Laurențiu Pleșca: Romanian-Ukrainian relations have entered in a new age

However, attention must be paid to the rise of sovereignists in Romania, adds the Romanian-Moldovan political analyst

Laurențiu Pleșca is a PhD candidate in Political Science, researcher at the Romanian Centre for Russian Studies and analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He was born in Chișinău, the Republic of Moldova, and graduated from the University of Bucharest with a degree in Political Science. 

Pleșca spoke to Cross-border Talks about contemporary Romanian-Ukrainian relations:

–  their history after 1991;

– what should we expect from the Romanian sovereignism (which is anti-Ukrainian) and its attitude towards Ukraine after Ukraine recognized the Moldovan language as Romanian;

– what is the dynamics in the triangle between Poland, Romania and Ukraine;

– what is the role of the Republic of Moldova in the Romanian-Ukrainian relations;

– to what extent Romania sees problems in the imports of Ukrainian agricultural products and could we safely say that Romanian-Ukrainian relations have entered into a new (better) age.

Welcome to another cross-border talk, where we will be focusing on the relations in Central and Eastern Europe, and especially on Romanian- Ukrainian relations. We will be having as a guest Laurențiu Pleșca, a PhD candidate in political science, who is a researcher at the Romanian Center for Russian Studies and an analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Laurențiu wrote in November an article on the Romanian Ukrainian relations and on their history in contemporary times, which basically followed how they started with difficulties and lack of trust. But it looked like in the moment when the strategic partnership between the two countries was signed in October 2023, there is some kind of happy end or a new beginning of these relations, so we’ll be discussing a lot of details around these relations, having looks from within the region. And I’ll now pass the word to my colleague from Poland.

Good evening, good morning or good day, everybody, depending on what time of the day you are listening to us. And I wanted to ask in the first question about a bit of historical introduction to the issue of Romanian-Ukrainian relations, because I have the impression that while we hear a lot about Polish-Ukrainian relations or Ukrainian aspirations to be a part of Europe, there is relatively little being said about contacts between Bucharest and Kyiv. And in fact it is quite an important partnership. So, Laurențiu, could you tell us how it developed from the moment when Ukraine gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union?

Good evening and thank you so much for the invitation. It means a lot to me. I will start by saying to you that the Romanian-Ukrainian relations got off on the wrong foot since the collapse of the USSR. These relations were marked by revisionism and mutual suspicion between Ukraine and Romania. But Russia’s unjustified and illegal war in Ukraine, the full invasion starting from 24th February 2022, has radically changed the quality of these relations.

We see that from the start of the full invasion. There is a good quality of relationship. Romania basically has become one of Kyiv’s allies in Eastern Europe, playing basically the decisive role in supporting Ukraine’s military efforts against the Russian Federation. And I think it’s very important to also know that this relationship between Ukraine and Romania culminated with something really important – the signing of the Romanian-Ukrainian Strategic Partnership on 10 October 2023.

But if we go back to history, I will say that there was one element that has contributed to the maintenance of the relations based on suspicion between Kyiv and Bucharest. And historically speaking, we know that from the end of the First World War until 1991, both Romania and Ukraine were states that suffered from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. One of the saddest episodes in the history of the relations between Romania and Ukraine originated in 1940, when the Soviet Union, taking advantage of Romania’s international isolation, basically annexed Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina and Herța County. Some of the Romanians still remember the fact that the territory was lost.

Another territorial issue concerned the Snake Island and also the division of the continental shelf around the Snake Island. Snake Island is an island that was conquered by Russia at the start of the war and was liberated by Ukraine in the early months of the war. But in 2009, following a trial, Romania and Ukraine stood against each other, because the International Court of Justice in Hague  awarded Romania 80% of the continental shelf shelf near the island, and Ukraine received only 20% of the continental shelf. It was really important because with this decision of the court, Romania took hold of hydrocarbon resources and Ukraine retained an important strategic point from which it provided secure maritime links to the port cities of Odessa, for example.

So I think it’s really important also to talk about these kinds of problems between these two states. But more important for me is the minority act between Ukraine and Romania, because there is a Romanian minority in Ukraine. In 2003, Ukraine ratified the European Charter for minorities, and when basically it recognized the existence of Moldovans as a minority in Ukraine, Moldovans as an ethnic group separate from Romanians in Romania, contrary to Romania’s position. Since then, Bucharest basically has almost constantly accused Ukraine about this issue, especially, for example, after 2017 when we had the minority language legislation of restricting Romanians’ access to Romanian language in university or in school. Moreover, the Bucharest government also denounced the lack of Romanians in the administration. 

