02/24/2015, 00.00
UKRAINE - RUSSIA
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Ukraine, a land scorched by history

by Vladimir Rozanskij
The end of the Soviet Union led to idea that the West and democracy had won. However, the Ukrainian conflict proves otherwise. Although the pope's words on post-communist economic injustices are right, they have boosted Russians' belief that they are the "last bastion" against the ruin that Western capitalism will inevitably inflict. For them, their apocalyptic fate is inexorably tied to what will happen on the Ukrainian border.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - One of the main problems in the Ukrainian conflict is its indefinite nature. Is it a civil war or an interstate conflict? An imperialist aggression or a separatist revolt? A religious war or a political-ideological clash? A local fight or a confrontation between superpowers?

Like the meat and veggies that go into a Ukrainian borscht, everything has gone into the Ukraine' political cauldron. The propaganda war underway has been played out locally and internationally on TV and the internet. This has sown confusion among the warring parties, both political and military leaders as well as ordinary citizens.

The revolt in Kyiv's Majdan (Independence) Square during the winter 2013-2014, which was recently commemorated in Kyiv and (by an anti-Majdan rally) in Moscow, was only the latest in a long series of social and political conflicts that have burdened the young state of Ukraine since it became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The latter is also the background to all the conflicts that have shaken Eastern Europe and the Balkans, both within countries and along contested borders. An empire held together by ideology and terror, but also by its opposition to the great Western enemy, has bestowed a poisoned legacy that has survived its end and whose consequences are felt more and more, and not only in Europe, 25 after its demise. How is this possible?

Decades of Sovietology, Cold War theory, Ostpolitik and the arms race, diplomatic strategies between aligned and non-aligned countries should have provided enough tools to understand the later evolution of the situation. Instead, things were allowed to develop unchecked under the naive belief that a historical right had been achieved, namely that the West and democracy had won, and that the world had finally found peace.

But things did not work out as expected; the pressure cooker blew up, splattering everyone with its undigested fare. Europe as a whole is now feeling the effects of separatist and localist tensions. In the Arab world, springtime revolts delivered the Caliphate. Meanwhile, the United States seems helpless and bewildered in a world that it thought it could rule in peace and harmony.

Even more than the United States, the Vatican appears completely caught off guard. The Catholic Church, the first ideological opponent of Soviet communism, thought that it could easily undertake its "new evangelisation" from the Atlantic to the Urals, and maybe even in Asia, China and Cuba. However, never have its organisations and pastors been so discredited and inhibited, as they are now in Russia and Ukraine, unable to have any sway over peoples and minds in a spirit of peace and brotherhood. Neither Stalin nor Khrushchev could have done as much.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's major concerns about the end of Christian civilisation have given way to the minimalist enthusiasm of his successor, Pope Francis, whose initial premise appears to be that the Church has little relevance in today's world, that it is peripheral to it even before it gets involved in its peripheries.

The Ukraine, whose name means "borderland," is a clear example of this. After a first phase of triumphant expansion at the end of the 20th century, which its opponents described as "proselytising", the Catholic Church has hastily retreated to Paul VI's Ostpolitik strategy.

In Russia, Catholics are confined in small and quiet chaplaincies. In the Ukraine, the Vatican is trying by every means not to get involved in the conflict, to stand above the parties, as if there were no masses of believers easily persuaded by the leaders of various religious or pseudo-religious groups.

The pope's speech to Ukrainian bishops on 20 February seemed to echo concerns of 30 or 40 years ago, when calls were made for peace and respect for international agreements, without any explicit reference to the causes and reasons for conflict.

"I recognize the historical events that have marked your land and are still present in the collective memory. They deal with questions that have a partially political base, and to which you are not called to give a direct response; but they are also socio-cultural realities and human tragedies that await your direct and positive contribution," said the pope, as he called on the bishops following the Greek Catholic and Latin rites to at least not quarrel among themselves.

Naturally, officials with the Moscow Patriarchate praised the pope's "conciliatory" tone, leaving it to others to interpret as they wish what are the "historical events" and "human tragedies" that have shaped the Ukraine.

Three days after meeting the Pope, the head of the Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said that Ukraine "is experiencing the horrors of a war imposed by the outside and not because of an internal civil conflict," and that international agreements must protect Ukraine's "territorial integrity".

However, his voice has been drowned out by the constant accusations from Moscow that he speaks for the real culprits of the situation, the "instigators of Majdan," which Rome has never sought to deny or soften.

Although no one can argue against the pope's views about post-communist economic injustices, in the Ukrainian context, they have further validated the belief among Russians that they are "the last bastion" against the ruin brought about the victory of Western capitalism, and that their apocalyptic fate will be decided in a decisive battle on the Ukrainian borders.

It is hard not to get one's hands dirty in the Ukraine, something the West and the Vatican would especially like to avoid. However, even before getting involved, one is asked to take sides. And when flames are already rising from the grassland, it is hard not get burnt.

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