Ukraine: an exam too difficult for the Bucharest elite

Bucharest and Warsaw have been fighting over the status of the US’ favourite partner in Central and Eastern Europe. Until the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016, the two countries seemed to go shoulder to shoulder.

Ukraine has the longest border with Romania among NATO and EU member countries – 613.9 km. Poland is second after Romania with 542.39 km. In fact, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary all together have borders with Ukraine of 777.94 km long. Of the NATO and EU neighbours, Romania is located closest to the main theatres of operations in 2022: Kherson and Donbass. And looking ahead, Romania is the closest NATO country to the main frontlines in 2023, i.e. Crimea, Kherson, Zaporizhya, Donetsk and Lugansk.

Perhaps it is too early to talk about the consequences for Romania of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. They depend on how this war ends. If Ukraine is defeated, Romania will be part of a chain of Central European states on the front line called upon to defend the Euro-Atlantic world. Romania will be in the Western club, even if on the front line, feeling the direct threat of Russia and setting its political, social, economic and cultural life in such a way that it can face the security threats. An ideal situation for Romania’s pre-1989 military elite in the Ceausescu institutions.

In the event of a Ukrainian victory, the Russian threat to Romania’s security will disappear. Paradoxically, the latter is not exactly the scenario that is generating enthusiasm in Bucharest.

Romania’s regional profile

In the almost 11 months since the invasion began, Romania has been unable to capitalise on these important assets, so Poland and the Baltic States have become the most important players on the Euro-Atlantic world’s eastern border.

Why has the profile of these countries in the region strengthened in the last year? And why the profile of Bulgaria and Romania has become less and less relevant?

In 2009 and 2011, Romania concluded two strategic partnerships, with an important security and defence component – with Poland and Turkey. These two partnerships, as well as a special military relationship with the US, had the potential to make Romania an important regional player. At least that was how things looked until the summer of 2016, at the NATO summit in Warsaw, when the eastern flank was unbalanced in favour of its northern side.

A paradoxical decision, since NATO’s interest after 2014 was to strengthen the southern part of its eastern flank, closer to Russian bases in Crimea, newly annexed by Vladimir Putin. In 2009, Romania had been profiled as a regional player projecting soft power towards the former Soviet republics, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, in tandem with Poland. After 2017, Bucharest was included in the league with Sofia. With which it will never succeed, on any dossier, to collaborate to form a tandem.

It would be unfair for anyone to believe that hostile forces conspired to shift Romania’s regional profile. There is one force responsible for both raising and lowering Romania’s regional profile: the foreign policy and security elite in Bucharest, who played the American card. It had initially succeeded in convincing Washington that Romania was the US’s most faithful and loyal ally in the region. The other states in the region, starting with Poland, looked on with envy at the strengthening of the US military presence, with the inauguration of the bases at Kogălniceanu (2005) and Deveselu (2013). It is hard to make a list now of the causes that led to the lowering of Romania’s profile reflected in the decisions of the 2016 NATO summit.

Bucharest and Warsaw

A comparison between Romania and Poland is justified both by geography and by the membership of both in the Euro-Atlantic club. It is also important from the perspective of discussing the consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. And there is another, subjective argument, namely that Romanian journalists, commentators and experts most often compare Romania with Poland.

If in Bucharest there is a tendency both in the political world, the state institutions and among commentators to compare the two countries, from my observations, in Warsaw the interest in this topic is low, even non-existent. The Warsaw press and Polish experts see a Romania-Bulgaria tandem rather than a Romania-Poland one, which offends the pride of Romanians.

Another detail, no less important. Bucharest and Warsaw have disputed their status as the United States’ favourite partner in Central and Eastern Europe. Until the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016, the two countries seemed to walk shoulder to shoulder. The process that began in summer 2016 to strengthen NATO’s northern flank on its eastern border culminated in Madrid with the invitation to Sweden and Finland to join the alliance.

After 24 February, the US continued at an accelerated pace the policy begun in summer 2016 of strengthening its presence in Poland and the Baltic area. In 2022, Warsaw played the American card, while it is becoming increasingly clear that Bucharest is playing the European card. Without, as it probably hoped, achieving Schengen accession in December 2022.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has boosted Poland’s regional profile. Today, Poland has become Ukraine’s most important economic and trade hub, from arms and ammunition supplies to grain exports and energy imports. Poland provides comprehensive support, starting with politico-military support.

In Poland there is public support for Ukraine, openly assumed by politicians, government institutions and Polish society. In fact, the last few months have seen the highest level of bilateral relations, with talk of a Polish-Ukrainian federal state. Poland is also home to the largest number of Ukrainian refugees. The closeness of the Polish and Ukrainian languages has undoubtedly played a role in this process.

