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Ukraine et autocéphalie : prospective et scénarios géopolitiques


Everybody is going to have a good bargain. Except Christians.

The campaign on establishing a Single Local Orthodox Church (SLOC) in Ukraine is gaining momentum. President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko wrote another letter to Constantinople, collected signatures of the schismatics and parliamentarians, and sent them by the charter flight to Phanar. Patriarch Bartholomew summoned the Synod and adopted a communique, in which he announced he would begin consulting with other Local Churches on the Ukrainian issue. Instead he went directly to Turkish President Recep Erdogan to ask for advice. What does that all mean for Ukraine, for a big geopolitical game, and for Christianity? Let’s try to work it out.

SLC and Internal Ukrainian Politics

No matter what Peter Poroshenko could say, the SLC is: a) an exclusively political project; b) absolutely uniquely timed to the forthcoming elections; c) works exclusively for Petro Poroshenko’s rating; d) a win-win project, as it works irrespectively of the decision of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Many people see the Church as predominantly a socio-political institution. Yes, the Church is a socio-political institution, because it unites a huge number of people. In countries where the absolute majority of the population traditionally refers to Orthodoxy, this population is the church people, the flock of the Church. In this case, the socio-political influence of the Church is very significant, and it cannot stand aside from this, even if it wishes so very much.

Nevertheless, in the life of the Church, the socio-political component is far from being most important. It was not for this that Christ built the Church on earth for it to play some social and political role only. At least in the Holy Scripture, nothing is said about this. But it says how the Lord evidently deflected on the social and political life of the people of Israel: "Then the people who saw the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that Prophet Who should come into the world. When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take Him by force, to make Him a king, He departed again into a mountain himself alone" (John 6, 14-15).

Solely in the Church and nowhere else can a person: First, repent and receive forgiveness from God; Second, learn to live up to the commandments of God; Third, commune with Christ and receive Grace in the sacraments.

It is quite obvious that all this does not depend on whether this is done in the autocephalous Church or in the autonomous Church. It is silly to hope that with the emergence of the SLC, people in Ukraine will become more diligent in prayer, take sacraments more often, or begin to live according to the commandments of God. In those fiery speeches about the SLC, which Poroshenko pronounces both from the rostrum of the parliament, in the negotiation hall of his administration, as well as on the television talk show, there is not even a talk about some ecclesiastic benefits or success of the Christian sermon in Ukraine.

Not a word was said that, for example, with the appearance of the SLC in schools they will begin teaching the Law of God, or they will limit the propaganda of violence and debauchery on television or ban gay-parades. No, the Single Church is needed exclusively as a "key element of statehood" and a means of fighting the "aggressor state". Only this can be heard from the lips of the President. And the fact that degrading the Church of Christ to a mere "tool" and "element" verges on blatant blasphemy worries none of the SLC supporters. But this is not the whole truth. The SLC in Ukraine is not only an exclusively political project, but also an exclusively pre-election project. Despite the fact that Poroshenko keeps on reassuring everyone that the current hyperactivity of the authorities to create a Single Church and the actual start of the election campaign coincided by chance, nobody believes him. The words that the President's Administration for all four years of Poroshenko’s reign has been painstakingly working with the Patriarchate of Constantinople on creating the SLC and only now it has given results are not true. There have been appeals to Constantinople, but for some reason they ended up with another statement of Phanar that the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognizes only the UOC as the only canonical Church in Ukraine.

Thus, all the efforts of the authorities to create the SLC with the help of Phanar turned out to be fruitless. And suddenly – such a breakthrough that "we were assured that we would get autocephaly" (P.Poroshenko). What Poroshenko was assured about by Patriarch Bartholomew we do not know; most likely, the Ukrainian President did not take into account all the subtleties of traditional Byzantine diplomacy. But we know for sure that nothing else is capable of raising Poroshenko's election rating, which today is pitifully small.

