Comeback of Yurash: How does it affect the Church?

What can the Church expect from Andrei Yurash and the new Department for Religion under the Cabinet of Ministers? Photo: UOJ

A subdivision was created for Yurash and his team within the Cabinet's Secretariat of Ukraine. What does it do and what would it mean for the Church?

On September 30, 2020, former head of the Department of Religious Affairs and Nationalities Andrei Yurash announced the creation of a new unit within the structure of the Secretariat of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine to deal with religious issues. It will be headed by Yurash himself and several more people from the disbanded Department for Religious Affairs who will join it. What is this unit?

New power – old faces

Andrei Yurash is a well-known opponent of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a supporter of the OCU. The activities of the Department for Religious Affairs, which he headed for several years, is associated with a number of scandals, including the refusal to register the UOC statutes, the criminal investigation for falsification in the case against Archpriest of the UOC Viktor Zemlianoy, and much more.

In mid-June 2019, the Ministry of Culture decided to create the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience (to oversee the religious sphere) and to liquidate the Department of Religious Affairs and Nationalities. The Ministry of Culture announced a competition for the post of head of the new Civil Service, and Yurash became almost the main contender for this seat. However, despite the support in certain circles and violations during the competition, in November 2019 it became finally known that Andrei Yurash failed the competition. Elena Bogdan became the head of the State Service for Ethnonopolitics and Freedom of Conscience.

Despite the support in certain circles and violations during the competition, in November 2019 it became finally known that Andrei Yurash failed the competition for the post of head of the State Service for Religious Affairs. On September 30, 2020, Yurash suddenly announces the creation of the Department for Ethno-National Politics and Religions.

Yurash entered into a direct confrontation with Bogdan and started a public conflict, and later – a trial, which in the long run did not bring him any dividends.

However, on September 30, 2020, on his Facebook page, Yurash announces the creation of the Department for Ethno-National Politics and Religions. In addition to Yurash, as we mentioned above, this department includes four more people. All of them are former employees of the Department for Religious Affairs and Nationalities, which was finally liquidated on September 1, 2020. These are:

1. Ivan Papayani – head of the Department for monitoring the activities and registration of statutes of religious organizations (it was with his direct participation that the UOC experienced serious difficulties in registering statutes).
2. Natalia Loy – chief specialist of the Department for International Cooperation of National Minorities.
3. Larisa Vdovichenko – direct deputy of Yurash and head of the Department for Religious Research and Analytical Work (it was she who sent letters to the members of the Expert Council of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine on Ethnopolitics with a request to support Yurash's candidacy for the post of head of the civil service for religious affairs).
4. Victoria Lutsenko – former chief specialist of the Department for Religious Studies and Analytical Work.

All these people are devoted to Yurash, and their appearance in the new structure under the Cabinet of Ministers Secretariat is not accidental. After all, thanks to them, according to Yurash, “an obvious breakthrough was achieved in previous years, and whose experience and knowledge are indispensable in modern conditions, when the whole sphere is facing so many challenges.”

Naturally, the emergence of the structure itself is no coincidence.

It was initiated directly by Yurash, and, according to UOJ sources, assisted by the Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine Oleg Nemchinov and State Secretary of the SCMU Alexander Yarema, who, according to Yurash, "made a conscious and significant emphasis on this segment of the objective obligations of the state."

Oleg Nemchinov (originally from Lviv, like Yurash) from 2017 to 2019 served as the State Secretary of the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, and when in 2019 the department merged with the Ministry of Culture, he was Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports.

In other words, Nemchinov ex officio had a fairly close relationship with Yurash-led Department. Therefore, it is small wonder that the newly created Department of Religion is a structural unit of the Cabinet Secretariat and is directly supervised by Nemchinov. What is this department?

New old Department?

According to Yurash, his Department of Religious Affairs under the Secretariat of the Cabinet of Ministers, in comparison with the old Department, is “a new height and new opportunities, and at the same time – new tools that will help <...> guarantee every religious and ethno-confessional community of our state the right to free self-expression and create all the opportunities for the even fuller development of a unique self-identity."

We do not know about "identity" but Mr, Yurash is clearly disingenuous about the "new height”. The fact is that back in 2014 there used to be such a structure under the Cabinet of Ministers. It was then headed by Yuri Reshetnikov and existed from September 2014 to May 2015. It was called at that time "Department for Ethno-National Policy, Religions and Ukrainians Abroad". And this department, according to UOJ sources, ceased to exist not without the help of Andrei Yurash, who sought to concentrate all power in the religious sphere in his hands.

