I dispatch this column from Kiev, the capital of this country, which approaches its collapse, being “crucified” between Brussels and Moscow. For already three days, I have closely monitored the situation which is extremely dramatic and beyond any control. At times, all this traumatically reminds me of what we had seen in Vukovar in the Fall of 1991 and in Sarajevo several months later. Bloody street fights take place, the buildings are set aflame, the snipers shoot at the innocents from rooftops, Molotov cocktails and bombs burst all around. Some hotels are turned into improvised hospitals, and the Ukraine Hotel on the Independence Square downtown functions as a mortuary wherein the dead are being identified and death toll is being summed up.
It is difficult to predict how and when this uncontrolled sowing of death will end and how many victims will succumb before the Ukrainian people welcome a pro-European liberty it desires and the extreme nationalists on both sides are disarmed. The Ukrainian colleagues and friends (there are some Russians among them, too) claim that I should not believe in official reports and already terrifying statistics on the number of dead and wounded, for the figures of sufferers are quite larger than the ones reported by the media. My former Osijek students (there are totally 50-odd of them in Ukraine) that have experienced a sanguine drama of Yugoslavia’s collapse together with us compare their Yanukovych to Milošević, hoping for a rapid and efficacious intervention of Europe and America.
Some ask me how I happened to be here at all, in the very epicenter of a massive and partly violent people’s insurgence against a heavy usurpation of power and an even more violent suppression thereof. I have to admit that I have been also surprised by dramatic calls I received in Osijek toward the middle of the last week, urging that I should leave everything else as to join some of my acquaintances, knowledge, and experience to a (too) little team of inter-confessional experts in conflict prevention and peace-making. Morally observed, it is impossible to reject the invitations to such a noble mission, though I still had to multiply the weight the fear of my family and other benevolent people.
A number of these calls are connected to recent encounters in Washington, DC. I have to admit that at the beginning of February, when I socialized with Ukrainian and Russian politicians and the high ecclesiastic dignitaries within the framework of the (Inter)national Prayer Breakfast and related events and meetings in Washington, DC, we could not predict an explosion of violence and a belligerent situation that would follow toward the end of the month. Thus, in the column Through Prayer to Peace you will not find Ukraine, although we have worriedly discussed about it and prayed for it a lot and at several places in the US capital.
I have considered myself honored when the Ukrainians, whom I always cherished, invited me on February 5 in Washington, DC to join them to celebrate their national holiday and sing Christian hymns and pray for Ukraine on the square, in front of an impressive monument to their giant Taras Shevchenko. It was a very impressive encounter and a truly ecumenical event, for there were also Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists and Pentecostals among us in addition to an Orthodox majority although the prayer was officially led by the Kiev-based Orthodox patriarch Philaret and the patriarch of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church Sviatislav.
In Washington, DC, Patriarch Philaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kievan Patriarchate attracted a tremendous attention, in addition to some acrimonious objections on the Russian side. During informal fellowshipping and at a round table, he assured us that a war cannot break out because Christians, who pray to the same God, are on both sides. Those who protest on the Maidan (there was no lethal violence then) as well as those in power believe in God, and all of them, emphasized the Patriarch in the style of a preacher, have a sacred obligation to profess their faith by their deeds. When asked what will happen if there should be an escalation and the baptised Christians start killing each other (like in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia), the Patriarch stopped for a while as to respond to us verbatim: “If someone should claim that s/he is a Christian and s/he kills or issues orders to kill – I ask you what kind of a Christian is s/he then. The murderers will be justly punished sooner or later.” In these talks and in all his public performances, even in front of the politicians and diplomats, the Patriarch insisted that prayer is the most Christians may contribute to solve a tensed situation which inevitably leads to open confrontations, as it was obvious already then.
I have to admit that I may not entirely agree with these and similar exclusive spiritualizations in my capacity as a Scripture-based and contemporarily oriented Christian theologian, for they may in fact be a way of escapism from realities and changes for which the righteous God cares so much instead of a supplication to God. I am being tormented by a question of when a prayer is a really efficacious dialogue with God and when it turns into an expression of superstition by virtue of a spiritual inertia and a mechanically recited rhetoric. Moreover, such a kind of distanced spirituality favours those who criticise Eastern Christianity because of an alleged incapacity to be sufficiently loudly and relevantly engaged in social issues for centuries.
Some twenty years ago, I have personally expounded this sincere ecumenical concern in a discussion with the Serbian Patriarch Pavle, indubitably a saint in many aspects. He surprised me by his attentive listening and his warmth in the comprehension of my benevolent criticism, especially by his emphasis that we should continue a mutually beneficial dialogue about this, between the activist Protestant West and the contemplative East, as he phrased it.
