In Ukraine's Capital, Mayoral Campaigns Offer Hugs and Sermons

Looking for votes among Kyiv's skeptical evangelicals.

Kyiv mayoral elections, scheduled for Sunday, almost seem like a niceness contest. The subway TVs run clips of one of the candidates and his supporters walking around with "free hugs" signs, giving free hugs to willing passers-by. One channels a lovesick Mr. Darcy in huge banners posted on the sides of buildings. And prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko smiles slightly behind Oleksandr Turchynov in a million pamphlets that look like the cover of a romance novel, complete with a little red heart. The current frontrunners seem to be boxing champion Vitali Klitschko (who enjoys a certain amount of star power), and the incumbent, Leonid Chernovetsky.

While the election may look like a political version of Ukranian Idol, it is also revealing deeper issues about Ukranian attitudes toward democracy and religion.

Ukraine's election is both a symptom and an outcome of the country's comparatively rapid process of democratization. The national parliament called early elections only two months ago, the short notice part of ongoing reforms designed to undermine corruption. A few elections ago, no one would have bothered to offer free hugs or conduct savvy campaigns designed to appeal to the under-30 crowd. The Orange Revolution changed that. Now nearly every political party has set up campaign headquarters in the same streets and squares where, in late 2004, hundreds of thousands of orange-clad Ukranians gathered to protest the compromised presidential election.

Many evangelicals participated in the Orange Revolution and still speak warmly, even nostalgically, about it. It was clear to them then who was in the right and what should happen. People wholeheartedly opposed the incumbent and supported president Yushchenko. In some Kyiv churches, nearly every member participated in the demonstrations.

Kyivvans were less cynical about democracy during those protests. But a couple of days ago, as we walked through the slalom of campaign tents in Kontracktova Square, my guide said, "Even a child knows it's all lies." She's probably more skeptical than most Christians, but not by much.

They may be disaffected, but Ukraine's evangelicals are not disenfranchised. "Protestantism is definitely a political force to be reckoned with in Ukraine," says the Ukrainian Observer. The incumbent mayor of Kyiv, Chernovetsky, spoke much about religion in his last campaign, drawing attention to his membership in Sunday Adelaja's Embassy of God megachurch. However, many of the people who were excited by his claim to be a practicing believer (of both the Embassy of God and of the Ukranian Orthodox Church) will vote much more carefully this time.

Chernovetsky seems to have been involved in multiple shady property sales that may have cost the city $3 billion. And then there was the fatal press conference where Chernovetsky couldn't quite find the vocabulary to talk about religion (even if you don't understand Russian or Ukrainian, you can see him falter.) To give him some credit, he's known for being less than articulate on other topics.

Chernovetsky's religious connections may not be drawing voters as they once did, but religious affiliation is still a campaign issue (for the country's many Jews as well as its various kinds of Christians). Oleksandr Turchynov, the mayoral candidate on that romantic, heart-decorated campaign pamphlet, seems to be a practicing believer and even preaches on occasion. But Kyivvan Christians are not unified in whom they support. Many of them favor Tymoschenko's party, which has more Christians in elected offices than other parties do. For his part, Sunday Adelaja continues to support Chernovetsky, and there were murmurs at his church's evening service last Thursday when he called for prayer for the incumbent mayor.

The elections come as Ukraine's evangelicals, even those in churches that are more than 150 years old, are trying to fight off accusations that they are American-backed "totalitarian zombies" and that evangelicalism is cultish. Churches in Ukraine haven't traditionally been active in electoral politics. After all, open affiliation with such churches hasn't been possible for very long. But if Protestants do vote according to religious affinity this election, it could be the beginning of a trend in campaigns their American counterparts are quite familiar with.

This article was originally published in Christianity Today and can be found online.

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