On Russia, Turkey and the Fener Greek Patriarchate

On Russia, Turkey and the Fener Greek Patriarchate

“The poison still remains 45 percent; that’s a kind of poison that would not just leave the system,” former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has told journalists via a translator.

He was present at a dinner held on Jan. 5 by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in honor of Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I.

Yushchenko suffered horrific disfigurement after he was poisoned in 2004 while campaigning in an election against a Russian-backed candidate. Recalling how badly his face was affected by the poisoning, I had difficulty in recognizing him as the scars looked to have faded to an extent.

As we had a short conversation over dinner with a colleague, he told us he is now heading an institute on democracy and pan European integration.

Believed to have been poisoned by Russia, the 64-year-old former president told us he had “no doubt” Moscow was also behind the nerve agent attack last year against a former Russian spy in Salisbury.

Yushchenko’s presence in the room was a stark reminder of how Russia knows no limit in its pursuit of national interests.

The dinner Saturday night was given on the occasion of the recognition of the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine which formalized with a series of ceremonies that took place during the weekend in Istanbul.

The accordance of the status of autocephaly formalized a split of the Ukrainian Church with the Russian Church, to which it had been tied for more than four centuries.

This independence effort has no doubt angered not just religious but political leaders in Russia as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to have promoted the Moscow Patriarchate as the global capital of Orthodox Christians and the religious manifestation of Russia’s return to global greatness.

Turkey is said to have not interfered in the process.

But Ukrainian leaders did not hide their appreciation toward Turkey’s stance on the issue. “Turkey has played a very important role in this process,” Yushchenko told us, recalling also how the current Ukrainian president has praised Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on all occasions during the weekend.

Despite its claim to be ecumenical, the Turkish government sees the Fener Greek Patriarchate as a Turkish institution. So it would not be unrealistic to argue that Ankara could have objected and obstructed the process if it wanted to.

The timing is, by the way, highly meaningful. It comes as an election gift to the pro-Western Poroshenko as Ukrainians will go to the ballot boxes in March.

In addition to maintaining good relations with Ukraine, showing a silent consent to a religious process that will irritate Russia certainly carries the message that Ankara is not that weak in its highly uneven relationship with Moscow.

This was thanks to the historical status of Istanbul. For millions, it is considered the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Fener Greek Patriarch Bartholomew I is accepted as the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians. He claims to carry the title of ecumenical, in other words “first among equals,” a status that is not recognized by Turkey.

Perhaps the recent developments might lead some in government circles to question to what degree unilaterally denying the ecumenical status to the Fener Greek Patriarch serves the interests of Turkey.

On Russia, Turkey and the Fener Greek Patriarchate

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (R) with HDN's Barçın Yinanç