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Protests in Ukraine

February 22, 2014 Length: 29:00

AFR's Kevin Allen interviews His Eminence Metropolitan ANTONY, Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the US. Learn about the issues surrounding the violent protests in the country and what is at stake as well as the role of the Orthodox Church in creating peace and moving forward.

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Over the past three months, Ukrainian protesters have occupied Kyiv’s Independence Square. They’re demanding closer ties to the European Union, changes to the constitution, and an altering of the government’s power structures. There’ve been recent, violent clashes, with hundreds of people killed by government forces and protesters in the past few weeks. Orthodox and Catholic priests have courageously ministered to both protesters and government forces. The protests have been framed by many Western media as a “Russia versus the West or European Union” conflict. To help all of us sort through this volatile crisis, Ancient Faith Radio’s Kevin Allen interviewed His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States. This is a pre-recorded program.

Mr. Kevin Allen: This is Kevin Allen for Ancient Faith Radio, and my guest is His Eminence Antony, Metropolitan and Prime Hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States. Your Eminence Antony, thank you for speaking with us about the very fluid situation in the Ukraine.

His Eminence Metropolitan Antony: Thank you for inviting me to share the ideas and thoughts with the public, the Orthodox public.

Mr. Allen: Yes, and I understand, Your Eminence, you’ve been up all night watching the Ukrainian parliament on television to keep up to date.

His Eminence Antony: Absolutely. It’s at the same time a fascinating experience but also a rather frightening experience, because things are moving so quickly.

Mr. Allen: They really are. Your Eminence, let me begin here. In the Western media, the crisis in the Ukraine has tended to be portrayed as a struggle between a Russian-aligned Ukrainian government, almost a puppet government in some analyses, versus a Western-, European Union-leaning opposition. Do you think this is a fair and correct assessment of the situation by the Western media?

His Eminence Antony: Well, on the surface and probably at the beginning of the crisis, I believe that that probably was a fair portrayal. The political divisions between eastern and western Ukraine have been pronounced since modern Ukraine appeared on the scene, back after World War II, when the Western Allies and the Soviet Union came to an agreement about the boundaries of Ukraine, what they would be. And eastern Ukraine consisted mostly of areas that were formerly integral parts of the Russian empire, and the western regions of the Ukraine were those dominated for decades, if not centuries, by the likes of the Polish and Lithuanian and Austro-Hungarian empires. But since the end of World War II, the borders of the Ukraine have basically consisted of what we know as Ukraine today, except for the Crimean peninsula, which was gifted to Ukraine in honor of the 300th anniversary of a treaty that the tsar made in 1654 with the head of the Cossacks of Ukraine. So the Crimean peninsula was not added until 1954, formally, although it was included as part of Ukraine in the Soviet constitution, several decades before.

I think later, though, this crisis developed into much more than just a division between East and West. It turned into a complete desire to rid the country of President Yanukovych because of the corruption that exists throughout the entire Ukrainian government, and the people are actually just… the only way to say it is fed up with the lack of progress in terms of the improvement of their lives and by coming up to Western standards. The rich get richer, and it never seems to stop. They never seem to be able to fill their bank accounts enough. Of course, in many cases, they know that it is the oligarchs who are the very wealthy, extremely wealthy Ukrainians who are the biggest supporters of President Yanukovych, and there’s a lot of resentment on those grounds also.

But I have to just say in addition to that that Ukraine is a united nation in the vote, referendum for independence back in 1990. The vote was over 90%, and that includes the regions of the far eastern portion of the Ukraine, particularly in the Kharkiv, where you have 90-some percent of the population who speak Russian primarily, and yet the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of independence for Ukraine. You may have heard today that President Yanukovych left Kyiv and has gone to the city of Kharkiv, which is really like the center of his base of power, and as he was meeting with representatives of the various regions in eastern Ukraine, there were thousands of people outside the doors of that meeting, protesting and wanting the Ukraine not to be divided into two individual countries.

Mr. Allen: Is there reliable polling data, Your Eminence Antony, as to what Ukrainians really want? That is, do they want closer economic and cultural ties with Russia or do they in fact lean towards the European Union and/or the West?

