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Religion, Politics Mix As Ukraine Prepares For Kievan Rus Anniversary


Russian President Vladimir Putin kisses an icon during a service and ceremony in Kyiv on July 27 to celebrate the 1,025th anniversary of Christianity in Ukraine and Russia.
KYIV -- Orthodox faithful are gathering by the thousands in the Ukrainian capital to mark a major milestone in the region's religious history.

Not everyone, however, appears to be in a Christian mood.

The occasion is the 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus, the medieval kingdom that laid the Orthodox foundation for modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

LATEST: Kievan Rus Ceremonies Under Way

But some in Kyiv are worried that the imminent arrival of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his powerful patriarch, Kirill, may turn a celebration of fellowship into yet another opportunity for Moscow to play neighborhood bully.

"Moscow has managed to completely impose its own scenario, where right at the center of events there are President Putin and Patriarch Kirill," says Viktor Yelensky, the head of the Ukrainian Association of Religious Freedom. "And the Ukrainian president and his entourage are playing extras."

Putin is set to arrive in the Ukrainian capital on July 27, aboard a customized train carrying top clerics from all 15 national Eastern Orthodox churches.

The train will also ferry the X-shaped Cross of St. Andrew the Apostle, which has already drawn throngs of Russian worshippers while on loan from its home cathedral in Patras, Greece.

In addition to attending a special prayer service and visiting Kyiv's historic Pechera Monastery, Putin is set to hold bilateral talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych.

Moscow's Discontent

The talks come as Yanukovych is hoping to sign an association agreement with the European Union at this November's Vilnius Summit.

The deal, which would mark an important step towards Kyiv's eventual EU membership, has evoked deep discontent in Moscow.

A flower garden in Kyiv celebrates the anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus.
A flower garden in Kyiv celebrates the anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus.
According to Oleh Medvedev, a political consultant with links to the opposition, Putin will use the weekend to persuade Yanukovych to reverse course -- a battle of wills that may continue for years to come.

"Even after Ukraine signs the agreement with the EU, Russia's possibilities will be far from exhausted," he says. "Next comes the long, grueling process where each of the EU parliaments will have to individually ratify the agreement. I don't see any chance that this weekend will be the final chance [for Putin] -- although I understand, of course, that the Russian guests will turn a holiday glorifying Orthodoxy into one glorifying the Russian Empire."

Putin has taken care to dust off his Orthodox credentials ahead of the anniversary, confessing in a new documentary that he was secretly baptized as a child in Soviet Leningrad.

Together with Russian state media, he has also pointedly referred to the celebration as the Christianization of "Rus" -- omitting the traditional reference to Kyiv, the former capital of Kievan Rus and the site where Grand Prince Vladimir ordered the Orthodox baptism of his kingdom in 988.

He may even be spared a fresh encounter with Femen, the Ukrainian feminist group that has confronted both Putin and Kirill with its signature brand of bare-breasted protest.

Eurasian Versus European Union

One of the group's leading male strategists, Viktor Svyatskiy, was severely beaten by unknown assailants on July 24. Femen has blamed the attack on security forces looking to dissuade the group from staging a fresh assault on its "longtime enemies," Putin and Kirill, over the weekend.

Spared such distractions, Putin may also use the weekend to remind Yanukovych of the virtues of the Eurasian Customs Union, a Kremlin pet project grouping Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus and looking to add Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine to its ranks.

Putin has threatened to backpedal on Kyiv's observer status in the union if Ukraine pursues a free-trade agreement with the EU. But analyst Viktor Nebozhenko is skeptical that the Russian president will manage any Moscow miracles during the Kievan Rus anniversary.

"In Russia, everything works out for Putin," he says. "He can fly with cranes, go underwater in a submersible, jail a disgruntled blogger and immediately release him. He can make one person an oligarch and another one a beggar. But it seems that Putin's magic spells may stop working as soon as he crosses the border of Ukraine. In spite of the religious and geopolitical nature of the Russian president's visit, I think his chances of changing the situation to his advantage are very slight."

Written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague with reporting by Tetyana Yarmoshchuk and Volodymyr Ivakhnenko in Kyiv