The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, began a 10-day tour of Ukraine on July 27, marking his first official international visit as patriarch, a title he assumed in February 2009. During his trip, Kirill will visit 10 Ukrainian cities, hold numerous services and meet with yet unnamed top Ukrainian government officials. The visit by the Russian Orthodox patriarch comes at a tense time for Kiev, with less than six months before the first presidential elections since the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to power. The deeply divided Ukraine
is not only split ethnically and between Ukrainian and Russian influence, but also religiously by the Moscow-controlled Church of Eastern Orthodoxy in Ukraine (UOC) and the Kiev-controlled Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC-KP). Kirill's visit is intended to cement Moscow's control over Orthodoxy in Ukraine and further entrench Kiev in the Kremlin's sphere of influence. Ukraine is a country located squarely at the border between the East and West — a fact that is illustrated by its linguistic and ethnic mix. Nearly 20 percent of Ukraine's population is ethnically Russian, particularly in the eastern and southern regions, and around 30 percent of the country considers Russian their mother tongue.
The ethnic and linguistic split is an issue not only of identity politics, but also of perspective. People in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine consider Russia their natural ally, cultural brethren and trading partner, whereas those in the northern and western regions yearn to join other Central European countries in NATO and the European Union. This divergence has made implementing the pro-Western policies — vociferously lauded by the proponents of the Orange Revolution — an absolute impossibility. Former allies Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko have been bogged down in political infighting that is essentially about Kiev's foreign policy direction, while Viktor Yanukovich, an opponent of Yushchenko during the last presidential elections, is now looking to ride the pro-Russian vote to a comeback in the January 2010 elections. In short, Ukraine is engaged in a constant debate over whether it should remain connected to Russia socially, politically, militarily and culturally, or whether it should turn toward the West. The mix of overlapping identities, however, does not stop with language and ethnicity. Religion also complicates matters, particularly because it has been highly politicized since Ukraine's independence in 1990. While 90 percent of Ukrainians are adherents of Christian Orthodoxy, the religion is actually represented in Ukraine by two entities: UOC-KP, independent and headquartered in Kiev, and the UOC, which is under the control of the Moscow patriarchate and whose supreme leader is Kirill. Depending on the statistics used, the UOC is followed by either 70 percent of the total population (which is UOC's official claim) or around half of the religiously active population, closer to 20 percent of total population. The UOC owns most of the church property in the country and is the only Orthodox church in Ukraine with full international canonical recognition. Yushchenko, however, has made it one of his core political platforms to unify the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under one roof
, controlled by Kiev alone. This has been not only Yushchenko's goal, but a strategy of a number of Ukrainian nationalist leaders since Ukraine's independence from the former Soviet Union. Yushchenko in fact reiterated his call for a unified Ukrainian church before Kirill's visit. For Yushchenko, the issue is not solely one of entrenching the malleable Ukrainian identity, continually torn between the East and West, into a solid independent core based out of Kiev. It is also about purging all levers of Moscow's influence from Ukraine, both to strengthen the pro-Western camp and to weaken his political opponents still connected to Moscow. It is no secret that the Russian Orthodox Church had close links to the KGB throughout the Cold War, with its long-time patriarch, Alexei II
, himself allegedly a former KGB agent. Orthodox churches offered Soviet state security apparatus a platform both within the Soviet Union and abroad for placing spies to monitor the local Orthodox population and the Russian diaspora. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emphasis for intelligence-gathering, particularly in Ukraine and ex-Soviet republics, has only strengthened as Moscow looks to rebuild its influence in its near abroad. Yushchenko's move is therefore about eliminating one of the most important levers of the Russian intelligence apparatus inside Ukraine. However, nearly five years after the Orange Revolution, with his popularity sagging and the pro-Western camp in disarray, Yushchenko's plan for an independent Ukrainian church is unfeasible. Kirill's 10-day visit is intended to cement Moscow's control over its side of the religious divide in Ukraine and expand the schism in the Ukrainian religious community, at least for the near future.