His Eminence Antony: Well, the last information that I heard—and that was fairly close to the beginning of the entire crisis here—was that right after President Yanukovych reneged on his promise to sign the document with the European Union, the polls said that there were 54% of the population favored the closer ties with the European Union, and the balance either… I think that 30-some percent desired to have closer ties with Russia, and then there were the rest, who were basically undecided. So the majority does favor the close ties with the European Union.

Mr. Allen: Interesting. So that characterization of kind of an East-West conflict has some validity.

At the heart of the protests—and you mentioned this; I just want to follow up on that—at least initially there was this wide ranging trade pact called the Eastern Partnership offered to the Ukraine by the European Union. It was vehemently opposed by Ukraine’s large neighbor and the Russian government, who threatened economic sanctions and higher gas prices and all sorts of threats if Ukraine went with the European Union. What would that pact have accomplished?

His Eminence Antony: The most important thing is that it would have opened up Ukraine to foreign investment, which would have made a huge difference in the development of the nation, but the side effects of it would have been that Ukraine would have, within a certain amount of time, had to have dealt with the problem of corruption in the government. It would have had to ensure that it was a nation of laws, a law not just within the higher elements of the government. And the benefits of it would have been far-reaching, but I don’t believe that they would have been as far-reaching as soon as necessary for the life of the people. I think it probably would have been a real cultural shock for the people, which I think they were prepared to deal with in the fact that the prices of all their commodities would have gone up to European standards, and that would have been very, very difficult. But I think that most people were prepared to do that, in order to come out in the end with a far better and solid nation.

Mr. Allen: Yeah, the word that I’ve heard is that it would have also opened up borders to trade and set the stage for modernization and so on.

His Eminence Antony: Precisely.

Mr. Allen: Do you think, then, that President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of the European Union pact was based on opposition from Russia, or was it because of the changes in society that would perhaps put [him] and his supporters kind of not in control of the situation?

His Eminence Antony: No, it was purely under the influence of Russia, which, as you had mentioned earlier, threatened to cut gas supplies or to double the prices and to cut trade with Ukraine. The foreign minister of Russia was making definitely [threats] without even trying to veil it, what the consequences would have been for Ukraine. But the thing that the European Union offer and deal did not offer for Ukraine was a huge influx of money in order to deal with the financial crisis that the nation is facing right now. And I believe the ultimate act that sealed the deal with Russia was the offer of $15 billion of financial aid.

Mr. Allen: Right. That’s an important number to remember. You know, I’m curious about this: the European Union initially—and I believe it’s being addressed now, and we’ll get to this, but I want to kind of back up—the European Union also demanded as part of the deal release of the prime minister and political opponent of the president, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was allegedly imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Do you think that was also perhaps a reason why the president didn’t go with the deal?

His Eminence Antony: It could have been, but I don’t believe it was a major consideration in the matter. By the way, she has been released from prison now.

Mr. Allen: Yes, that’s what we read this morning.

His Eminence Antony: By order of the parliament.

Mr. Allen: Right, exactly.

So bring us up to date: who is actually heading up the opposition? It’s not just one figure; it’s a coalition—is that not right?

His Eminence Antony: Precisely, which is why, I believe, this whole situation has gone on as long as it did. The Ukrainian opposition has never been united. It doesn’t have an effective leader that others are willing to fall in behind, and there’s such a great number of parties that it’s difficult to pick one leader who’s going to be able to step up and say, “Look, people, this is the way we need to go.” And that’s sort of changing now. It’s sort of boiled down now to two individuals: Vitali Klitschko, the former world boxing champion, who is head of one opposition party; and Yatsenyuk, who is the head of the Batkivshchyna party, the “Fatherland” party. The two of them are the ones in actually who signed the documents with Yanukovych in the agreement.

Mr. Allen: I’m curious about something.

And I’m speaking, by the way, with Metropolitan Antony of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States about the situation in the Ukraine, which is very quickly changing, almost minute-by-minute.

Your Eminence, there are three Orthodox patriarchates in Ukraine. One is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, two is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Moscow, and third is the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. What are the official or public positions, if any, of these patriarchates regarding the political situation and the protests?