Most political experts say that Poroshenko's presidency is absolutely disastrous. Prices are rising, inflation is accelerating, and utility bills are simply unaffordable! Under Poroshenko Ukraine has finally buried those industries that, at least conventionally, belonged to the sphere of high technologies. Medical, educational and pension reforms are absolutely resented by the population. With the exception of "visa-free travel", Poroshenko did not fulfill any of his election promises given in 2014. And the "visa-free" regime itself resulted in one hundred thousand citizens leaving Ukraine every month, as Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin acknowledged.

This success did not add to the rating of the President in any way. In this setting, only the SLC can become the only and very powerful achievement of the President. In the event it is created, Poroshenko will surpass not only all the now-alive Ukrainian politicians by his historical significance but also such "cult" personalities as, for example, Mikhail Grushevsky. Voters will be ready to forgive the creator of the Single Local Church his rest in the Maldives, a cassette scandal, and even their own poor standard of living.

People even very far from sympathizing with the UOC say that SLC is a pre-election project of Poroshenko. For example, ex-deputy from the VO "Svoboda" Irina Farion characterized the SLC venture unequivocally: "Poroshenko’s PR-move is designed for ignorant people. Those people who believed him in 2014". Catholic Bishop Stanislav Shirokoradyuk spoke more diplomatically on this matter, "One cannot do this by force, nor can one create something artificially, especially at the threshold of elections, because it does not inspire confidence in us."

Moreover, the SLC-campaign acts to raise a political rating of Poroshenko alone and no one else. With all the other “buzz” pre-election topics in the society, the President loses out to other politicians. He lags far behind radical nationalists of all stripes concerning the issue of fighting the "aggressor state". A small increase in GDP (2.1% in 2017), demonstrated currently by the Ukrainian economy, which had catastrophically slumped earlier, is credited to Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman. Meetings with President of the United States Donald Trump and other world leaders are something Yulia Timoshenko can also boast of. And only in the matter of the Single Church all the dividends are paid to Poroshenko. No one else can have such an asset – even Groysman and Verkhovna Rada’s Speaker Andrei Parubiy, who went to Phanar and returned empty-handed.

But the most interesting thing in this story is that the idea of Poroshenko with the SLC is profitable to him even in case of failure. Here it makes sense to consider some scenarios.

The least likely are the extreme options. That is, when a synod or even a council of bishops is assembled at Phanar and makes an unequivocal decision: to grant the Tomos of autocephaly requested by Mr. Poroshenko or to refuse it. If the Patriarchate of Constantinople decides to recognize the schismatics and grant the Tomos in conditions when the only canonical church in Ukraine is against it, this will cause a very negative response in the Orthodox world and lead to very negative consequences for the Universal Orthodoxy. We will speak about this below. But for Poroshenko this will mean a total victory. He will reveal himself as a leader of the nation, who managed to achieve what all his predecessors had tried to do in vain. He will go down in history as a founding father of the SLC and will try to convert this success into votes during the elections. The fact that these actions are likely to provoke a religious war in the once prosperous country will not matter to him: the main point is mobilization of the electorate.

Yet even in case of refusal, Poroshenko will still be able to mobilize this electorate. After all, the reason for the refusal is not the Orthodox canons and rules, and not the illiteracy of the President in the ecclesiastic matters, but the "agents of the Kremlin" who have already penetrated into the Constantinople Patriarchate. Everything can be attributed to the hybrid war, the corruption of Phanar, the insidiousness of the Kremlin and so on. But in this case Poroshenko will appear before the people as a fighter for historical justice, not afraid to challenge the mighty forces.

However, the most probable scenario is that Constantinople will delay the solution of the issue, hold endless consultations with other Local Churches, take some intermediate decisions, issue documents with ambiguous interpretations, and so on.

A vivid case in point is a Communiqué of the Holy Synod of the Church of Constantinople on April 22 on the issue of the Single Local Church. In this document, everyone saw what he wanted to see. Poroshenko said that "the Ecumenical Patriarchate begins the procedures necessary to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church." Most experts, however, considered this a polite refusal – yet polite enough so that the refusal would not look like refusal at all. Patriarch Bartholomew can even come to celebrate the 1030th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus and assure the President that the work on autocephaly is underway, and Ukraine will surely have the SLC... one day.

