Ukraine's Unreported Revolution

Article excerpt

VIKTOR YUSHCHENKO WAS SWEPT TO POWER BY THE FORCES OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM.

A LARGE PART of what's at stake here is the future of Christianity in this part of the world," said Paul Marty, president of a Pennsylvania-based NGO called HOPE International, to the Mission Network News. "If the election goes toward the pro-Russian candidate," said Marty, who actually lives in Ukraine, "then a lot of the policies of the country are going to follow. And, he's publicly stated that the only church he would recognize would be the Russian Orthodox Church and he would not tolerate others."

In short, if Marty was right, what drew hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians into the streets after the first crooked run-off vote between the two Viktorspro-Moscow prime minister Viktor Yanukovich and pro-Western former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko-was not just outrage over election fraud. It was desperation over the possible imminent suppression of freedom of religion.

You certainly wouldn't have known this if you had relied on the old staples of American news distribution in the last few weeks of 2004. Even TV's cable networks seemed colorblind to what was going on in Ukraine-despite the unusual nature of its "orange revolution"-as did the prestige dailies and the news magazines. But what happened in Ukraine was not just a struggle of pro-democracy, pro-West forces against the corruption and repressiveness of the old heirs of Soviet-style autocracy. It was, in large part, the spontaneous uprising of Ukraine's new evangelical Protestant churches against the threat that a Russian-style clamp down on non-Orthodox Christians might be one of Yanukovich's first orders of business.

THE EMERGENCE OF A NEW EVANGELICAL constituency in Ukraine was a direct consequence of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Protestant missionaries flocked into Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine by the hundreds and thousands, many of them mom and pop teams from the U.S. who knew little about the cultures they were seeking to evangelize. Russia and Belarus soon reacted harshly, enacting laws that gave the Orthodox Church in each country virtual monopoly on religious activity.

Repression in Russia is still continuing, with the authorities in one Russian town, Chekhov, disallowing even the showing of the evangelical "Jesus" movie, the Campus Crusade for Christ production that has been dubbed into some 500 languages and shown to millions worldwide. But Ukraine, though beset by corruption and the autocratic ways of its leader President Vladimir Kuchma, didn't seem so concerned about the Protestant evangelizing at the grassroots. The result: By the time of the first round of the Ukrainian election last fall, there were some 13,000 Protestant churches or organized communities in Ukraine as opposed to 12,000 Orthodox ones.

That limited, though important, neglect of control-which Viktor Yanukovich vowed, if elected, to end-had profound consequences when the "orange" movement of his opponent found itself facing the massive election fraud perpetrated by the Yanukovich team.

Yushchenko, for his part, was hardly an outsider to the political establishment of Ukraine. An accountant by profession, and in fact a native of the eastern part of Ukraine where Yanukovich had his greatest support, Yushchenko rose to prominence as head of Ukraine's central bank, overseeing policies that tamed inflation and spurred economic growth.

He was named prime minister by President Kuchma in 1998 and gave every indication of being a loyal soldier. That is, until Kuchma's sliding poll figures, in contrast with Yushchenko's steady popularity, brought about Yushchenko's dismissal in 2001. At this point, Yushchenko felt free to become the leader of Ukraine's democratic opposition bloc, "Our Ukraine," which won a respectable number of seats in the 2002 parliamentary elections.

The Yushchenko-Yanukovich election in many ways seemed a classic struggle for power through proxies of Russia and the West. …