Shortly before the first round of voting in Ukraine’s hotly contested presidential election, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the Greek Catholic major archbishop of L’viv and a man widely admired throughout Ukrainian society, received an emissary representing presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, who would go on to win the election. Yanukovych, it will be remembered, was the presidential aspirant whose corrupt victory in the previous election was reversed by the nonviolent Orange Revolution of 2004–2005.
The emissary evidently wanted some assurance that the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, which served as the repository of the nation’s culture and memory during the Soviet period, wasn’t about to endorse one of Yanukovych’s rivals for the presidency. Cardinal Husar replied that the church didn’t endorse any candidates, but raised moral questions that it hoped all candidates would consider seriously.
Somewhat taken aback, the Yanukovych campaign staffer then asked a rather blunt question that amounted to, “Well, what do you want?”
“All we want,” the cardinal replied, “is for all confessions to be treated equally according to the constitution.” Now thoroughly confused, and perhaps even stunned, the Yanukovych representative left.
Given that Viktor Yanukovych is known to be far more accommodating to Russian interests than the man who defeated him during the Orange Revolution, the admirable but politically hapless Viktor Yushchenko, close observers of the Ukrainian scene expected that Ukrainian public life after Yanukovych’s victory might begin to show unfortunate resemblances to life in Vladimir Putin’s Russia — an expectation reinforced by small dramas such as that involving Cardinal Husar before the election. But even the most pessimistic analysts have been surprised at how rapidly President Yanukovych’s administration has moved his country closer to the Russian orbit, not just strategically (e.g., by extending until 2042 the Russian Black Sea fleet’s lease on its Crimean port at Sevastopol and by reversing Ukraine’s previous policy of seeking admission to NATO) but also in terms of political culture.
Examples of this ominous trend abound:
The presidential inaugurations of Leonid Kuchma in 1999 and Viktor Yushchenko in 2005 were both preceded by ecumenical and interreligious prayer services in Kiev, with representatives of various religious bodies offering prayers for the new president and for the nation — a welcome sign that the foundations of civil society were being rebuilt in typically fractious Ukraine, and a popular enough innovation that the practice was legally codified in a presidential decree governing future inaugurations. Viktor Yanukovych ignored this precedent (and law) and invited one man, a non-Ukrainian, to offer prayers for his government on the day before his inauguration: Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and of All Russia. Since taking office, Yanukovych has met only with representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate, one of three Orthodox factions in Ukraine and, as its name suggests, a church fully aligned with Moscow.
Kirill, who would not have been elected Patriarch in 2009 without at least the tacit consent of Vladimir Putin and who, like other Russian Orthodox prelates of his generation, once had close ties to the KGB, has not hesitated to insert himself into internal Ukrainian affairs under Yanukovych’s new order. When the controversial nomination of Dmytro Tabachnyk as minister of education got stuck because of protests from parliamentarians of Yanukovych’s own party who questioned Tabachnyk’s integrity, Patriarch Kirill personally lobbied President Yanukovych to see through the nomination. Tabachnyk has slandered Cardinal Husar’s Greek Catholics and has been known to claim that western Ukraine (the heartland of Ukrainian Greek Catholicism) isn’t really Ukraine, linguistically or culturally — which may or may not be a cultural assertion in service to a political agenda, namely, the hiving-off of western Ukraine from a Ukraine that would move towards the kind of de facto reconnection to Russia that has been effected in Belarus.
As education minister, Tabachnyk is expected to bring the teaching of modern history in Ukrainian schools into line with Putin’s efforts to restore the narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941–45 in Russian schools — an effort that ignores 1939–1941, the years of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Stalin’s alliance with Nazi Germany. This is hardly surprising; Tabachnyk has denied that the Soviet-enforced Ukrainian terror-famine in the 1930s — a pivotal drama in Ukrainian history in which perhaps as many as 6 million people were deliberately starved to death — was a genocide.
The Ministry of Education has also indicated that it plans to jettison the SAT-type standardized tests that were introduced in order to lessen the role of corruption — as in bribes — in the process of students’ admission to university-level studies. Standardized testing has its limitations, as those who introduced this reform in Ukraine well realize, but in this particular context they serve as a barrier to the politicization and corruption of the admissions process. A government that can control admissions through bribes and political favors is a government that can control the future of intellectual life while further securing its own electoral base.
The SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) is the successor to the Ukrainian KGB. President Yanukovych appointed as its new director Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, a media magnate. One of Khoroshkovsky’s first acts in office was to ask for the files on his media competitors — perhaps, it is feared, as a first step toward the kind of governmental media takeover that Putin managed as president of Russia.
With or without SBU pressures, Ukrainian analysts say that freedom of the press has been set back 20 years in the three months since Yanukovych’s inauguration. These concerns are shared by independent-minded reporters and editors. In early May, journalists at two Ukrainian television stations charged that political “censorship is occurring again at the country’s commercial TV stations,” according to reports from the Ukrainian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. According to the RFE/RL bulletin, “journalists allege some topics are ‘closed’ and some reports are edited ‘upside down’ or banned altogether since the election of Viktor Yanukovych as president earlier this year. The journalists said proscribed topics included ‘Holodomor,’ the Ukrainian word for the 1930s mass famine in Ukraine instigated by Soviet leader Josef Stalin; the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist rebel militia that fought both the Nazis and the Soviets during World War II; as well as any criticism of the authorities, investigations about politicians’ personal finances, and even reports about Yanukovych’s wife.”