A criticism on the account of numerous Protestant rambles and missed experiments in the area is in any way also in place. In the context of Ukrainian crisis and tensed relations with Russia, I have to express my uneasiness about the belated and grossly incoherent statement issued by the Conference of European Churches (CEC). The inaudible voices uttered from the ecumenical capital of Geneva are not more convincing. It is obvious that the tepid reactions within the CEC and the World Council of Churches are an expression of anxiety towards the reaction of the Russian Orthodox Church, which increasingly becomes more anti-ecumenically active and has unambiguously sided with Putin with regard to this issue, while uncritically supporting his megalomaniac plans to restore Russia as a superpower through the creation of an Eurasian Union that could equally compete with both the EU and the USA.
Let us return to the spot at which I agitatedly meditate on this and other issues of war and peace in a Tolstoy-esque manner. One cannot assert that at Maidan people only shoot, set things to fire, destroy and kill without any mention of a prayer. In front of our very eyes, a priest of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church has just set up a tent chapel jointly consecrated by Roman Catholic and Greek-Catholic clergy. This brave spiritual endeavour happens only two days subsequent to Berkut’s (in this context, the notorious troops of the Ukrainian militia established for the fight against crime) arson of the previous version of an inter-confessional chapel that stood next to the Independence Column. A colleague of mine in the improvised new “chapel” reads aloud a spiritually powerful and solidarity-imbued message by the ecumenical (pan-orthodox) Patriarch Bartholomew. With a bit of irony, I comment that this message will certainly not be read in Moscow and in the Russian Orthodox churches, since Bartholomew is not honoured there as he canonically should be.
While I am writing these lines (Friday around noon), certain signs of provisional hope emerge for the first time. Europe has still learned something from the Yugoslavian tragedy about a high price of an unconsolidated approach and an amoral hesitation. After tedious negotiations by the European Troika with the Ukrainian opposition Troika and then more through intimidations than the promises, accompanied by a confrontation with Yanukovych, a peace accord is yet signed, providing for a temporary fragile hope, though its long-lasting implementation is questionable.
We should not forget that blood has already been shed on the Maidan when the Russian Duma, while singing under the conductorship of the czar Putin, hypocritically warned against the fact that a “Yugoslavian scenario” should not be repeated in Ukraine and blamed Western countries for the sanguine confrontations, like the Belgrade-based Milošević, because they actually continue to realize their expansionist geopolitical goals while instigating the clashes. A few days ago, Yanukovych himself, “bought (off)” and in a versatile manner supported by Moscow, refused all the Western leaders’ appeals to start serious talks with his political adversaries as to prevent further violence escalation.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who now leads the most difficult negotiations of his life, directly and harshly accused Yanukovych on that occasion, whose “refusal to initiate serious talks on a peaceful conflict resolution and implementation of a constitutional reform is a serious error that might be costly to Ukraine.” Our American friend Joe Biden was even more concrete in his direct telephone threats and public statements in behalf of Obama and the US Government, which has befriended Putin and his satellites all too long. A condemnation in the Western countries was unison, unambiguous, and unexpectedly severe. E.g., Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, well-known to us (it seems as if he still learned something during his languorous engagement in our area), proclaimed President Yanukovych accountable for the dead and violence in Kiev in advance, accusing him that his “hands were covered with blood.”
A priority these days was to stop the violence and interconnect a search for democratic solutions thereto, while announcing pre-term presidential and parliamentary elections that should establish a more balanced democratic government. At any rate, many difficult issues to which there are no easy answers remain and Ukraine awaits times of great uncertainty and heavy turbulences as it aspires to preserve the unity of a deeply divided nation. The Western part of the country, oriented in a pro-European fashion, and the East, oriented in a pro-Russian fashion, will be difficult to reconcile. Putin will not sit peacefully, and the semi-autonomous Crimean peninsula, historically connected to Moscow also by virtue of its Russian majority, will probably be the first to launch a secession procedure from Ukraine and its accession to Russia. Thereafter, everything is possible, even some darker Moscow-directed scenarios whereto the West, with the exception of sanctions, may not more efficaciously respond without seriously disturbing a series of international relations and endanger peace in this world of ours, already excessively encumbered by instability and wars. Should it take this direction, then as the Orthodox pray – May God have mercy!
As much as I rejoice over a (temporary?) cessation of violence and a removal of Yanukovych’s semi-imperialistic powers, I am as much nauseated when pondering over a fact that a peace accord was signed with a man whose hands are covered in blood, and who will sooner or later have to be held accountable for the death of the innocent and other misdeeds of his together with his criminal collaborators like the Balkan-based Milošević, Karadžić, and their relatives. Maybe Patriarch Philaret still “prophesied” in Washington, DC by his assertion that (then still potential) “murderers will be justly punished sooner or later.” Justice is too frequently slow but it eventually arrives, better sooner than later, for there is no peace without justice.