How China’s leader resembles Putin and why Patriarch Kirill’s supporters in Ukraine have problems again – Ilya Shablinsky on the important events of last week

13 March 2023

By Ilya Shablinsky, legal expert, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group 


The war continues and so do the multiple missile strikes against Ukraine’s big cities. On 9th March, around  80 Russian missiles were fired at Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, Zhytomyr and other cities. Approximately half of them were shot down. The rest hit various targets, mainly civilian ones. Ukrainian rescue services only recently finished going through the rubble and are still working out the precise number of dead and wounded. The Russian Defence Ministry has said that these were revenge strikes. The aggressor state was deeply offended, to all appearances by the very fact of resistance, and deems it necessary to “take revenge” like this every week. 

Fighting near the city of Bakhmut also continues. It has been going on for about six months altogether and the Ukrainian Armed Forces now face a real choice: whether to continue to hold the city or to abandon it. The city has long since been reduced to ruins. Just like Mariupol, Volnovakha, Sievierodonetsk and many other cities, large and small. Military analysts are currently discussing the potential impact of the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from Bakhmut and an advance of several kilometres by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. The main conclusion is that the Russians will come up against the next fortified area. Several more lines of defence have been drawn up en route to the two biggest cities in Donestsk Oblast that are still under Ukrainian control – Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. For the moment, the outlook is most probably a continuation of the tough positional warfare that is devouring hundreds of victims every day without any particular movement of the frontline.

Some of the world’s biggest players аre watching the conflict. Including China. An expected triumph occurred there in the past week. The current leader, Xi Jinping, broke with the tradition of regularly alternating power and planned to remain in place for as long as possible. The tradition was almost established. It’s necessary to recall here that after the crisis in China and the suppression of people’s protests (students’, in particular) in 1989, the then leader, Deng Xiaoping, took advantage of his absolute authority and endeavoured to preserve the authoritarian regime while still restricting terms of office for the highest positions of the state. Clauses were inserted into the PRC Constitution and the Constitution of the Communist Party whereby the posts of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and President of the PRC could be held by one person for no longer than two five-year terms. And for 30 years, Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, adhered to the set rules. In doing so, they could genuinely be regarded as key figures in the wide-scale modernisation of the Chinese economy, the construction of megacities and the attraction of investment in China from the West’s industrial giants.

By 2013, when Xi Jinping became leader of the party and the state, replacing Hu Jintao, China had already managed to become the world’s second economy and to raise the standard of living for a considerable section of its giant population. China remained a harsh authoritarian state, while allowing its citizens to travel abroad and, as already mentioned, retaining the alternation of political power at all levels, including the very highest. Be that as it may, Xi Jinping differed from his predecessors in his utterly irrepressible vanity. As has now become clear, he decided to do away precisely with the tradition of alternating power since he felt that a 10-year stint in the highest office wasn’t enough. And all his efforts in recent years were devoted to ridding the state and party constitutions of articles to do with the relevant restrictions. His policy in recent years led, overall, to a deterioration in China’s previously trouble-free relations with its major foreign trade partners. But this was likely of no particular significance to Ji. In this we can see how much he has in common with the Russian leader (and next week Ji plans to visit Putin in Moscow). Those who dare to take exception to the great leader are dealt with using long established practices. A few months ago, judging from one video clip, we were able to see that even so the 80-year-old former leader, Hu Jintao, expressed his opinion somehow at an actual sitting of the party congress. And was immediately removed by security. The official explanation being that he didn’t feel well. Voting at a sitting of the People’s National Congress to elect Ji to a third term as President of the PRC was unanimously in favour.  As it should be.

Protests on the streets of Tbilisi against one idiotic law might seem like a far less significant event for the world than another triumph by a Chinese autocrat. But for the citizens of the states that emerged in place of the defunct Soviet Union, the struggle of Georgian oppositionists against the bill to introduce a register of ‘foreign-influenced media agents’ is a struggle for the real possibility of democracy. Apparently, the top governing party in Georgia was irritated by attacks from the opposition press and decided to follow Russia’s example, using their legal model to somehow stigmatize unwanted journalists and online resources. In bigger Russia, the protests of the restless, educated minority are often drowned out by the gloomy indifference of the majority. In Georgia, thousands of demonstrators in front of the parliament building were able to sway the public opinion. The Georgian authorities seem to have realized that and, after some hesitation, ultimately rejected the law, which had been created according to a Putin-style template. They did the right thing.