All this will be served to people as an undoubted merit and almost a victory of Poroshenko. There will lots of trumpeting that a crucial positive decision has been (purportedly) taken and only certain church formalities stand out. Each document or step of Phanar will be treated as a movement towards our “common cause”. And if it is not possible to resolve the issue by the elections, Poroshenko will still have the image of a leader who firmly takes his country to the Single Church.

Therefore, in the domestic political situation, the benefits for Poroshenko are obvious: he receives dividends under whatever scenario.

SLC and Big Geopolitics

But the possible actions of Phanar in the matter of the SLC will be determined not by Ukrainian politics. The Patriarchate of Constantinople does not care too much of the "wish list" of the Ukrainian authorities, like the second presidential term for Mr. Poroshenko. Phanar plays its game and pursues its interests. And all this takes place against the backdrop of the geopolitical struggle for the Middle East, which we are witnessing. There are wars in Syria and Yemen, a big war with Iran is brewing, Turkey is gradually realizing its neo-Ottoman ambitions, the United States and Russia are fighting for the title of the main Middle Eastern arbiter. In this great geopolitical game, an extra trump card on the hands will be an advantage. And the theme of Ukrainian autocephaly is just such a bargaining chip, useful for many Middle Eastern players.

The position of the Patriarchate of Constantinople has already been rather ambiguous for several centuries. For more than 500 years, there has been neither Byzantium, nor Constantinople, nor the "universe" (oikoumene), whose name Patriarchs of Constantinople are titled with. The Patriarchate of Constantinople has almost no flock in the territory of Turkey, but there are parishes, dioceses and metropolitanateson all continents, with the exception of Africa. Basically, these are church diasporas in the countries of the resettlement type (USA, Australia Canada and so on). The claims of the Constantinople Patriarchate to certain exclusive rights in the Orthodox world are due, inter alia, to the need to somehow justify its own existence.

As a result of this necessity, Constantinople is referred as the Mother Church for many Local Churches; it can grant or not grant autocephaly; it alone can convene All-Orthodox Councils; and it has a special responsibility for the world Orthodoxy and so on. Without all this, without a constant reminder of the glorious historical past and without control over the dioceses outside of Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarchate remains with the canonical territory of the Istanbul district of Phanar and with the flock, not much higher than the number of employees of the Patriarchate itself.

The Turkish authorities pursue a consistent policy of non-recognition of the universal status for the Phanar Patriarch and consider him the head of the Turkish Orthodox community. From time to time the idea of eviction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to Athos rises. The pressure, which has been exerted by the Turkish authorities on the Patriarchate for many years, intensified after the unsuccessful coup in Turkey in 2016. Then the Turkish President managed to stay in power and accused the US and the Turkish oppositionist FethullahGülen living in America. Patriarch Bartholomew, in turn, is accused of having links with this very Gülen. This makes the Patriarch prove his loyalty to Erdogan in every possible way, even where this is not required.

For example, with the beginning of the military operation of the Turkish army "Olive Branch" in Syria, Patriarch Bartholomew immediately hurried to send a letter to Erdogan expressing his approval of Erdogan’s actions and wishes for success. But Erdogan was fighting (and is still fighting) with the Kurds, whom the US supplied weapons and military instructors. And here is the opportunity to prove to the Turkish President his loyalty not only with just a meaningless endorsement, but with a real trump card that Patriarch Bartholomew puts in Erdogan's hands. It was for the discussion of this issue that Erdogan invited the Patriarch to his residence in Ankara on April 25.

Russia opposes the interference of Ukrainian authorities in church affairs, as recently announced by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova. And it is unlikely that the Turkish President will act to the detriment of Russia. He is too much interested in keeping friendly relations with it. Erdogan needs too much from Russia: this includes the flow of Russian tourists to Turkey, the export of Turkish vegetables to Russia, construction contracts for Turkish companies, the supply of S-400 anti-aircraft systems, cooperation on the Syrian issue, the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and many more things.

It is foolish to think that Turkey is ready to sacrifice all this for the sake of Mr. Poroshenko re-elected for the second presidential term. But for the fact that Erdogan will strongly advise Patriarch Bartholomew to refuse the Ukrainian authorities in the Tomos on autocephaly, one can bargain with Russia certain concessions on issues of interest to Turkey. This is how big geopolitics is done, in a cynical and corrupt way.

