How can local elections affect the UOC?

Local elections can worsen the situation of the UOC in western regions of Ukraine. Photo: UOJ

On 26 October, local elections will be held in Ukraine. How can this affect the church situation in the country?

Preparations for local elections are in full swing in Ukraine: the legislation is being changed, sociological studies are being conducted, and election headquarters are being formed. In many ways, it is the local elections in the current political situation that will determine the political situation and further development of our country. But first of all, we are interested in how the local elections will affect church affairs: will the seizure of churches stop, will illegal "transfers" of UOC communities to the OCU be cancelled, and will the state stop interfering in the religious sphere?

Impunity as a reason for a new wave of seizures?

In Novozhyvotiv, the police were inactive during the seizure of a UOC church

Unfortunately, church seizures in Ukraine continue. This keeps happening with the support of local government officials. Thus, on July 26, 2020, representatives of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) seized the Holy Cross Church of the UOC in the Volyn village of Zabolottsi. The raiders broke the locks and entered the church. The UOC faithful had to pray in the street. According to the believers, the illegal actions of the OCU supporters were backed by the village headman Alexander Tsibukhovsky.

That very day, the Holy Protection Church in Novozhyvotiv, Vinnytsia region, was seized. Here the local police let OCU representatives in the temple but prevented the UOC believers from entering the church. Moreover, the OCU supporters had to cut the locks with a grinder to get inside.

These are the latest events, but in general, the seizures of churches began to occur a little more often than a year ago, when V. Zelensky and his party "Servant of the people” came to power. It is explained by the fact that immediately after the change of power local officials had a waiting period. They did not know how determined the new authorities would be in terms of law enforcement and whether they should be afraid of persecution for their, say, criminal actions. Now it is obvious that the loud words about bringing to criminal responsibility the ex-rulers, guilty of breaking the law, remained the words, and the decreasing popularity of the Ze-team in the people binds their hands in this and many other respects.

Now we are going to have local elections, which will show the balance of power in Ukraine, which will also affect church-state relations.

The seizures of churches began to occur a little more often than a year ago, when V. Zelensky and his party "Servant of the people” came to power. It is explained by the fact that immediately after the change of power local officials had a waiting period. They did not know how determined the new authorities would be in terms of law enforcement and whether they should be afraid of persecution for their, say, criminal actions.

Elections to regional, district, village and settlement councils, as well as elections of heads of cities and towns (mayors), are scheduled for October 25, 2020. The Verkhovna Rada voted for this decision on July 15, 2020. They will be held under 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 districts in Ukraine, instead of 490 previously. With the enlargement of districts, competition at elections to district councils and their political importance will grow accordingly.

Secondly, elections to village, settlement and city councils where fewer than 10,000 eligible voters live are held under the majority system. That is, voters vote for a person rather than a party. Elections of deputies to regional, district, city, village and settlement councils where more than 10,000 inhabitants live are held under the proportional system. In other words, voters vote for a party rather than a person, though the possibility of choosing a specific candidate from the party list is provided. Thus, the role of parties in local elections is increasing. This means that, on the one hand, the political colouring of candidates rather than their business qualities, successes or failures in previous activities will be more important in voting. On the other hand, voters will again be imposed a political agenda from which they have long been tired. In other words, everybody wants the local authorities to do something good, specifically for a given locality, but in practice people are told who is a "patriot" and who is a "traitor”.

Thirdly, the so-called gender quotas are introduced in electoral lists. Three male candidates must account for at least two female ones. It is good that we can at least vote without taking gender into account but simply by our choice.

As a rule, at local elections, citizens vote for people who somehow proved themselves in solving local problems and who are known for their deeds. As they often say: economic persons. But today the situation in Ukraine is slightly different. The society is very politized. For many voters, the first place is taken not by the candidate who was good or bad in his previous activity, but by the way he relates to the armistice in the Donbass, the glorification of Bandera, etc. Besides, the changes in electoral legislation mentioned above make belonging to a certain political force a particularly important factor for success in local elections. Therefore, to make a correct prediction about changes in the religious field, it is necessary to look at which political forces can win the local elections.

What changes can the elections bring and how will this affect the UOC?

If in 2019 V. Zelensky and his political force "Servant of the People" won the presidential and parliamentary elections unconditionally, today the situation has changed radically. At every 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 in about a year, the voter understands that he/she has been fooled once again.