Polish officials, from the president, prime minister, defence ministers, foreign ministers, etc., have visited Kiyiv several times, and Ukrainian officials travel to other capitals via Warsaw, sometimes meeting and talking to their Polish counterparts on their return. As was the case when President Volodimir Zelenski returned from his historic visit to Washington. Unlike Warsaw, Bucharest has a different approach. Romanian officials were in no hurry to go to Kiev. Romania’s president arrived in the Ukrainian capital on 16 June, four months after the start of Russian aggression. In fact, Romania’s president joined a group of Western leaders, including the president of France, the prime minister of Italy and the chancellor of Germany, who had prepared a visit to Kiev ahead of the EU summit that decided to grant Ukraine candidate status. Before that, on 26 April, Romania’s prime minister had visited Kiev, accompanied by the president of the Chamber of Deputies. So, the two parties forming the governing coalition in Romania were represented at the level of party president on this visit.

On 12 March 2022, President Volodimir Zelenski began his speech in the Warsaw Parliament with “brothers and sisters from Poland”. He was given a standing ovation for minutes by MPs and guests, journalists and intellectuals, who filled the hall to capacity. More than two months later, on 22 May, Poland’s president gave a historic speech to the Supreme Council in Kiev, to a standing ovation.

In March, from a capital bombed by Russian missiles, President Zelenski spoke to 17 parliaments around the world. On 4 April, he was also invited to speak in Romania’s parliament. Neither the live TV broadcasters nor the meeting room were able to make much sense of the speech because both the sound and the Romanian translation were far below reasonable standards. Luckily, the Ukrainian Embassy in Bucharest immediately posted the Romanian translation of President Zelenski’s speech on social media. He spoke about the crimes in Bucha and Irpin, about the Russian plan to occupy Odessa, about the threat to the Republic of Moldova. He thanked the Romanians for their solidarity with the Ukrainian people and the empathy shown.

Political commentators and the Romanian press have noted two news: Zelenski invites Romanian companies to participate in the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine; he will hold talks with Bucharest on the rights of national minorities, Ukrainian in Romania and Romanian in Ukraine.

Of course these comparisons between Romania and Poland could go on. Not too much, because in the case of Romania we don’t have figures. The authorities in Bucharest simply refuse to provide information, but assure journalists in informal meetings that Romania does “a lot” for Ukraine.

From social media posts by the US, UK and Ukrainian embassies in Bucharest, it appears that Romania’s effort is focused on three levels: helping Ukrainian refugees, transporting grain, Romanian-Ukrainian (possibly Moldovan) energy cooperation. If things are clearer in the case of refugees, because every week the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, publishes the figures (over 85,000 refugees in Romania, of whom some 77,000 have requested temporary protection), in terms of Ukrainian grain transiting Romania, an official in Bucharest put the figure at 8.4 million tonnes at the end of November. As for energy cooperation with Ukraine, there is no official data.

A complicated relationship. A rocky start

What is the source of the attitude towards Ukraine? It has to do with the history of bilateral relations, especially since the last days of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Ukrainian state in autumn 1991. But hostility towards Ukrainians goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. Then there were government-funded campaigns, conducted through cultural institutions that played a fundamental role in the founding of Greater Romania, against Ukrainians (variously called Ruthenians, Little Russians etc., depending on the region), and especially against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It is not by chance that this campaign is now breaking out.

France and Russia were working to get Romania out of alliance with the Central Powers. Bucharest’s energies were directed towards the Romanian-populated provinces of Austro-Hungary, where Ukrainians also lived and enjoyed Vienna’s trust and support. Thus, the campaigns waged today in the Romanian press against Ukraine, where most Russian narratives, promoted by the Kremlin, are advanced, have deep roots in history. The Romanian press of 120 years ago was also carrying out press campaigns against Ukrainians, fuelled by the authorities.

But let’s now have a look at what happened the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the joint session of the two chambers of the Romanian Parliament on 28 November 1991, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate voted unanimously on a declaration on the Ukrainian independence referendum to be held on 1 December, three days later.

The document has six articles. The first recognises the right of the Ukrainian people to decide their own fate, but stresses that the referendum “cannot be valid in respect of the Romanian territories wrongfully annexed by the former USSR, territories which have never belonged to Ukraine and are rightfully Romanian”. This concerns “the Romanian territories – Northern Bukovina, Herta County, Hotin County, as well as the counties of southern Bessarabia” – annexed by the USSR following the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which was declared “null and void” by the USSR on 24 December 1989 and by the Romanian Parliament on 24 June 1991. Article 3 of the declaration repeats that the referendum organised by the Kiev authorities ‘in the forcibly incorporated Romanian territories’, and lists them, ‘is null and void, as well as its consequences’. Article 4 calls on foreign parliaments and governments that will recognise Ukraine’s independence “to expressly declare that this recognition does not extend to the Romanian territories mentioned”. Article 5 announces that the Romanian Parliament calls for a dialogue with the Parliament in Kiev “with a view to examining together the problems of establishing good neighbourly relations and cooperation between Romania and Ukraine”. Article 6: ‘The Romanian Parliament calls on the Romanian Government to start negotiations as a matter of urgency with the Kiev authorities on the issue of the Romanian territories forcibly annexed by the USSR’.

Memories of Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and Bukovina still haunt Romanian-Ukrainian relations.

