Ukraine’s president has recently said Kiev continues to consider the Crimean Tatars as its citizens, which casts doubts on the adequacy of the Ukrainian leadership that is leading the country to disaster. The problem is not that Petro Poroshenko keeps conflicting with Russia for his political dividends. The problem is that his suggestion to add a provision to the Constitution to give autonomy to the Crimean Tatars in Ukraine may spark a new wave of separatism inside the country. This is very dangerous, as they on the southern and western borders of Ukraine have been waiting for it for a long time already.
Bucharest has been closely following the Ukrainian crisis of the recent years not because of feeling sympathy for its neighbors, but rather because of its desire to take back the territories it lost in the past century. They have been cherishing the idea of the “Greater Romania” for many decades. Bucharest thinks the territory of the country must be expanded at the expense of Moldova, Bessarabia, and Northern Bukovina. The last two regions are directly relevant to Ukraine: yet in 1940 after the Soviet Union’s years-long claims to Romania, part of those territories was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR. Since then, Romanians have been rekindling the dream of restoring “the historical justice.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and establishment of direct Romanian-Ukrainian relations, it has become practically impossible, at least officially, to return the territories lost in 1940. That is why Romania started gradually increasing its footprint in Ukraine’s territories. There has always been a favorable ground for that. Northern Bukovina, the north and south of Bessarabia are the territories of Ukraine’s Chernivtsi and Odessa regions. The ethnic and cultural ties with Romania have been strong here historically. For instance, in Chernivtsi region, Romanians and Moldovans account for some 20% of the total population (Bucharest considers both as “Romanians from everywhere”). In addition, the Romanian-speaking population in some regions in Ukraine account for more than half of the local population. For instance, in Hertsaivskyi district they account for 94% of the total population, in Novoselitsa- 65%, and in Hlybotskyi district – 52%.
During the last two decades, Bucharest has done its utmost to stir up pro-Romanian sentiments. For instance, in 1994, the country passed a Law On Repatriation granting Romanian citizenship to the residents of all the territories that were once part of Romania, including Moldova, Ukraine’s Chernivtsi and Odessa regions. Afterwards, Bucharest past the Law on Citizenship granting passports to all the ethnic Romanians. During the first years after the law was passed, few people in Ukraine applied for Romanian passports, after Romania joined the European Union in 2007, the situation changed drastically and the residents of Ukraine’s Chernivtsi and Odessa regions were the first to rush for the Romanian passports. The process even more intensified after Romania passed a law in 2009 facilitating naturalization of the people residing within the borders Romania had before 1940. The law applied even to the third generation of their successors. Yet, the problem of Romanization of the Ukrainian territories would not be that serious, but the problem goes beyond provision of passports.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bucharest tackled the issue more seriously. It has turned out that like in late 1990s today Kiev has nothing to put up against Romanians. Suffice it to recall that Kiev lost the recent border dispute between the two countries. It was a dispute over the Snake Island in the Black Sea with a continental shelf rich in oil and gas reserves.
In 2004, Romania filed an Application to the UN International Court of Justice instituting proceedings against Ukraine in respect of a dispute concerning “the establishment of a single maritime boundary between the two states in the Black sea, thereby delimiting the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zones appertaining to them.” Ukraine did not reject the claims and lost the proceedings in 2009. Actually, Kiev failed to protect its territorial integrity yet long before the Crimean events and the war in Donbass. And Moscow has no hand in it. Furthermore, it is Romania that demands more and more territories from Ukraine. For instance, Bucharest officially claims Maikan Island between Vilkovo and Chilia towns. Romania’s leadership considers that the Danube’s midstream has changed because of shallow and the island is now theirs. It appears that they will soon demand the Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia too.
So far, Bucharest refrains from such radical actions officially, but it has increased both the direct and veiled pressure on Kiev. The Romanian authorities have intensified the enculturation of the population in Bessarabia through annual exchanges of delegations, offering education in Romania for the local youth that, as they plan, will return to their villages after education and promote the idea of “Greater Romania.” In addition to it, they set up various communities that gradually turn into an instrument for the future destabilization of the region.
For instance, the “Assembly of Bukovina Romanians” has recently applied to Petro Poroshenko demanding a territorial autonomy to the Chernivtsi region densely populated by Romanians. The “Assembly” motivated its demand with the Ukrainian president’s abovementioned statement urging territorial autonomy for the Crimean Tatars. It is hardly possible that the “Assembly” representatives acted independently without Bucharest’s recommendation. Romania’s leadership is well aware that a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. That is exactly why after the state coup in 2014, various forums of the Romanian communities calling for rapprochement with Romania have been organized in the region. Simultaneously, the Church has joined the process of Romanization of Bessarabia. The Romanian Patriarchy that is part of the state machinery has been working in Ukraine for decades embracing the ideology of “Greater Romania.” For instance, yet in 2003, in Kamishovka village, Odessa region, Ukraine, the first living of the Metropolis of Bessarabia was established to unite all the livings of the Odessa Diocese.
All this and many other undertakings starting from archaeological excavations up to statements by Romanian politicians suggest that Bucharest is determined to complete what it has started. It is as never important today when Romania is promoted as the axis of NATO’s new military structure in the Balkans. Unlike Kiev, Bucharest has already received a tangible support from the West and feels confident in its relations with neighbors. Despite the statements of Ukrainian nationalists, today’s Ukraine is still an artificially created state where the regions often lack strong ties with the center and the true notion of the “Ukrainian nation.” In the south of Odessa region (historical Budjak), the people who consider themselves Ukrainians are no longer the overwhelming part of the population. There are many Moldavian, Bulgarian, Gagauzian and even Russian Old Believers there who have a strict ethnic self-determination. The situation in the west of Ukraine is at the breaking point. Such issues as the Hungarian autonomy and the national autonomy of the Carpathian-Russians are on agenda now. And these are just the evident and open problems that have intensified after the state coup in Kiev.
It is quite natural that the ethnic minorities strive to get protected against the Ukrainian nationalists. That aspiration could be satisfied in quite civilized manner and not going beyond the country’s Constitution. However, the current political chaos in Ukraine and the poor government of the country have created a situation when the peaceful settlement of ethnic problems has become nearly impossible. Unlike Donbass, where the people are ready to call themselves as Ukrainians on condition that their original cultural and historical interests are protected, the southern and some western regions of Ukraine are distancing themselves from Ukraine more and more with every year.
This is a result of not only the chaos reining the country but also of the actions of Ukraine’s neighbors – Romania and Hungary. Bucharest that formally supports the current policy of Kiev will hardly ever abandon its efforts to return the territories lost in 1940. Therefore, it is quite possible that the current ideas of “Greater Romania” will sooner or later become popular among the local population of Bessarabia and Bukovina and the Romanian communities will officially voice the need for reunion with their historical motherland. So far it is hard to say how soon this will happen, but it is already evident that Ukraine with its current policy will face such scenario inevitably.
Yuriy Pavlovets for EADaily