His Eminence Antony: I wouldn’t call them patriarchates. There’s only one that call themselves a patriarchate, and that’s the Kyivan Patriarchate, under Patriarch Filaret. And then there’s the Ukrainian Orthodox Autonomous Church, which is under the Moscow Patriarchate. And the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church is not a patriarchate; they at one time called themselves such. As you’ve probably seen in photographs throughout the whole crisis, there have been Orthodox clergy stepping out, standing between the Militsiya and the protesters, and serving in a chapel tent that was set up within the boundaries of the protesters’ encampment. Basically, they’re witnessing to and ministering to the protesters who have been camped out there now for three months.

The Kyivan Patriarchate I would have to say is probably the most active in its support of the protesters, and has spoken out vociferously against the actions that were taken by the government. They have even opened their churches that are nearby to the Independence Square, and the refectory church at St. Michael Monastery. The refectory church has been turned into an ad hoc hospital, where they’re treating people. There have been over 500 people injured over the past several days. Anyone is free to come in the grounds and into the main cathedral itself, and they have a place set up there for people to just actually sleep and to get some food or have some hot tea and to get away from the bitter weather that’s been accompanying this crisis.

The Moscow Patriarch’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been a bit less public in its support of the protesters, but individual clergy have been taking part and ministering to both sides, to both the police and the protesters throughout the whole process. I haven’t heard really anything at all about what actions the Autocephalous Church has been taking during the crisis. But I would say that they would probably it would be the Kyivan Patriarchate that would the one that would be understood as to be the biggest supporters of the protest movement.

Mr. Allen: I think it’s also fair to note that Greek-Catholic priests have also been ministering and intervening on behalf of the protesters, too. Is that not correct?

His Eminence Antony: Absolutely. And it’s very interesting that the government chose, when the Greek-Catholic Church sent their first priests, the government threatened to withdraw its recognition and the right for the Ukrainian Catholic Church to exist, even. It’s interesting that they chose to do that and not to do the same thing for the Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

Mr. Allen: That is interesting.

We mentioned that Yanukovych rejected the European Union pact, he flew to Moscow, he made several deals with Russia totaling, as you pointed out, Your Eminence, $15 billion, but then he imposed a sweeping anti-protest law which really ignited and inflamed the passions of the protesters of which at some points there were hundreds of thousands supposedly, I don’t know. The anti-protest law was ultimately repealed by the government, but by this time the opposition demanded more than just repeal of the anti-protest law; they demanded constitutional reforms. Is that right?

His Eminence Antony: Correct. The law against protesting, protesters and things like that really didn’t have any time to take effect before it was overturned by the first group of negotiations with the opposition. Even at that time, President Yanukovych agreed that he would put forth before the Verkhovna Rada, which is Ukraine’s parliament, the request to abandon the constitution which he instituted after he came to office, which changed the entire structure of the government, placing most of the authority and power within the hands of the president as opposed to what had existed before that, the prime minister being the active leader of the government and with most of the powers that he would obtain from the Verkhovna Rada. Apparently that action has been formalized today with these more recent votes of the Verkhovna Rada yesterday and today.

Interesting to note in those parliamentary decisions that are being made now that there are 390-some members, deputies of the parliament which are passing all of these measures unanimously. There are 450 members of the Verkhovna Rada, and the party of the regions which is President Yanukovych’s party filled well over 50% of those seats, so the fact that the votes are 398 to something means, obviously, that his supporters have abandoned him in droves and are now acting supposedly in the interests of the nation.

Mr. Allen: Recently it seemed things, according to what we see in the Western press—you may know differently—it seemed that things were getting better, and then last week, especially and unfortunately last Thursday, on the 20th of February, there was a great escalation of violence in which between—depending on the reports—80 to 100 protesters were reportedly killed by police. Can you kind of walk us through what happened and why?

His Eminence Antony: Well, that’s difficult to say, because it seemed there was some progress being made. The first group set of negotiations were rejected by the demonstrators on the streets, so the opposition went back and began to renegotiate. I’ll tell you, I’d say it’s quite a surprise to me that Yanukovych has agreed to these negotiations repeatedly and that he hadn’t lost his proverbial cool or his containment of his anger before that time.

