Staunton, October 17 – Many people watching Ukraine’s pursuit of autocephaly for its Orthodox appear to believe that this is a one-time event that will occur when the Universal Patriarch offers them a tomos recognizing that status, but in fact, Vladimir Pastukhov says, autocephaly is a process and in the case of Ukraine, it is unlikely to be easy or peaceful.
In a commentary today, the London-based Russian historian points out that “the separation of the potential Ukrainian Patriarchate from the Russia is not one and the same thing as the separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox church from the Russian Orthodox Church.” These are separate but “interconnected processes” (mbk.media/sences/tomos-nestabilnosti/).
As a result of this complexity, shifts by priests and church hierarchs may not correspond at least in time to shifts by parishioners. It is not too difficult to discuss the probable shifts of the former, Pastukhov continues, but it is “still difficult” to predict the latter. Moreover, the relationship between these two shifts may not be the same in all regions of Ukraine.
Given the likelihood that Ukrainian civil authorities will intervene in this situation in ways that may backfire, it is thus possible that the process of achieving autocephaly will lead to “a new civic conflict” even if everyone agrees on where things are ultimately likely to end up, he argues.
What is particularly important to keep in mind is that this conflict won’t be as territorially specific as the war up to now has been. Instead, it is entirely possible that it will “seize almost the entire territory of Ukraine with the exception only of its most extreme Western oblasts where the number of supporters of the Moscow church are extremely small.”
Differences between elites and masses are likely to have serious consequences as well, Pastukhov suggests, because the former are far more enamored of the idea of autocephaly as a path to Europe than the latter and the latter have been once again put in political motion at a time when Ukrainian politics is again heating up.
Yet another reason for thinking the autocephaly process will be difficult is that “a new ‘small victorious civil war’ appears today to be equally attractive to influential political forces both in Moscow and in Kyiv.” Both have lost public support, and both are looking for ways to recover it by playing up patriotic messages.
Moscow will certainly seek to fan the flames in order to destabilize Kyiv, Pastukhov continues, while the Ukrainian government will hope that “this fire before it reaches the upper reaches of the powers that be will burn up potential competitors in the lower floors.” That makes the future of both countries very worrisome with real violence a real possibility.
If the situation tips slightly in the wrong direction, he continues, it is entirely possible that the world will see a full-blown war between the two countries and not a replay of the more limited one that Russia launched in 2014. Thus today’s situation as a result of autocephaly is far more serious than four years ago and than most are inclined to think.
Autocephaly is “practically inevitable” given Russia’s past and present actions, Pastukhov says; but the process is critical lest it spark a new and broader war. Both sides need to be cautious rather than precipitous in their actions because now is far from the best time for such a drive to independence for the Ukrainian church to take place.
“The main question today is not whether there will be separation or not,” he says. Rather, it is how to achieve it in a timely fashion. In that it is much like the burying of Lenin – a challenging task in which yesterday was too early but today is already too late.”
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