Today this year has passed for V. Zelensky and the "Servant of the People" party. The disappointment of society in this political force is growing. People want to see changes for the better and they are not satisfied with explanations why this is not happening. The most important disappointment in the "Servant of the People" is due to the fact that peace has not come to the Donbass. The ceasefire, which seems to have been established on June 27, 2020, is very shaky. Representatives of the past authorities are strongly against it. We cannot 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 absence of peace in the Donbass, people are annoyed by the fact that the Ze-team does not have a strong political will to establish this peace. The events of 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 of 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 the unresolved economic problems and ineffective actions of the authorities to counter the coronavirus epidemic, the rating of "Servants of the People" has fallen, although it remains the highest among all political forces. From May 24 to June 4, Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted research, according to which the rating of the "Servant of the People" party has decreased from 43% to 28%. 

If the "Servant of the People" party does not manage to reverse the negative trend soon, we can assume that the representation of its supporters in local authorities (local self-government) will decrease. Its influence at the local level will also drop. And the representation and influence of opposition parties will increase accordingly. But these opposition parties have their own, purely Ukrainian specifics: the "Opposition Platform – For Life" has a significant support in the east of Ukraine, and "European Solidarity" – in the west of the country.

That is, as a result of local elections, in Western Ukraine there will be more conditional nationalists in local self-government bodies than today. Therefore, we can assume that the pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will increase in the western regions. Seizures of temples will become more frequent, and the facts of illegal re-registration of religious communities to the OCU will increase. In the east, there will be more supporters of the UOC among local authorities, but temples are not seized in the east of Ukraine anyway. The canonical Church in principle is not engaged in church raiding, regardless of who is in power. Therefore, if we take the whole country, the prospects are rather sad: violent and illegal actions against the UOC will become stronger.

We can assume that the pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will increase in the western regions. Seizures of temples will become more frequent, and the facts of illegal re-registration of religious communities to the OCU will increase.

In general, the upcoming local elections will have to strengthen the local authority and weaken the central one. An illustrative example of a confrontation between local and central authorities is the case of the Cherkassy mayor, Anatoly Bondarenko, who in April 2020, contrary to the Cabinet decision on quarantine measures, ordered to open shops, hairdressing salons, parks in Cherkassy, etc., which found support among the local population. President V. Zelensky then called the mayor of Cherkassy a bandit: "I cannot just talk about the mayor of Cherkassy, I do not know how to talk when the mayor has 19 criminal proceedings. What's he? I won’t sit at the same table with these bandits. Was he elected? It's the people's right. Choose the bandits if you want." In response, A. Bondarenko promised to reject the Zelensky party in the local elections: "You say I'm a bandit? <...> No matter how often I’m remembered, you’ll have nothing to catch at the local elections in Cherkassy." Something suggests that A. Bondarenko may be right, and not only in relation to Cherkassy.

So, the attitude towards the Church after the elections will depend more on sympathies and antipathies of local authorities rather than the politics of the central government. In this regard, it is advisable to analyze the policy of the Ze-team in the religious sphere over the past year.

What a year of Zelensky’s rule has brought the UOC 

First of all, the authorities and personally President V. Zelensky have stopped making frenzied statements against the UOC. Now there are no public accusations against the Church of its work for the FSB of Russia, undermining the Ukrainian statehood, etc. On the other hand, the equally frenzied support of the UOC has ended. Representatives of the President’s Office stopped intensive negotiations with the Phanar, and Tomos tours of the President and Epiphany Dumenko round Ukraine are a thing of the past. The Ze-team tried to distance itself from interreligious disputes, although it continues to give preference to the OCU in general.

Secondly, the Ze-team has not cancelled the anti-church laws adopted by the past government, although it is not in a hurry to implement them in practice. Here, too, there is a policy of distancing oneself from the problem and unwillingness to affect someone's interests with its solution.

Thirdly, cases of the restoration of the violated rights of UOC communities in 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. Seized churches remain in the hands of invaders and the authorities do practically nothing to restore the rights of UOC believers.

What to expect after the elections

The current policy is likely to continue after the local elections. The central government will try to avoid sudden moves in the religious sphere. Anti-church laws will not be repealed so as not to irritate radical nationalists, but they also will not be actively implemented. Legal proceedings under these laws will be paused. The central authorities will not play the religious card and actively interfere in church affairs.

However, this cannot be said about the local authorities, which will be elected in autumn. In the central and eastern regions, local authorities will become more loyal to the UOC, but this loyalty will still be within the limits of the law. Digging trenches in front of churches, as it took place in Dnipro before Easter, may become a thing of the past.  In the western regions, the influence of nationalists will strengthen, which means that the anti-church rhetoric, as well as illegal transfers of communities to the OCU and forced seizures of temples, will increase either.

The tests of faith in the crucible of persecution continue...

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