But I don’t believe that even now, the fact that there were conflicts before and there were conflicts now, but I think what tipped the balance in the whole situation was the fact that the ministry of the interior had ordered snipers into buildings surrounding the Independence Square, and their orders were to shoot in the head and neck. And that’s where the vast majority of these people on Thursday died, because of the snipers, not because of the militia on the ground or the police forces on the ground.

I think that was the end, and there was always the demand that Yanukovych resign, but I think that could have been negotiated, if it had been… but when these snipers came into the picture, that was the end for most people.

Mr. Allen: Yes. How terrible.

As a result of really the horror of last week and the many that were killed by, as you say, reportedly by these government sniper attacks—although that might be a partisan position; let me try to be objective; we don’t know for sure—as a result and because of international pressure, on Friday, yesterday, on the 21st, and with the help of diplomats from Poland, France, and Germany, major concessions, I have to say, were made by the government, and a truce to end the protests was signed by the government and accepted, as you mentioned, by the heads of the opposition. Do you see this, Your Eminence Antony, as a break-through that will resolve the crisis?

His Eminence Antony: From the news that’s coming out of the nation today, it seems that it was an end and has done precisely that. The only problem is that Mr. Yanukovych hasn’t remained in Ukraine and in Kyiv to put these agreements into force, left Kyiv, went to Kharkiv and called meetings in the regional governments to begin talking about how they needed to ignore what’s coming out of Kyiv from the Verkhovna Rada and contain and deal with their own areas through their own legal institutions. I don’t know how the Verkhovna Rada has dealt with it yet, but under the old constitution, none of the portions of the agreement which have been put into force by the Verkhovna Rada would have become legal and binding unless the president signed it. I just received, just five minutes before you called, bulletins over the internet and telephone calls saying that the parliament has now impeached Yanukovych and removed him from office.

Mr. Allen: Oh, really?

His Eminence Antony: That’s the way it looks like they’re going to be able to proceed and move on with these agreements.

Mr. Allen: Good. That’s kind of breaking news. I wasn’t even aware of that when we placed the call. Thank you for that, because as you know many of the protesters were still calling for Yanukovych’s resignation or removal.

Maybe you could briefly, Your Eminence, walk us through some of the specifics of the agreement. I know there’s a formation of a new transition government in ten days that’s called for. What are some of the other things that the agreement calls for?

His Eminence Antony: The agreement is almost obsolete now, because the Verkhovna Rada has gone far, far beyond what those agreements were, and in releasing the political prisoners… Let’s go over the request you had first. The agreements were that there would be amnesty for all of those protesters. The constitution that Yanukovych put into force after he became president was to be cast aside, and they would return to the 2004 constitution. New elections were to be scheduled as soon as possible, but no later than December 25. And those were basically the three basic and main elements that were part of the agreement, but now, in addition to the fact that they have impeached President Yanukovych, I just received another bulletin three minutes ago that the new elections have been set for May 25 for the president.

Mr. Allen: Give us a sense of… We’re used to a certain way of conducting elections in the West and in this country. Are fair elections possible and likely in the Ukraine, given the corruption and so on that you referred to?

His Eminence Antony: Well, as you saw back in 2004, they were definitely not, and of course they were overturned and Yushchenko came to power in place of Yanukovych. There are many, many people who still claim that the elections of 2010 were not fair, but there was not much anyone could do about it.

I believe that now, if these elections do indeed go forth—and that’s a big if—they will probably be the most fair that we have known since Ukrainian independence in terms of… I believe they’ll have observers from every part of the world coming in to participate and observe.

Mr. Allen: But you’re not optimistic that there’ll be elections?

His Eminence Antony: It’s difficult to say. Yanukovych has responded to everything that the parliament is doing today and saying that he will not leave office, and yet he’s abandoned his office; he’s abandoned the entire administration. So it’s so fluid that I don’t believe that anything I would say or anyone would say today would hold up for 24 hours.

