12/29/2018, 08.07
UKRAINE – RUSSIA
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Poroshenko: war, elections, churches

by Vladimir Rozanskij

Martial law has been lifted. The Ukrainian president continues to denounce Russian military threats, calling on the West to intervene. For the opposition, it is all an election ploy. The president’s party is down to 11 per cent in public opinion polls. On 6 January, he will travel to Constantinople for the Tomos of autocephaly.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Representatives of Ukraine’s defence establishment held a secret meeting in Kyiv yesterday to review martial law, which Poroshenko had in force for 30 days, pending the events.

The measure was imposed in ten regions along the border with Russia on 26 November following the capture of three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, which Ukrainian authorities deemed an "act of aggression". With Russian and Ukrainian forces massing on the border, Ukraine complained of possible Russian invasion from the sea.

However, the only real restrictive measure imposed during martial was an entry ban on Russian men aged 16 and 60. More than a thousand people, including several women, have thus turned away after customs officials checked their request to enter the country. Ukraine’s Security Council extended this measure indefinitely and border controls will be strengthened at the start of the new year.

President Poroshenko wanted to extend martial law but decided against it to avoid cancelling the upcoming presidential election set for 31 March. The election campaign should officially start at the end of December. Martial law was not re-imposed also because of pressure from the opposition, which has accused the president of using Russian threats to save his political career. The president’s anti-Russian stance in the last month has not improved his standing in the polls.

Various opposition leaders are instead asking for strong diplomatic action to free the 24 sailors detained by the Russians, caught in a political game that is not of their doing. For his part, Poroshenko said that the exceptional measures taken have made it possible to be ready for further Russian provocations. Russia has instead accused Ukraine of engaging in such actions.

Ukrainian authorities fear military escalation by Russia during New Year celebrations, which based on the various calendars could last up to three weeks, i.e. until the Baptism (Epiphany) of 19 January.

Citing, among others, US sources, many observers in Kyiv point out that the resignation of the US Defence Secretary James Mattis will give the Russians the opportunity to act without provoking a strong reaction from the US and other Western countries. For his part, the Ukrainian president has made repeated appeals to the West to increase pressure on Russia, above and beyond existing sanctions.

Meanwhile, ordinary Ukrainians are tired of five years of "hybrid" conflict, and not all of them support the radical positions taken by Poroshenko, who has used the intra-Orthodoxy row between Kyiv, Constantinople and Moscow to boost his position.

According to public opinion polls, the president's party is languishing at 11 per cent, against 21 per cent for the party of former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, and 14 per cent for pro-Russian actor Vladimir Zelinsky. Despite the uncertainty of the vote, over 50 per cent of those surveyed say they are against the incumbent president.

Many believe that given the relative failure of martial law to prop up his political future, Poroshenko will use religion even more explicitly to boost his support. On 6 January, the president is in fact scheduled to accompany the new Metropolitan of Kyiv, Epiphanius, to Constantinople to receive the Tomos of autocephaly from Patriarch Bartholomew.  The months of the election campaign will be spent organising the new Church, and trying to get as many churches from the Russian Orthodox Church as possible.

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