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UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT FORMS CAUCUSES... UNIAN reported on 15 May that the newly elected Verkhovna Rada has grouped in six caucuses: For a United Ukraine (175 deputies), Our Ukraine (119), the Communist Party (63), the Social Democratic Party (31), the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (23), and the Socialist Party (22). Former speaker Ivan Plyushch and former deputy speaker Stepan Havrysh, along with 12 other deputies, have not joined any caucus thus far. The parliament will have 23 committees. JM

...BUT REMAINS IN DISARRAY OVER ELECTION OF LEADERSHIP. Despite bilateral and multilateral meetings, the heads of parliamentary caucuses have failed to agree on how to elect the Verkhovna Rada leadership: speaker, first deputy speaker, and deputy speaker. UNIAN reported on 15 May that the Communist Party is proposing Adam Martynyuk (Communist) for speaker and Viktor Musiyaka (Our Ukraine) and Petro Tolochko (Tymoshenko Bloc) for deputy speakers. The Social Democratic Party is putting forward Volodymyr Lytvyn (United Ukraine) for speaker and Adam Martynyuk (Communist) and Oleksandr Zinchenko (Social Democrat) for deputy speakers. Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko said his bloc is supporting the re-election of Ivan Plyushch as speaker but added that Our Ukraine is also open for other options. JM

UKRAINE'S ECONOMY CONTINUES TO GROW. Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh said on 14 May that the country's GDP increased by 4.1 percent in January-April 2002, compared to the same period in 2001, Interfax reported. The following day the government endorsed a draft plan of action, according to which the economy in 2003-2004 is to grow by 6 percent, UNIAN reported. JM

Asked what he thinks about the planned visit by Pope John Paul II to Bulgaria on 23-26 May, the well-known Orthodox priest Father Bojan Saraev said that it is not clear whether John Paul II is coming as the head of the Catholic Church or as the head of the Vatican state. Saraev's opinion is shared by many believers in the overwhelmingly Orthodox country. However, it is not clear how many believers share Saraev's predictions about the papal visit.

After offering some speculations about the pope's physical and mental health, Saraev told journalists of the daily "Monitor" that, "I am afraid [of the pope's visit], because everywhere he goes apocalyptic natural disasters occur. They already started in the Plovdiv region. The earth moved [at the beginning of April], and I cannot imagine what will happen on the day of his arrival."

Ironic or not, just two days after the interview was published on 22 April another earthquake -- this time with its epicenter in Kosova -- rattled the western parts of Bulgaria and the capital Sofia.

Confronted with Saraev's newspaper interview, Father Mariusz Polcyn first laughed, then his face became serious. "This kind of statement comes out of ignorance. These people are afraid of the pope, of his authority, because they do not have any authority," Polcyn said. The Polish priest is the vicar of the Catholic bishop of Sofia and Plovdiv.

In Polcyn's opinion, it is people like Saraev who might make trouble during Pope John Paul's II visit to Bulgaria. Polcyn refers to them as "fundamentalists," but notes that there was also opposition when the pope visited Greece and Ukraine. Polcyn added sarcastically, "As if masses of people would run away from the Orthodox Church to become Catholics, only because the pope visits their country."

Despite these irritations between the Orthodox clergy and the Catholic Church, the pope will also meet with the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Maksim. Or should one rather say the pope will meet with the head of one of Bulgaria's Orthodox Churches? After all, since 1992, there have been two holy synods, and there was a second, a counter-patriarch -- Pimen, who died in 1999. The alternative synod is currently headed by Bishop Inokenti.

The split in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is mainly due to ideological and historical issues. The alternative synod under Pimen provoked the split because of Maksim's alleged collaboration with the communist regime. Maksim's opponents say he was elected on orders from the Politburo of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP) in 1971, and they provide evidence for the BKP's influence in church affairs. Father Anatoli Balachev, the chief secretary of the alternative synod, argues that Maksim's election was illegal, as it was engineered by the BKP.

Father Balachev discounts Maksim's argument that the heads of the other Orthodox churches officially recognized him, saying Maksim's election violated canonic law. "Who legitimates your marriage?" Balachev asks, "The priest or the wedding guests?"

As a result, the Orthodox clergy as well as believers in Bulgaria are split into two almost irreconcilable factions. Believers know which parishes belong to which faction, and attend only the churches of their respective political orientation. Thus, on Orthodox Easter at the beginning of May, it was possible to witness a bizarre situation in the center of Sofia. While Maksim's followers attended the services at the Aleksandr Nevskii Cathedral, the adherents of the alternative synod followed the same holy rituals at the church of St. Sophia, which is just footsteps away from the cathedral.

The Holy See was well aware of this problem when it asked Maksim for a meeting. Only after a long period of hesitation did Maksim agree at the beginning of April to meet with John Paul II.

Some followers of the alternative synod fear that the papal visit will further strengthen Maksim's position in the church split. Unlike the previous government, which was led by the conservative and strictly anticommunist Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), the current government under Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski supports Patriarch Maksim. The new government was sworn in by Maksim, and he consecrated the flags of the Bulgarian army on 6 May -- St. George's Day.

However, the Bulgarian public and the media have by and large shown little interest in the papal visit. Newspapers provide only scant information about the political and theological implications of the visit; they feature stories about the Interior Ministry's security arrangements for the visit, or the efforts of the municipal authorities to repair the worst, and long-neglected damage at the sites John Paul II is to visit.

For most Bulgarian Catholics the papal visit will be a long-awaited holiday. John Paul's II visit will be filled with appointments, and his schedule was still not finalized two weeks prior to the visit. The pope is to meet at the beginning of his visit with representatives of the various religious communities in Bulgaria -- Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Protestants, and Jews. He is also to meet with the prime minister, and will bless the construction of a new Catholic cathedral in the Bulgarian capital. On the last day of his visit, he will deliver Mass in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city. During the service, John Paul II will declare four Bulgarian Catholic priests venerable. The priests were executed in 1954, after the communist regime charged them with spying for Western secret services.

It is not clear, however, whether John Paul II will mention the assassination attempt of 1981 when he meets Bulgarian politicians. In recent weeks, Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi has tried to clear Bulgaria of the long-standing allegations that the notorious Bulgarian secret service, or State Security, was involved in the attack.

Whether or not John Paul II will talk about the shots fired by Ali Agca, the papal visit is an important step forward for Bulgaria -- regardless of the controversies within the Orthodox Church. And hopefully, there will be no natural disasters.