The former "Department for Ethno-National Politics, Religions and Ukrainians Abroad", according to UOJ sources, ceased to exist not without the help of Andrey Yurash, who sought to concentrate all power in the religious sphere in his hands.

It was done like this. In May 2015, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine and Head of the Ministry of Culture Vyacheslav Kirilenko wrote a memo, according to which the Department of Andrei Yurash “is doing a great job”, fully and entirely meeting government requests in this direction. That is why, according to Kirilenko, the Department for Ethnic Politicy and Religions had to be downsized, with funding redirected to Yurash, i.e. to the Department for Religious Affairs.

A similar position was expressed by the adviser of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a friend of Andrei Yurash and a well-known ill-wisher of the canonical Church, Viktor Yelensky. Due to the initiative of Kirilenko and Yelensky, the Department ceased to exist in 2015. At that time Yurash did not publicly advocate the liquidation of the Department, but, as you might guess, he backed this idea in every possible way.

In other words, in 2015, Andrei Yurash did not believe that the Department for Ethnopolitics and Religions somehow justified its need, yet in 2020 he becomes the main initiator of its actual rebirth. Why?

Because with the appointment of Yelena Bogdan as a “chief in religion”, Andrei Yurash lost a well-paid public office and influence in the sphere he was used to considering as “his own”. Having lost his job, Yurash tried to destroy the newly created Civil Service, in which, according to the UOJ, he was actively assisted by the acting Minister of Culture and Information Policy Svetlana Fomenko, who worked with Yurash even at the time when the Ministry of Culture was headed by Nischuk (a noteworthy fact: during the meeting of the AUCCRO with the Prime Minister of Ukraine Denis Shmygal, Fomenko was present, but Elena Bogdan was absent, which looks very strange, especially in light of the fact that Bogdan has headed the Civil Service for Religious Affairs since February 2020).

Anyway, the appointment of Alexander Tkachenko to the post of Minister of Culture suspended the destructive process in relation to the Civil Service, which was headed by Bogdan. However, it did not prevent the creation of the Department for Ethnopolitics headed by Yurash. And here is the most interesting point – what functions are assigned to this structure.

Functions of the "new" Department

The Department, which has been headed by Yurash since September 30, will work in at least four directions.

Among its functions is participation in the development of normative and legislative acts that pass through the Cabinet of Ministers, this being one of the main differences from the Civil Service headed by Elena Bogdan.

All that the State Service for Religious Affairs can do is to send an appropriate proposal to the Minister of Culture, which can submit it to the Cabinet of Ministers. But ... before this proposal goes to the vote, it passes through the Secretariat of the Cabinet, which makes professional and legal expertise and submits its assessment to the Cabinet of Ministers.

In other words, Bogdan's proposal will be redirected straight to the Yurash-led Department. This means that Yurash can block any initiative of the State Service for Religious Affairs that he or his patrons do not like.

As the head of the Department for Ethnopolitics and Religions, Yurash can block any initiative of the State Service for Religious Affairs that he personally or his patrons does not like.

The second function of the Department is to participate in the formation of policy regarding religions, religious organizations, and also national minorities. In other words, through various kinds of "analytical reports", the Yurash-led Department will be able to directly influence the attitude of the state towards certain religious and ethnic groups. Given the previous activities of Andrei Yurash against the UOC, it is not difficult to guess what kind of policy for the modern Cabinet he is going to pursue.

Additionally, among the functions of the Department for Ethnopolitics and Religions will be the processing of correspondence received by the Cabinet of Ministers, Deputy Prime Ministers, etc. In other words, if, for example, the believers of the UOC turn to the Cabinet of Ministers, then this appeal will be sent to a specialized body, which in our case is the State Service led by Elena Bogdan. However, the text of the Prime Minister's resolution, in accordance with which the State Service will prepare a response, will be dealt with ... Yurash's Department.

Well, the control function is also the responsibility of the Department for Ethnopolitics and Religions. This means that Yurash-led team will monitor the execution of orders from the Government, the execution of presidential decrees, as well as control the time of execution, the quality of execution, and, of course, may raise the question that someone fails to match the position held. It will hence allow significantly influencing functionaries.

***

So, what awaits us in connection with the new appointment of Yurash? By and large, he has now received new levers of power he did not have before. From now on, he can not only block legislative religious initiatives, but also significantly impact the state policy in the religious sphere.

This means that Andrei Yurash will continue his fight against the UOC and even enhance it in some matters. At the same time, if it used to open, now it will become not so much closed as latent, behind the scenes. It will be extremely difficult to file any claims to Yurash, because he will simply "do his job", the one directed, as before, against the canonical Church. And the UOC needs to be ready for this scenario.

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