Local elections will be held in Ukraine on October 26. How can this affect the church situation in the country?
Preparations for local elections are in full swing in Ukraine. Legislation is being changed, sociological research is being carried out, campaign headquarters are being formed. In many respects, it is the local elections in the current political situation that will determine the political alignments and further development of our country. But we are primarily interested in how the local elections will affect church affairs: will the seizures of churches stop, will the illegal “transfers” of the UOC communities to the OCU be canceled, and will the state stop interfering in the sphere of religion?
Impunity as a reason for a new wave of seizures?
Unfortunately, the seizure of churches in Ukraine continues. This is also happening with the support of local officials and officials of local self-government. So on July 26, 2020, representatives of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) seized the Holy Cross Church of the UOC in the village of Zabolotsi in Volyn. The raiders broke the locks and entered the temple. Believers of the UOC had a chance to pray on the street. According to believers, the local headman Alexander Tsibukhovsky is supporting the illegal actions of the OCU supporters.
On the same day, the Holy Protection Church in Novozhivotovo, Vinnitsa region, was captured. It was not without the local police, who let the representatives of the OCU into the temple, but did not let the believers of the UOC there. Despite the fact that the supporters of the OCU, in order to get into the temple, had a chance to cut the locks off with a grinder.
These are the events of the last days, but in general the seizures of churches began to occur somewhat more often than a year ago, when V. Zelensky and his Servant of the People party came to power. This is explained by the fact that immediately after the change of power, local officials had a waiting period. They did not know how decisive actions in terms of compliance with the rule of law would be taken by the new government and whether it was necessary to fear persecution for their, frankly, criminal actions. Now it is already obvious that loud words about bringing to criminal responsibility the representatives of the previous government guilty of violating the law have remained words, and the declining popularity of the Ze-team among the people ties their hands in this and in many other respects.
Now we are faced with local elections, which will show the balance of power in Ukraine, on which church-state relations will also depend.
The seizures of churches began to occur somewhat more often than a year ago, when V. Zelensky and his Servant of the People party came to power. This is explained by the fact that immediately after the change of power, local officials had a waiting period. They did not know how decisive actions in terms of compliance with the rule of law would be taken by the new government and whether it was necessary to fear persecution for their, frankly, criminal actions.
Elections to regional, district councils, village and settlement councils, as well as elections of heads of towns and villages (mayors) are scheduled for October 25, 2020. The Verkhovna Rada voted for this decision on July 15, 2020.They will be held according to new rules.
How the elections will be held
First, local elections will be organized according to the new territorial division. On July 17, 2020, the Verkhovna Rada voted for the formation of 136 regions for Ukraine, instead of the 490 that were previously. With the enlargement of districts, competition for elections to district councils will increase, as well as their political significance.
Secondly, the elections of deputies to the village, settlement and city councils where there are less than 10,000 residents who have the right to vote are held according to the majority system. That is, voters vote for a person, not a party. The elections of deputies to regional, district, as well as deputies of city, rural, settlement councils where more than 10,000 residents live are held according to a proportional system. That is, voters do not vote for a person, but for a party. Although it is possible to select a specific candidate from the party list. Thus, the role of parties in local elections is increasing. This means that, on the one hand, the political coloring of the candidates will be more important when voting, rather than their business qualities, successes or failures in their previous activities. On the other hand, voters will again be imposed on a political agenda that they are tired of for a long time. In other words, everyone wants the local authorities to do something good, specifically for the given locality, but in fact, people are told who is a «patriot» and who is a «traitor.»
Thirdly, the so-called gender quotas are introduced in the electoral lists. For three male candidates, there must be at least two women. It’s good that at least you can vote without regard to gender, but simply by your choice.
As a rule, in local elections, citizens vote for people who have somehow shown themselves in solving local problems, who are known for their deeds. As they often say: strong business executives. But today the situation in Ukraine is slightly different. The society is very politicized. For many voters, the first place comes not whether a candidate has proven himself well or badly in his previous activities, but how he relates to the ceasefire in Donbass, the glorification of Bandera, and so on. Plus, the changes in the electoral legislation mentioned above make belonging to a certain political force a very important factor in the success in local elections. Therefore, in order to make a correct forecast regarding changes in the religious sphere, it is necessary to look at what political forces can win the local elections.
What changes can the elections bring and how will it affect the UOC?
If in 2019 V. Zelensky and his political force «Servant of the People» won an unconditional victory in the presidential and parliamentary elections, today the situation has changed dramatically. At each election, the voter naively hopes that this time the candidates for power will fulfill their pre-election promises and the long-awaited peace and economic prosperity will come. But every time after about a year, the voter realizes that he was once again deceived.
Today this year has passed for V. Zelensky and the Servant of the People party. Public disillusionment with this political force is growing. People want to see changes for the better and they are not satisfied with the explanation why this is not happening. The main disappointment in «Servant of the People» is due to the fact that peace in Donbass never came. The truce that seems to have been established on June 27, 2020 is very shaky. Representatives of the old government are strongly opposed to him. It is impossible to say how long it will last and whether it will be a guarantee of further steps to normalize the situation. But even more than the lack of peace in Donbass, people are annoyed that the Ze-team does not have a strong political will to establish this peace. The events that have taken place this year have shown that the Ze-team listens more to the voice of militant nationalists than to the voice of more than 73% of Ukrainian citizens who voted for V. Zelensky and his promise to end the war as soon as possible.