Mr. Allen: Right. You know, I didn’t read about any concessions on the pact with the European Union, which, as we discussed earlier, was a trigger for this crisis. Is this being deferred, Your Eminence, until a new election and a new government is formed, do you think?

His Eminence Antony: I’m fairly certain that that will be the case. In any case, it’s going to be very, very sincere new negotiations, because this will be a completely new picture in which Ukraine is going to be in need [of] much more financial assistance than the European Union was willing to provide.

Mr. Allen: Do you think Russia will put up with a deal between Ukraine and the European Union?

His Eminence Antony: I believe the same threats will come about. You see, the problem is, with the European Union and Russia itself, the vast majority of the gas for heating, etc., in Europe, especially in Germany, comes from Russia, so it’s Russia’s threats to Ukraine have a very important effect on what goes on in Europe also. It’s very difficult, and it’s the same thing with the United States. The Western powers, really, their hands are tied with how far they can go in support of things that are happening in Ukraine right now. The Obama administration needs Putin to try to resolve the Syrian crisis, and it just goes on and on and on, and Ukraine is trapped in the middle there somewhere.

Mr. Allen: Your Eminence, do you think there was ever any real concern about Russian military intervention in Ukraine if things didn’t go the way they, Russia, wanted?

His Eminence Antony: I think that there was sincere concern about that in Ukraine, and there always is that concern in Ukraine. If you remember—well, maybe you’re too young to remember—1968, when the spring of Czechoslovakia, they thought they were free, and the troops came marching in. I don’t know that there is a real possibility of that. I think that if there was a possibility, it was prevented right now, because of the Olympic Games that are going on.

But I read a statement, I think it was yesterday afternoon, that both President Obama and Putin agreed that the agreements that were made between opposition and Yanukovych needed to be put into place immediately. So if that’s the truth and if it’s also true that Putin [said] in the last week sometime, that the $15 billion that Russia offered to the Ukraine are not restricted to one particular individual who’s leading the government at any time, Russia’s prepared to deal with whatever government in Ukraine is legally in place and to continue that support. I think it would be pretty hard for Russia right now to take any kind of action like that without the world really reacting way beyond expectations.

Mr. Allen: Your Eminence, as we’re coming to a close, obviously this situation has caused a lot of internal polarization in Ukraine, and healing will clearly need to take place: social healing and all of the above. What role will or should the various Orthodox churches and the Greek-Catholic church play in this?

His Eminence Antony: I believe that they will play an enormous role, in fact, the primary role. We have all along, and so have all the churches in Ukraine have called upon those involved to remember the dignity of the human being, to remember the sanctity of life throughout this whole conflict. The Church and the clergy will be required to refrain from participation in any kind of political maneuvering or machinations, and to simply preach the word of God, and preach the love of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to overcome the difficulties first and then to begin the process of forgiveness, because this is a process that I believe will go on for some time to come.

I do not believe that Ukraine is headed for civil war. I believe that there is a feeling throughout the boundaries of the nation today that Ukraine is one nation and will stay that way. The conflicts between east and west have always been there, and I believe that they will be in the future, but I don’t believe that it is a threat to the stability and the existence of one, single Ukrainian nation.

But the churches must take on their responsibility, and we have been saying it here in our epistles to the faithful and our statements to the faithful throughout this situation and earlier situations: The Church of Ukraine must do everything it can, and this may be an opportunity for the unification of the churches, the process to begin. I understand that the patriarch has issued a statement calling for the unity of the churches now at this difficult time in the life of the nation. But our statements here and our call has always been that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church must regain what its primary role was in the life of the nation. It must once again become the moral conscience of the nation.

Mr. Allen: Your Eminence Antony, thank you very, very much for helping us to better understand the situation in Ukraine.

His Eminence Antony: I thank you for the interest and the willingness to share these thoughts with the Orthodox faithful around the world, and I want to thank Ancient Faith Radio for the enormous task it has taken upon itself and the good that it has accomplished throughout the years of its existence. I hope that you’re able to gain all the support that you need to continue this work for many, many blessed years.

Mr. Allen: Thank you, Your Eminence.


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