Ukraine at the Breaking Point: 26 Dead, but Spirit Undefeated

As protesters face off against armed riot police in Kiev, Church leaders in Ukraine and the U.S. express support for the beleaguered anti-government 'Euromaidan Movement.'

A woman lights candles in memory of the victims of clashes between police and protesters in Kiev, at the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow on Feb. 19.
A woman lights candles in memory of the victims of clashes between police and protesters in Kiev, at the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow on Feb. 19. (photo: AP photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

KIEV, Ukraine — Despite an ultimatum yesterday from the Ukrainian government for Kiev protesters to clear Independence Square or risk being physically removed, some 20,000 anti-government demonstrators, supported by the Catholic Church, faced armed riot police in an apocalyptic scene of fire and nerve.

To defend the square, known as Maidan in Ukrainian, 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. By this morning, some 26 people were dead, including 10 police, and more than 1,000 injured on both sides.

Just two days ago, the standoff over Ukraine’s future seemed 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.

In Europe, two opposition leaders met with German President Angela Merkel, appealing to the European Union (EU) for sanctions against President Viktor Yanukovych and his circle. To date, the EU has been slow to come to Ukraine’s rescue.

The protest began Nov. 21, when the Ukrainian government abruptly turned its back on an association agreement with the EU. Instead, the government aligned itself with Russia, which offered a deal worth $15 billion in financing and a 33% discount on natural gas.

The purpose of the protest, widely known as the "Euromaidan Movement," has shifted since November.

Originally about EU accession, it is now an anti-government movement pursuing broader freedoms, including constitutional reform to limit presidential power, guarentee early elections and bring about the resignation of the president,who is considered corrupt and anti-democratic.


Catholic Church Supports Protest

U.S. bishops have added their voices to those around the world calling for change in Ukraine.

Remembering his visit last summer to Kiev, where he was struck by the young people and the hopefulness of the Church, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York wrote on his blog late last month, “Those high summer hopes have now turned as cold as this New York winter day.”

In his blog post, titled “Supporting the Euromaidan Movement in Ukraine,” Cardinal Dolan asked his readers — and the U.S. government — to stand with the “brave Ukrainians” who are defending human dignity and civil rights.

Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput was more specific in his recent statement on the crisis. He suggested the U.S. government 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 in the last month 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.

Last night, St. Michael’s Monastery, near Maidan, was turned into a hospital for injured protesters.

Earlier this month, 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, 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.

“In 1949, Ukrainian Greek Catholics had about 3,000 priests,” said Bishop Gudziak. “In 1989, we emerged from the catacombs with only 300 priests — a 90% reduction, with an average age close to 70 years.”

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.

Meanwhile, because near extinction is a recent memory, the Greek Catholic Church has a powerful antipathy to any move that suggests a return to the past.

As Cardinal Dolan noted in his blog, the Church has been “starved, jackbooted, imprisoned, tortured, persecuted and martyred by Hitler, Stalin and company,” making its resurgence all the more precious.

Bishop Gudziak suggests that the UGCC’s past experience under a communist regime is prompting fierce resistance to the current autocratic government.

“In the 20th century, for a better part of it, the UGCC was the biggest illegal Church in the world,” he told Vatican Radio last year. “And, in the Soviet Union, it was the biggest body of opposition to the totalitarian system. And it carries into the 21st century this posture and moral standing of a witness to truth in the face of pressure, swimming against the current.”

As the bishop’s statement demonstrates, 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.


Economic Issues

Financial mismanagement is at the heart of Ukraine’s troubles, Harvard University professor of Ukrainian history Serhii Plokhii told the Register. Plokhii says President Yanukovych, who took power in 2010, is reorienting Ukraine away from the West in order to maintain a corrupt regime that is driving the country into bankruptcy — and Russia simply offered Yanukovych a financial lifeline.

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.

Many Euromaidan protesters are middle-class people roiled by the poor economy.

Beyond the president, elite economic interests have a lot to say about Ukraine’s future.

Economist Anders Aslund, an expert in economic transition, told the Register that the only way for demonstrators to win is not to focus on the president, who will never yield power, but to negotiate with powerful oligarchs who control parliament.

“How can you change power in Ukraine?” Aslund asked. “The parliament is the only legal means, and for that, the opposition needs the cooperation of the oligarchs. Either you cooperate with the oligarchs or you lose, very simply.”

According to Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires, 10 Ukrainian businessmen control much of the country’s wealth.

A few oligarchs side 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.  


What’s Next?

Some observers, such as U.S. 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 EU, Russia or both.

The Catholic commentator, who advised presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, cautions that Russia should not be seen as an enemy.

“Our conflict was with communism, not with the Russian nation,” Buchanan said. “Now, Russia is attempting to make the Orthodox Christian faith the ruling guide of its society — a very beneficial and hopeful thing. I think it should be encouraged.”

Meanwhile, the country is becoming more polarized each day. In the west, Time magazine is reporting that police in the city of Ternopil decided last night to side with the people against the central government.

Yet in the Crimea, where 60% of the population is Russian, pro-Russian separatism is on the rise, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and anti-Maidan posters have sprung up everywhere.

Although Euromaidan protesters insist on fundamental change for the entire country, the centrifugal forces pushing West and East further apart appear powerful at barricades on fire, despite powerful prayers for unity.

At his Feb. 19 general audience, Pope Francis urged peace in Ukraine, according to Vatican Radio: “With a worried soul, I have been following what is happening in Kiev in these days.”

The Holy Father assured the Ukrainian people of his prayers, as well as the victims of violence, their families and the injured.

Francis entreated “all parties to cease all violence and to seek harmony and peace in the country.”

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.

Michelangelo, “The Last Judgment,” 1536-1541

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