On March 10, the leadership of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery complex in Ukraine ordered representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), mainly monks, to leave the territory and buildings of the complex. They have until March 29 to leave. There was previously a contract in place for the free use of religious buildings and other property. There’s a long and serious history behind this incident. The issue is that since the beginning of the war against Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has unequivocally taken a position that is difficult to see as anything other than support for aggression.  

In 2022, after the war had already begun, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church gave the head of the Russian National Guard, Viktor Zolotov, the August Icon of the Mother of God so that her image could inspire the ‘young soldiers of the Rosgvardiya who take the oath, who embark on the journey of defending the Fatherland.’ Zolotov was very pleased. Later, the patriarch said that dying in the war against Ukraine ‘washes away all sins.’ And so on. It’s important to note that many bishops and priests of the ROC are on the same page as the patriarch. Dozens of sermons are already circulating online of priests at the pulpit cheerily advocating for fighting the ‘forces of evil’ in Ukraine and giving their blessing to congregations take up arms in their neighbouring country. This is a shameful page in ROC history.

To be fair, we should note that opponents of the bloodshed among Orthodox clergy (and clergy of other denominations) have made anti-war statements (for example, the statement by clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church from March 1, 2023). But so far they are clearly the minority. 

The position shared by the patriarch and the majority of the ROC clergy has put the leadership of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP), which still has many parishes in Ukraine, in a difficult position. It’s become next to impossible to communicate with believers suffering from the bloody war unleashed by the government with which the Moscow Patriarchate is associated. The UOC MP has taken a number of steps to disassociate itself from its Moscow church leadership, and in May 2022 it went so far as to declare independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. But the problem remains. It’s thoroughly unclear what position many priests and bishops hold, who have so far supported the policies of the current Russian head of state. With this in mind, after the war began, the Ukrainian state started viewing practically the entire clergy of the UOC MP as a branched-off agent of Moscow. And gasoline is poured on the fire basically every time the patriarch or his bishops appear beside the Russian dictator, or in the same room as his courtiers.

The eviction from the Lavra of representatives of a church affiliated (though already formally independent) with the Moscow Patriarchate is already inevitable. This, too, is a drama. But in terms of the relationships among the Orthodox churches in Ukraine, as well as Orthodox parishioners with the churches, the war seems likely to bring many other changes.

In Estonia, the Reform Party, which from the outset has advocated the maximum assistance to Ukraine, won the parliamentary elections. It received almost twice as many votes as its nearest competitors – 31.2 percent (the Conservative People’s Party obtained 16 percent, the Centre Party 15 percent).  And it seems that the party’s uncompromising stance on the Ukrainian issue (while its economic policy is also quite stable) played a decisive role in gaining electoral support. Party leader Kaija Kallas is becoming a prominent face in European politics. A few years ago, she became known in particular for the fact that half her cabinet consisted of women. And women who, it seemed, did a very good job: Estonia has been ahead of both Lithuania and Latvia in terms of economic performance all these years. But Kallas has also had to take some very difficult decisions lately. There are about 120,000 refugees from Ukraine in Estonia, and the government has provided them with a roof over their heads and food. Many have found jobs. Now more than half of the refugees have already left for other countries or returned home, but it was a very serious challenge for the government, a challenge it accepted. And, it turns out, it had the support of the Estonians. Although things could have turned out differently.

Now, this is what the Kremlin is most of all counting on. Europeans will get tired of Ukraine, and demand that their governments make concessions to Putin – say, agree that Ukraine secede a fifth of its territory to Russia. And so on. Appease the dictator. As is well known, this has already happened in history.

Translated by Melanie Moore, Nina dePalma and Simon Cosgrove

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