In Washington last week, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko received a hero’s welcome as he concluded a new strategic partnership with the United States and gave a historic address to a joint session of Congress. Throughout his visit, especially during talks with President George W. Bush, Yushchenko adhered to his main theme: the commitment of both countries to democratic values. While they discussed numerous issues of common concern, there was one item conspicuous by its absence from the agenda: religion. In Ukraine–and elsewhere in the Orthodox world–a struggle for freedom and independence is still being waged against the Russian Orthodox Church.
In his controversial book The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington identified a fundamental divide between the areas represented by Catholicism and Protestantism in the West, and the Orthodox Church in the East. As recent events have shown, however, a more correct line can be drawn, with the Russian Orthodox Church representing the authoritarian status quo on one side, and the rest of Europe–including the other Orthodox traditions–representing freedom and democracy on the other.
During the recent democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the local branches of the Orthodox Church acted in full concordance with liberal democratic values, supporting the desire of people in these countries for political freedoms. However, they were resisted at every turn by the nationalistic Russian Orthodox Church, which is tightly tied to a Russian state that is still trying to reassert control over its former dominions.
Though not widely known, the structure of the Orthodox Church is highly conducive to local, responsive decision-making. Since the famous 1054 split with Roman Catholicism, the Ecumenical Patriarch (who has continued to reside in Constantinople/Istanbul over the intervening millennium) enjoys only a primus inter pares relationship with the autonomous patriarchs of individual countries. Over time, each national Orthodox Church thus became closely tied to the needs and desires of their people. However, as Ottoman political control receded over the 19th century, the influence of the Russian Patriarchate grew in keeping with the expansion of Tsarist and later Soviet power. While many churches were able to regain effective independence during the widespread clamoring for freedom that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall, pro-Russian elements have resisted such efforts.
In contrast, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, based in Istanbul, has acted as the leading voice in favor of freedom and democracy in the Orthodox world. A prominent promoter of interfaith ties and environmental issues (he has, somewhat unusually, been labeled “the green patriarch”), Bartholomew I has taken a special interest in the anti-authoritarian movement that has steadily gained steam in Orthodox countries over the last two decades. Standing at the center of coordination among all the Orthodox, he strongly supported the independence of the church in Estonia, which led to a major split within the Orthodox Church (between Russian and Greek churches). Today he is the key to the independence of the Georgian and Ukrainian churches, as well.
In Georgia, when the pro-reform movement took off in 2003, the independent Georgian Orthodox Church supported Mikheil Saakashvili, the young democratic reformer who successfully attained the presidency of the Georgian state. The Russian Church, however, has continued to oppose Saakashvili and his reforms, most notably by encouraging the separatists in Georgia’s Abkhazia region to unite their church with the Moscow Patriarchate. (The Russian church is also supporting the criminal separatist regime in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria).
In Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), joined with Uniate Catholics, who practice the Orthodox rite but profess loyalty to the pope, as well as with evangelical Protestants, in supporting the Ukrainian people’s right to a free electoral choice. These churches were instrumental in inspiring and assisting the throngs of Ukrainians who took to the streets last year to protest election fraud, protests which ultimately led to the recognition of the victory of reformist candidate Viktor Yushchenko in the presidential elections. Meanwhile, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church threw its full weight behind government candidate Viktor Yanukovych in a propaganda campaign that included the lending of icons to anti-Yushchenko marches and the dissemination of anti-Yushchenko leaflets at church services.
In the aftermath of Ukraine’s peaceful revolution, there have been calls for unification of the two branches; at a special sobor (assembly), the UOC-KP asked Yushchenko and Bartholomew I for their assistance in ending the division and providing true independence for Ukraine–politically and theologically. During a recent visit to Kyiv, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated the well-known position of the Moscow Patriarchate, which would allow the unification of the Ukrainian churches only if they continued in “canonical unity” with the Moscow Patriarchate, which means continued influence not only from the church leadership, but from the Russian government.
However, there is to be no exterminating the freedom bug caught by nearly the entire Orthodox movement. If the Moscow Patriarchate continues to support repressive regimes and separatist regions throughout the former Soviet Union, it will only add to its increasing isolation from a “Western civilization” that now extends to the borders of Russia.
–Zeyno Baran is director of the international-security and energy Programs at the Nixon Center, where Emmet Tuohy is a research associate.