The United States in this situation, on the contrary, in every possible way is putting pressure on Patriarch Bartholomew with the intention to knock out the Tomos, in spite of all the non-canonicity and absurdity of such an act. If successful, the Americans would be able to kill two birds with one stone: to cloud Russia's relations with Turkey, or even to quarrel them, and also create very big problems in Ukraine, where Russia will somehow have to state its position on the UOC, which will be openly persecuted and harassed.

Patriarch Bartholomew also receives a trump card from the venture with the SLC in negotiations with the ROC. It is unlikely that he seriously expects to satisfy Poroshenko's petition for autocephaly. The Tomos could be granted if the Ukrainian Orthodox Church requested for this. In this case, one could ignore the opinion of the Moscow Patriarchate. This is exactly what happened in the cases of proclamations of autocephaly by the Polish and Czech Orthodox Churches. These church structures, being part of the ROC, thatis being completely canonic, proclaimed independence and the formation of their own autocephalous Churchesrecognized by Constantinople, contrary to the opinion of the ROC.

But the Ukrainian case is completely different. The UOC does not ask for autocephaly. It is sought by schismatics and secular authorities. In this case, Phanar itself does not receive any obvious benefits from this, because the SLC does not become part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. If under these conditions the Patriarchate of Constantinople bestows the Tomos on autocephaly, then it will more clearly show to everyone that it acts either under the pressure of third forces or for money.

The Ukrainian authorities shouldn’t have voiced the assumption in 1686 Phanar gave Moscow the Kiev Metropolitanate for a bribe. After all, today, there is every reason to assume that the idea of the SLC has also developed under the influence of this factor. But not only money can interest Phanar. Constantinople wants a lot of things from the ROC. This is the unification of two parallel Orthodox jurisdictions in Estonia into one Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate. In fact, in connection with the death of the Primate of the Estonian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Kornily, a very convenient opportunity is provided for this. This is intercession, if something happens, before the Turkish authorities. This is the recognition of the documents of the Crete Council. This is an increase in the pilgrimage from Russia to the holy places in the territory of Turkey, etc. After all, money also matters.

And do not think that some "Moscow priests" will bring to Phanar several suitcases stuffed with dollars and outbid the other party. No, it could be in the form of the opening of the Representation of the Constantinople Patriarchate in Russian cities with the opportunity to seek benefactors among Russian businessmen. This has happened many times in history and was considered quite a decent form of aid to Eastern Christians.

If Patriarch Bartholomew nevertheless decides to grant the Tomos on autocephaly to Ukrainian schismatics, he risks to provoke irreversible processes in the entire Orthodox world. Many Local Churches are indignant whenever Constantinople calls itself the Mother Church and interferes in the internal affairs of these Churches. The Ukrainian question can be the last straw, which could cause the simple dismantling of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as such.

Actually, the role of the Mother Church for all the Local Churches without exception is more suitable for the Jerusalem Orthodox Church. It could have the exclusive rights in the Orthodox world to which Constantinople claims today. There are much greaterhistorical reasons for this. The Church of Christ was born there; the first Christian community was formed there; all the apostles without exception come from there, Jerusalem features the main Christian shrines, etc. And most importantly, the hierarchs of the Jerusalem Church did not tarnish themselves with such shameful acts as, for example, attempts to sell Orthodoxy to the Pope or the recognition of the "Living Church" in Russia after the Revolution of 1917.

Proceeding from all this, we can assume that Constantinople is not going to grant the Tomos on autocephaly to Mr. Poroshenko, but it will try to "sell higher" its refusal. It is this desire to get a trump card in negotiations with the ROC that explains the fact that Patriarch Bartholomew reassured Ukraine’s President in granting him the SLC. But Constantinople encouraged in such diplomatic formulations, which would later give it the opportunity to win back, while saving the face. Again, an example of such ambiguity is the Communiqué of the Synod of Constantinople of 22 April.

And here we come to the saddest moment in the whole story.

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