A scandal has erupted following the ceremony in Istanbul on January 6 that established Ukraine’s independent Orthodox church over the inclusion of two leaders of known organised crime groups and the head of the C14 Neo-Nazi group in the delegation lead by President Petro Poroshenko.
Analysts in Kyiv accused Poroshenko of using the event where the tomos, or ecclesiastical document, establishing the canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine was received, for political purposes by inviting some unsavoury characters that are important in regions where the president lacks support in the upcoming presidential elections in March.
“Ulterior political motives have been identified by Ukrainian political observers in President Petro Poroshenko’s campaign to establish the canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Notably, among those attending this weekend’s ceremonies establishing the church was Oleksandr Petrovskiy, widely identified by mass media and politicians as a leading criminal authority in Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth largest city,” Zenon Zawada of Concorde Capital said in a note on January 10.
Social media was in uproar as the photos of the ceremony were released with comments on some of the faces visible.
Alexander Petrovskiy and Emil Harutyunyan (glasses) pictured with President Petro Poroshenko in Istanbul on January 6
While Twitter, and especially Ukrainian issue related Twitter, is a notoriously partisan place, Petrovskiy was clearly part of the official Ukrainian delegation at the ceremony in Istanbul. Petrovskiy stood alongside parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy, who received the document, and the next day was beside the president at the first Divine Liturgy of the newly established church, reports Zawada.
Petrovskiy has been dogged by media attention that claims he is an “authority”, or criminal boss, and goes by the nickname “Narik”, although Petrovskiy has denied all the claims.
Petrovskiy was accompanied by close associated Emil Harutyunyan who is known as one of the active members of the associates of Edward Baghdasaryan, a deputy of the Dnipro City Council, according to local media. Harutyunyan also denies all claims of any corruption or wrong doing and says he is a “reputable businessman.”
Petrovskiy’s involvement is intended to rehabilitate and legitimise him in the eyes of the public, well-known anticorruption journalist who is now a Rada deputy Serhiy Leshchenko said on his YouTube video blog. Leshchenko expressed dismay at the inclusion of suspected criminal bosses at the ceremony.
“Poroshenko needs a support base in Dnipro,” Leshchenko said in his blog. “The region is controlled by two clans. The city is controlled by the clan of [Ukraine’s leading oligarch Igor] Kolomoisky, and Kryviy Rih is partly controlled by [Oleksandr] Vilkul.” Vilkul is a candidate in the presidential elections, while Kolomoisky is backing three leading candidates.
Another surprising addition to the delegation to Istanbul was the leader of the C14 far-right group Evgen Karass, who was also photographed in the midst of the throng of Ukraine’s political elite.
“BOOM! The mask has slipped. Leaders of Kiev regime, drunk on their perceived victory in breaking Ukrainian Church away from Moscow, photographed here, during an official state visit to Istanbul, with Nazi terror gang C14 leader. Until today they denied any connection,”
Leader of the C14 far right group Evgen Karass, featured at the ceremony in Istanbul on January 6 in a labelled photo that was widely shared on social media.
C14 is a particularly nasty far-right group that openly glorifies Hitler and the Nazis. In June this year the group attacked a Roma camp in western Ukraine and savagely beat the inhabitants. One Roma man died of stab wounds he received during the attack and four others, including a 10 year old boy, needed medical attention for their injuries. Despite the attack being filmed and broadcast on YouTube police did not immediately arrest anyone for the murder and only opened an investigation in the face of public outrage.
In light of C14’s violent reputation Karass would seem an odd person to include in the delegation to Istanbul, but analysts again speculate that the far right make up an important demographic in the upcoming elections and Poroshenko is currently some ten points behind rival and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
In a separate incident in July a 30 year old Roma woman was found with her throat cut in the city of Berehove. While police admitted the death occurred during an “attack by masked men” on a Roma camp – the fifth such attack in the year – they also made no arrests nor saw any link to hate crime. Four other people were hospitalised with knife wounds during the attack on their camp.
Separately, Concorde Capital also cites Valentyn Hladkykh, an expert with the Leviathan analytical group, who warns that the presidential administration is planning to release a series of polls that will show Poroshenko’s ratings have surged owing to the establishment of the canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
“The tomos is simply a technology to legitimise the results that are going to be drafted,” Hladkykh told a press conference, as reported by the golos.ua news site. “And these results that will be drafted in sociological polls will become an instrument to legalise those results that he will allegedly demonstrate at the elections.”
These rumours have been going about for sometime and may only be anti-Poroshenko mud slinging. However Concorde’s Zawada gives them credence: “These scenarios are legitimate, in our view… It’s quite likely that the presidential administration with produce favourable poll results that it will later use to dismiss accusations of election fraud by the president’s rivals, particularly Yulia Tymoshenko. But the results won’t carry much legitimacy unless produced by what we call the Big Four polling firms for these elections.”
Among the pollsters in Ukraine the most reputable include Rating Sociological Group (RSG), Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), International Republican Institute (IRI, that is backed by the US Republican party) and Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Fund. “Most others should be viewed with scepticism,” says Zawada.
In a separate incident that nevertheless underscores the lack of law and order in Kryviy Rih, the 34-year-old head of a district organisation of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party Artem Mirzoian was attacked in the city with a steel pipe on January 9 and hospitalised with cerebral trauma and numerous bone fractures.
Kryviy Rih is Ukraine’s eighth largest city and Fatherland is well represented in there, while Poroshenko’s eponymous block is not. There is nothing to suggest that the attack was politically motivated, but violence connected to political activism has become frighteningly frequent and extreme in Ukraine.
Mirzoian was first sprayed with mace before being beaten with a pipe. Mirzoian’s district office has already been attacked twice last year without any suspects found.
The attack is similar in style to the attack on Kateryna Handziuk, a civil rights activist in Kherson, who was also working for the local government, before she was attacked with acid and later died of her chemical burns at the end of last year. In less than one year, 55 regional activists have been beaten, attacked with knives or acid and even shot.
“Election-related violence is under way,” Zawada said in a note. “It’s worth noting that the pro-Western Fatherland party is currently leading the polls in the Dnipropetrovsk region that had been traditionally dominated by Russian-oriented forces. However, many members of the Party of Regions – which collapsed in 2014 – remain entrenched in positions of authority, particularly law enforcement, regardless of what party they might belong to currently. And they are hostile to pro-Western forces.”