The events that have taken place this year have shown that the Ze-team listens more to the voice of militant nationalists than to the voice of more than 73% of Ukrainian citizens who voted for V. Zelensky and his promise to end the war as soon as possible.
As a result of all this, as well as unresolved economic problems and ineffective government actions to counter the coronavirus epidemic, the Servant of the People’s rating is falling, although it remains the highest among all political forces. From May 24 to June 4, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology conducted research, according to which the rating of the Servant of the People party dropped from 43% to 28%.
If the Servant of the People party fails in the near future to reverse the trend with a drop in voter support, then it can be assumed that the representation of its supporters in local authorities (local self-government) will decrease. Its influence at the local level will also decrease. And the representation and influence of opposition parties will increase accordingly. But these opposition parties have their own, purely Ukrainian specifics. Simplified: “Opposition Platform — For Life” has significant support in the east of Ukraine, and “European Solidarity” — in the west.
That is, as a result of local elections, there will be more conditional nationalists in the local self-government bodies in western Ukraine than today. Therefore, it can be assumed that in the western regions the pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will increase. The seizures of churches will become more frequent, and the facts of illegal re-registration of religious communities in the OCU will increase. In the east, there will be more supporters of the UOC in local authorities, but in the east, churches are not being captured. The canonical Church, in principle, is not engaged in the seizure of temples, regardless of who is in power. Therefore, if we take the country as a whole, the prospects are rather sad: violent and illegal actions against the UOC will intensify.
It can be assumed that in the western regions the pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will increase. The seizures of churches will become more frequent, and the facts of illegal re-registration of religious communities in the OCU will increase.
In general, the upcoming local elections will have to strengthen the local government and weaken the central one. An illustrative example of the confrontation between local and central authorities is the case of the mayor of Cherkassy, Anatoly Bondarenko, who in April 2020, contrary to the Cabinet of Ministers decree on quarantine measures, ordered the opening of shops, hairdressers, parks, etc. in Cherkassy, which found support from the local population. President V. Zelensky then called the mayor of Cherkassy a bandit: “I can’t just talk about the mayor of Cherkassy, I don’t know how to speak when the mayor has 19 criminal proceedings. Who is it? I won’t sit at the same table with such bandits. Was he chosen? This is the right of the people. Choose bandits if you want. » In response, A. Bondarenko promised to give a ride to Zelensky’s party in the local elections: “Are you saying that I am a bandit? <…> No matter how many greetings they convey to me, you have nothing to catch at the local elections in Cherkassy. » Something suggests that A. Bondarenko may be right, and not only with regard to Cherkassy.
Thus, the attitude towards the Church after the elections will depend more on the likes and dislikes of local authorities, and not on the policy of the central government. In this regard, it is advisable to analyze what the Ze-team’s policy in the religious sphere was over the past year.
What the UOC brought from the year of Zelensky’s rule
First, from the authorities and personally from President V. Zelensky, rabid statements against the UOC have ceased to sound. Public accusations against the Church of working for the FSB of Russia, of undermining the Ukrainian statehood and so on have ceased. On the other hand, the equally rabid support for the OCU ended. Representatives of the President’s Office stopped conducting intensive negotiations with Phanar, and the trips of the President and Epiphany Dumenko with Tomos across Ukraine are a thing of the past. The Ze-team has tried to distance itself from inter-religious disputes, although it continues to generally give preference to the OCU.
Secondly, the Ze-team did not abolish the anti-church laws adopted by the previous government, although it is in no hurry to implement them in practice. Here, too, is the policy of distancing from the problem and the unwillingness to hurt someone’s interests by solving it.
Thirdly, the cases of restoration of the violated rights of the UOC communities in the courts are rare, and there is no mention of bringing local officials to justice for illegal actions. But even these court decisions cannot be enforced due to the opposition of local authorities and national radicals. The seized churches remain in the hands of the invaders and the government does practically nothing to restore the rights of believers in the UOC.
What to expect after the elections
The current policy is likely to continue after the local elections. The central government will try to avoid sharp movements in the religious sphere. Anti-church laws will not be abolished so as not to irritate the national radicals, but they will also be actively enforced. Proceedings under these laws will be put on hold. The central government will not play the religious card and actively interfere in church affairs.
However, the same cannot be said about the local government, which will be elected in the fall. In the central and eastern regions, local authorities will become more loyal to the UOC, but this loyalty will still be within the law. Perhaps digging trenches in front of churches, as it took place in the Dnieper before Easter, will become a thing of the past. The influence of nationalists will increase in the western regions, which means that anti-church rhetoric will increase, as well as illegal transfers of communities to the OCU and violent seizures of churches.
Kirill Alexandrov, UOJ