002 parliamentary elections, which saw the same protagonists — pro-Kuchma forces versus Yushchenko — the UOCMP did not express its sympathies so openly.
On November 10, believers coming to pray in at least three UOCMP cathedrals in Kyiv found leaflets praising Viktor Yanukovych, according to the pro-Yushchenko Channel 5 TV. The Moscow Patriarchate’s priests who spoke with a Channel 5 correspondent insisted, however, that they did not interfere in politics, but were just giving their parishioners “some advice,” telling them about the “concrete deeds” performed by the presidential candidates. The expression “concrete deeds” is a favorite of Yanukovych.
Hardly by coincidence, on the day following Metropolitan Volodymyr’s statement, November 11, about 2,000 members of the Russian Movement of Ukraine lead a procession bearing a cross to the parliament, government buildings, and the Kyiv town hall, protesting against “the course toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration, which is detrimental to Orthodox people.” The procession’s organizers, who are linked to the UOCMP, issued a statement warning Orthodox believers against casting their ballots for Yushchenko, who they described as “the grave-digger of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.” They also called on Communist supporters, whose candidate, Petro Symonenko, polled less than 5% on October 31, to back Yanukovych in the run-off. Anti-Yushchenko leaflets have been reportedly distributed in churches in the central Ukrainian Vinnytsya and Poltava regions. And on November 13, Yushchenko’s representatives in western Rivne region said they found packages of anti-Yushchenko leaflets stored in a local cathedral that belongs to the UOCMP.
Ukrainians, especially in cities, are not frequent churchgoers, but the power of the Moscow Patriarchate’s canvassing in Yanukovych’s favor should not be underestimated. It will not play a significant role in the west of the country, where the rival Kyiv Patriarchate is strong and Yushchenko is very popular. But UOCMP campaigning for Yanukovych may sway many believers in the rural central Ukrainian regions who in the first round either hesitated between choosing Yushchenko or Yanukovych or cast their ballots for Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz.
(UT1, Channel 5, November 10; Ukrayinska pravda, November 11; UNIAN, November 12; Channel 5, Ukrayinski Novyny, November 13).