The SBU has also shown disturbing signs that it is adopting some of the practices of its predecessor organization. The rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv, Father Borys Gudziak, a Ukrainian-American with a Harvard doctorate in history, recently received a visit from an SBU agent evidently concerned about possible student participation in political demonstrations. The agent presented Father Gudziak with a one-page letter and asked the rector to read the letter and then signify his familiarity with its contents with his signature — after which the agent would take the letter back. Father Gudziak replied that any letter addressed to him became his property and should remain with him, at least in the form of a copy, and that it was only under these conditions that he would read, much less sign, the letter. The agent’s superiors refused permission.
As Father Gudziak noted in a memorandum on this affair:
Signing a document such as the letter that was presented for signature to me is tantamount to agreeing to cooperate (collaborate) with the SBU. . . . In KGB practice getting a signature on a document that was drafted and kept by the KGB was a primary method of recruiting secret collaborators. Such methods have no known (to me) precedent in independent Ukraine in the experience of UCU and of the Lviv National University whose longtime rector (and former Minister of Education, 2008–2010), Ivan Vakarchuk, I consulted immediately after the meeting. These methods were known in the Soviet times.
Edward Lucas, the longtime Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist, posted excerpts from Gudziak’s memorandum on his magazine’s “Eastern Approaches” blog and added this telling comment on this attempted intimidation of an independent institution of higher learning: “It is a good thought experiment to ask oneself in which European countries this sort of thing would be inconceivable, in which it would be possible but outrageous, and in which it would be all too likely.”
All of this, it seems, has received a warm welcome in the Kremlin. During a recent visit to Kiev, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev praised Yanukovych’s government for being guided by “the strategic interests of [Ukraine’s] development.” Russia, Medvedev said, has “finally got a viable Ukrainian partner,” making a clear reference to the independent-minded Yushchenko, who had pushed for NATO membership for Ukraine.
Russia’s new “partner” was then invited by Medvedev to join the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, which now includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The CSTO, Medvedev said, “is not the Warsaw Pact.” The real question, though, is whether it is another building block in Vladimir Putin’s program of reclaiming the Russian “near abroad.”
And that is precisely the question that should concern the West.
Henry Kissinger once observed that he had “never met a Russian who regarded Ukraine as a foreign country.” That is undoubtedly true of certain Russians, including the alumni of the KGB who now control Russia’s politics – a phenomenon ably analyzed by the aforementioned Edward Lucas in his book, The New Cold War. And it is likely true of certain men and women, primarily Russian-speaking, who now find themselves citizens of an independent Ukraine. Yet there are millions of Ukrainians who believe themselves the heirs of a distinctive history and a unique culture: one which, in its modern national aspirations, has not been torn between Westernizers and Slavophiles, as has long been the case in Russia.
That notable student of central and eastern European cultures and modern Europe’s struggles to define itself, the late Pope John Paul II, spoke for those millions of Ukrainians when, during his June 2001 pilgrimage to Kiev and L’viv, he declared that “Ukraine has a clearly European vocation,” a judgment that would likely be shared by the creators of modern Ukrainian national consciousness.
The stakes are very high in Ukraine, and not just for Ukrainians who cherish their hard-won independence and wish to live out their “European vocation.” Russia without Ukraine is a power, but not a great power. For Ukraine is not only, as John Paul II described it, “the frontier and gate between East and West,” and thus a land rich in possibilities for cultural encounter. Its considerable landmass is also the buffer between Russia and NATO, and thus its independence is a deterrent to any efforts over the medium and long haul to reassemble the old Warsaw Pact by various means.
One of those means, of course, would be energy blackmail. And here Ukraine’s geographical position comes into play again. Eighty percent of the natural gas headed for the European Union passes through the pipeline network of Naftogaz, the Ukrainian state energy company; both Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have recently proposed merging Naftogaz with the Russian giant Gazprom. President Yanukovych has been tepid about these proposals to date, but one wonders how long that mild resistance will last. Were Naftogaz to merge into Gazprom, the implications for Europe’s energy security and for a revanchist Russia’s capacity to work its will with impunity in the old Lenin/Stalin empire, and perhaps beyond, would be grave indeed.
In any event, a Ukraine in which the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University is under secret police surveillance, with his phones tapped, is a Ukraine in which the tremendous work that has been done since 1991 to rebuild the rudiments of civil society and democratic political culture amid the ruin left by Soviet totalitarianism is, like the men and women who have done that work, in danger. That is bad in itself, and it ought to be resisted by the United States and the European Union. Whether either the Obama administration or an EU on the brink of fiscal implosion is up to that task of resistance is, of course, another question; and the likely answer to that question will be of cold comfort to Ukrainian democrats and their friends throughout the West.
All the more reason, then, to raise the alarm by publicizing the drift toward authoritarianism on the Putin model that seems to be accelerating in Ukraine under President Yanukovych. That might be a first step toward energizing the kind of Western nongovernmental support for democracy in Ukraine that was crucial to the success of the revolutions of 1989.
– George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.