On 2 December, in Bucharest, the Romanian Government also adopts a declaration in relation to the referendum in Ukraine on 1 December: “This referendum cannot be valid in the territories annexed by force, which have never belonged to Ukraine and are rightfully Romania’s”.

On 1 December 1991, the Ukrainian people voted overwhelmingly for independence in the referendum. A week later, at a protocol house in the Belovezha Forest, the presidents of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, Stanislav Shushkevich, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk, signed the death certificate of the USSR and the birth certificate of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Ukrainian referendum was an important, perhaps decisive, piece in the unfolding of the events that led to the collapse of the USSR.

The declaration voted by the Parliament in Bucharest on 28 November and the government declaration of 2 December were seen in Kyiv as an affirmation of Romania’s territorial claims on Ukraine.

In the first months after the break-up of the Soviet Union, diplomatic relations between Romania and Ukraine were extremely cold. At the last moment, before the train entered Romanian territory, Minister Anatol Zlenko cancelled his visit to Bucharest.

Romania’s ambassador to Kiev Ion Bistreanu notes in his memoirs published 20 years later:

“I remember that after I presented my letters of accreditation as ambassador to Ukraine in August 1993, the first deputy foreign minister, Boris Tarasiuk, a staunch nationalist, began our first protocol meeting with “when are you going to annul the parliament’s decision of December 1991?” [it was obviously the Parliament Declaration of 28 November – our note] … Just as I remember that, by 1994, a public opinion poll placed Romania second on the list of countries posing the greatest threat to Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. At a press conference, a Ukrainian journalist asked me what I thought of this poll. “Who is in first place?”, I asked. “Russia”- came the answer. “And this time the Russians beat us to it”, I continued, perhaps not very diplomatically, but what was the point of commenting on such nonsense?”.

After the first democratic alternation and the coming to power of a centre-right president and government, relations between Romania and Ukraine began to thaw, and in the summer of 1997 the political treaty between the two countries was signed. A few years later, they broke down again. Not even the Orange Revolution managed to loosen them. They got stuck in government committees on minority rights.

St. Nicholas church in Chernivtsi (Romanian: Cernauti), an example of Romanian architecture in today’s Ukraine lands where Romanian minority lives

Romania accused Ukraine of systematically violating the rights of the Romanian minority. Only the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass produced a small opening that was consummated in the signing of the Agreement on Small Border Traffic on 2 October 2014. The warming of bilateral relations was also expressed in the visit of the Romanian president to Kiev on 17 March 2015 and of the Ukrainian president to Bucharest on 21 April 2016. After that, relations froze again, this time on the pretext of the new education law in Ukraine, which would have limited the access of the Romanian minority to education in their mother tongue. The freeze in bilateral relations was confirmed by an episode in the corridors of the UN General Assembly in New York, when Romania’s president simply turned his back on Ukraine’s president, who had tried to approach him about cancelling Romania’s visit to Ukraine at the last minute.

In recent months, before the Russian aggression, Romanian diplomacy had focused its efforts on removing the Ukrainian authorities’ nomenclature of the ethnonym ‘Moldovan’ and replacing it with ‘Romanian’, which would have given the Foreign Ministry in Bucharest the strange satisfaction that the Romanian minority in Ukraine may number around 400 thousand people.

Romania’s policy makes it difficult for Ukraine, which does not want to antagonise the Republic of Moldova, by banning the ethnonym ‘Moldovan’. A large number of Ukrainian citizens who call themselves “Moldovans” refuse to declare themselves “Romanians” and consider that their civil rights would be violated if the Ukrainian state were to exclude the name “Moldovan” from its nomenclature. These are the Romanian-speaking population from across the Dniester, who have never been within Romania’s borders and have only the memory of Romania under the leadership of Ion Antonescu. After all, if Romania does not recognise the ethnonym ‘Moldovan’, why did it recognise the independence of the Republic of Moldova?! Perhaps Romania should first cancel the decision to recognise the Republic of Moldova and only then ask Ukraine to recognise the ‘non-existence’ of Moldovans.

Not even Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has managed to change the dynamics of bilateral relations. Just before Christmas 2022, the Romanian government, in an unusually long and poorly drafted communiqué for such a sensitive issue, criticises the Kyiv parliament for adopting a law from the broader package of legislation on national minorities. This time, Bucharest has managed to be even more vehement than Moscow and its ally Budapest in a dramatic historical phase, such as the war of defence that Ukrainians of all ethnic groups are heroically waging.

After the 4 January phone call between the presidents of Romania and Ukraine, Zelenski issued a terse statement saying they discussed “the peace formula and some issues on the bilateral agenda”. The Ukrainian press has more important issues than the minority dispute with Romania.

Even now, Bucharest is suggesting that it could use Ukraine’s NATO and EU accession negotiations to get satisfaction on the minorities issue. Romania would be teaming up with Hungary, playing into Russian hands.

This text has been first published in Romanian by Revista22. It has been translated and republished by Cross-Border Talks upon author’s permission.

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