10 January 2024

Zelensky’s crackdown on 1,000-year-old Church cannot be beyond scrutiny

By Robert Amsterdam

As the new year begins and Orthodox Christians in Ukraine celebrate Christmas, the country’s parliament stands poised to pass a law that would outright ban the operation of their church.

Amid the fog of war, the Ukrainian government is reducing democracy to mere performance art to distract from the disestablishment of this church merely based on historical ties to Moscow.

This week, on behalf of the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, my law firm released a White Paper setting out the historical and legal context of the unprecedented attempts by the Ukrainian Parliament to outlaw the 1000-year home of Christianity in the Ukraine – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

In the case of our client, the Holy Synod, key leaders of the church have been jailed on charges that do not even meet the standards of callousness and farce normally associated with the aggressor.

In its persecution of these religious leaders – men of culture, spirituality and advanced age – the Ukrainian Government, in the complete absence of compelling evidence, has both fabricated criminal charges and applied baseless sanctions that violate Ukraine’s own Constitution.

But the attack on this church is only one example of a broader assault on anything or anyone with even a historic connection to Moscow or those willing to raise a dissenting voice against government policy. The Ukrainian Government is applying sanctions to its own citizens who have any dissenting views on government policy whatsoever, branding them domestic enemies. After the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, what is left of the independent business community has become the primary target of these extrajudicial sanctions. Ukraine’s newest oligarchs who unquestioningly support the government’s policies – now known as Zelensky’s ‘siloviki’ – are of course protected. But the broad targeting of Ukraine’s business leaders for merely questioning aspects of government policy represents not a step forward for democracy, but rather a step backward toward a form of clan rule buttressed by the government’s control over the media, the courts and martial law.

I write this sadly as someone who supports Ukraine, both with respect to its victimhood, and with respect to their demands for ongoing western support. That support however, should be given with eyes wide open and not eyes wide shut. Properly framed, foreign assistance can help put Ukraine back on the right course toward democracy and the rule of law.

To embrace Ukraine as we should and must, it is necessary to state strongly that those steps contrary to rule of law and democracy cannot be tolerated.

Ending the attack on this mother church of Ukraine is therefore critical not only with respect to protecting freedom of religion at a time when Ukrainians need access to their churches, and the language and rituals they have worshiped with for decades, but also to underscoring that to join the West a country must share values and respect the rule of law and equality of all people.

As Zelensky has stood up to Russia over the past two years, Ukraine’s supporters have allowed hero-worship to blind them to the degradation of the rule of law in the country. However brave and well-meaning our idolisation of Zelensky at the start of the war, today it bodes ill for Ukraine’s future in a united Europe. And while Ukraine is at the point of most grave danger – both internationally and domestically – it is our responsibility as allies to maintain a vigilant eye on the preservation of basic freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law.

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Robert Amsterdam is a Partner at Amsterdam & Partners LLP.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.