KIEV, Ukraine — Only weeks ago, Ukraine’s embattled President Viktor Yanukovych issued an ultimatum to the anti-government protesters encamped in Independence Square: Clear the area or risk physical removal by armed riot police.
The demonstrators, supported by the Catholic Church, stood their ground.
And the confrontation sparked a cascade of political violence and upheaval that took the lives of an estimated 90 people, left another 2,000 wounded and culminated in the flight of the country’s Moscow-allied president from his palace in the capital.
A week after Yanukovych issued that final warning on Feb. 18, he was reported to be encamped in the eastern region of Ukraine, and his government was dissolved. A new parliament that includes both opposition party members and some from Yanukovych’s Regions party has begun to repeal laws and set the stage for new elections on May 24.
Latin-rite Catholic leaders in Ukraine celebrated the rapid political changes as a victory for democracy, fundamental human rights and national unity, even as they mourned those who had lost their lives during the standoff.
Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki, president of Ukraine’s Latin-rite Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the outcome of the confrontation has inspired a new sense of hope and a commitment to securing a democratic future in Ukraine.
"People have developed a deeper sense of responsibility for the country as citizens and a deeper conscience of civic duty," he said, during an interview with Aid to the Church in Need.
"On Maidan Square, there was an atmosphere of solidarity, regardless of denomination, rite and ethnicity," said the archbishop, referring to the Ukrainian name for the square.
However, experts on Ukrainian politics have already warned that it is too soon to say whether the country will enjoy a stable period of democratic governance that will allow new leaders to repair its broken economy and tackle political corruption.
Nor is it clear how Russia will react to the removal of a key political ally in Ukraine, a neighboring state and former Soviet satellite.
But for now, the historic events in Maidan are still fresh, and they hold the potential to inspire a new era of democratic reform in Ukraine.
When the anti-government protesters joined together to defend the square from encroaching police units, protesters burned tires, threw cobblestones and tossed petrol bombs, often to the sound of priests from the Orthodox and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Churches chanting on Maidan’s main soundstage, guarded by banners showing Jesus and Mary.
Prayer, including the Rosary, alternated with patriotic songs and political appeals all night, even as the death toll mounted, with both protesters and some police losing their lives.
Days earlier, the standoff over Ukraine’s future had appeared to be calming down. In exchange for the release of hundreds of protesters from jail, activists abandoned Kiev City Hall, which they had occupied for more than two months.
The protest began Nov. 21, when the Ukrainian government abruptly turned its back on an association agreement with the European Union. Instead, the government aligned itself with Russia, which offered a deal worth $15 billion in financing and a 33% discount on natural gas.
However, the protest effort, widely known as the "Euromaidan Movement," morphed into an anti-government movement pursuing broader freedoms, including constitutional reform to limit presidential power, guarantee of early elections and the resignation of a president who was considered corrupt and anti-democratic.
U.S. bishops have added their voices to those around the world calling for change in Ukraine.
Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput called on the the U.S. government to impose a visa ban against corrupt Ukrainian officials and "business oligarchs," while freezing U.S.-based assets. He explained, "Silence from the United States encourages oppression in Ukraine. We can’t let that happen."
One of the most positive developments has been the consistent, close collaboration of Catholic and Orthodox groups, with Byzantine-rite and Latin-rite Catholics working together with Orthodox Christians, mainly those associated with the Kiev Patriarchate. The patriarchate is the third-largest group of Orthodox faithful in the world, with 15 million believers.
The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Metropolitan Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, and Patriarch Filaret (Mykhailo Denysenko), leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in January, and, together, they briefed top-level policymakers at the U.S. State Department and National Security Council about recent happenings.
It was the first joint action for these two Churches, which have been pitted against each other for about 50 years, since after World War II, although the UGCC is the largest Eastern-rite Church in communion with the Holy See.
From Death to Life
During the Soviet Union’s domination of Ukraine, the UGCC was banned. A brutal campaign was launched against the Church in 1945. Its bishops were exiled and murdered, clergy were driven underground, and property was transferred to the Orthodox Church.
"We were one generation away from extinction," Bishop Borys Gudziak explained to the Register. The U.S.-born prelate, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, serves as the UGCC’s eparch of Paris and is also the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
Today, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has about 5.4 million believers in the country and an increasing number abroad as well. Additionally, Bishop Gudziak said the Greek Catholic Church now has more than 3,000 priests, with 800 seminarians currently being trained in the country or abroad.
The resurgence of the UGCC over the past quarter century has been one of the Catholic Church’s most dramatic success stories.
Bishop Gudziak suggests that the UGCC’s past experience under a communist regime prompted fierce resistance to the ousted autocratic government.
Thus, Greek Catholics see themselves as being uniquely obligated to prevent an independent Ukraine from slipping back into subjugation.
West vs. East?
The crisis in Ukraine is economic as well as political.
The Russia-Ukraine relationship is old and deep, both culturally and economically. Most of eastern Ukraine was part of the Russian empire for hundreds of years. Its rich farmland provided food exports for its neighbor to the east, earning it the nickname "Breadbasket of Russia."
Today, many of Russia’s energy products, such as natural gas and oil, are exported through Ukraine. One-third of the Ukrainian population speaks Russian as a native language.
After the collapse of communism, Western countries offered various forms of assistance to countries struggling to establish democracy and free markets, including Ukraine.
Roman Popadiuk, the first U.S. ambassador to independent Ukraine, explained to the Register that Ukraine was not considered for membership in the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) "because policymakers did not want to provoke Russia, and Ukraine was not prepared for it."
Instead of crafting a military alliance with Ukraine through NATO, the idea emerged that a partnership with the European Union — which would focus on strengthening democratic institutions including the judiciary, as well as beneficial trade relations — would provide support without upsetting Russia.
"It hasn’t really worked out as expected," observed Popadiuk, who advises a financial package for Ukraine, jointly crafted by the U.S. government, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in order to provide critical financial stability and avoid a worsening crisis.
Financial mismanagement is at the heart of Ukraine’s troubles, Harvard University professor of Ukrainian history Serhii Plokhii told the Register.
Ukraine is in recession. It faces rising foreign debt, significant trade and budget deficits and a shrinking private sector. Taxes, inspections and customs fees put pressure on businesses; more than 600,000 closed between 2010 and 2012.
Experts say that Ukraine’s oligarchs have a lot to say about Ukraine’s future.
According to Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires, 10 Ukrainian businessmen control much of the country’s wealth.
A few oligarchs sided with the opposition, preferring alliance with Europe, where they feel more secure, but the country’s economic center of gravity is in the east, where industry, farmland and seaports — as well as the Russian population — are located.
Some observers, such as U.S. Catholic commentator Patrick Buchanan, warn that the questions facing Ukraine are really internal ones.
"It’s not an issue the U.S. should get deeply entangled in, because it’s not our decision," Buchanan told the Register. "The U.S. should let the Ukrainians decide themselves" whether to align with the European Union, Russia or both.
As Ukraine prepares for democratic elections in May, it is not clear whether the majority of its citizens share the Euromaidan protesters’ desire for fundamental political change.
Centrifugal forces may push east and west further apart, even as the nation’s Church leaders continue their prayers for unity.
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.