This issue was not solved completely. But for example, this year, at the start of autumn, the relationship between Ukraine and Romania in this case, on the minority issue got really good because Ukraine changed some of the articles in the minority legislation. Ukrainian authorities accepted the series of changes allowing Romanians greater access to the education system in their own language in Bukovina, in Cernauți, where the majority of minority of Romanians are living. So I think that the relation between Romania and Ukraine has strengthened significantly since the outbreak of the war. In the war, Romania has supported Ukraine sovereignty, independence, condemned Russia’s war and also has been a good advocate of Ukraine, when we talk about European integration.

With this long intro into the difficulties between Romanians and Ukrainians and the state elites of these countries, you kind of preempted my second question, which was about Romanian sovereignism. We expect that Romanian sovereignists will increase their influence in politics in the country in the next electoral year, 2024. And also, it is known that Romanian sovereignists tend to be somewhat skeptical of Ukraine. The issue of the Romanian minority was one of the contentious issues. But also there were some scandals related to the digging deeper of the channel Bistroe in the last year. And I need to remind also of the scandals with Andrei Marga, a former foreign minister and Vasile Dâncu, who was minister of defense security but had to resign. They both gave some statements which sounded too anti-Ukrainian or russophile, outside of the official line of Romania. I want to ask you, maybe having in mind that you said that at least a part of these issues are resolved, what do you expect to be the line of Romanian sovereignists towards Ukraine now that they have achieved or Romania has achieved, that Moldovan language to be called Romanian in Ukraine?

Yes. I think that Romanian sovereignty is characterized basically by a strong emphasis on protecting national interests of Romania and sovereignty. This has indeed affected the relationship. The relationship with Ukraine and the disputes between the two countries, as you mentioned, it’s about minority rights, territorial claims, especially concerning regions like Cernăuți.

You mentioned the case of Canal Bistroe, it was basically a situation where Ukrainian authorities were digging in this canal. I don’t think that Romanians were not aware of this. Eventually, the Romanian politicians started a debate about this issue. And it all got clear when some Romanian experts were basically investigating this issue and they said finally, that everything is okay and nothing is against the law. Digging in the canal basically respects international law.

We see that basically we have different cases and different approaches in the relation of Ukraine and Romania. There are pro-Russian parties. I mean, we have in Romania hopefully just one pro-Russian party that is called the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR). The leaders of this party are trying  to win political capital based on some of these elements that basically are discord between Ukraine and Romania. But from my point of view, often these anti- Ukrainian sentiments are artificial or should be seen as provocation, which serves to divide Ukraine and Romania.

You asked me about the next elections in 2024. I think that a new leadership in Romania or some different approaches between Romania and Ukraine will be possible. The fact that Ukraine basically recognized that Moldovan language doesn’t exist is a good thing. It was really clear that this is a scientific approach, not just a political one. In the next elections, the situation will become much clearer. There might be a shift in the stance of Romanian sovereignty concerning its relations with Ukraine. And this sentiment will be reduced, and the Romanian-Ukrainian relation could open new opportunities for collaboration, for economic ties and for more amicable interactions between the two states.

Perhaps we should also speak about the relationship in a kind of triangle because, as you mentioned, Romania contributed strongly to the Ukrainian military effort, particularly in the beginning of the war. And there is another country in Central Europe that also made a great effort to support Ukraine, and which is also connected to Romania by many business and political ties. I am speaking, of course, about Poland. There was a visit of the then-Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, in Romania this year, where he spoke a lot about Polish-Romanian cooperation, also in economy. So I would ask a question: what are the perspectives of this triangle emerging in Central Europe? What can happen in the relations between these countries?

Before the war this triangle that you are mentioning was really not evident at all. So basically we had mostly bilateral relations between Poland and Romania, because they are both members of the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance, and also Poland-Ukrainian relations. There were bilateral relations.

But now, since the start of the war, we see that the relationship dynamics with this triangle is really complex because Poland and Romania really support Ukraine in this war. And basically these two countries have established a degree of solidarity. Of course, we know that Poland is more active. We see basically the constant support of Poland, that is helping a lot, both humanitarian, military, economic and so on and so forth.

But I think this triangle could advance more, when you talk about the Three Seas initiative, for example, because the Three Seas initiative also plays a really important role in collaboration among these three states. And I think that, for example, this initiative’s ambition to engage more actively Ukraine, but also Moldova, I think, holds the potential for significant benefits for all the countries in the region, because I think that, for example, after the war, Ukraine’s reconstruction efforts will be really important and will stand to gain immensely from having an international platform like this for financing and managing the recovery process. I want to point out that these three season initiatives may not be able to undertake all the problems, but I see that this triangle of Poland, Romania and Ukraine is basically based on this. 

But I will also add Moldova in this, and I don’t know how to say the triangle for four countries, but I think it could be a good opportunity also for Moldova. I think that it can effectively coordinate infrastructure and energy projects between the three states, and to integrate all the infrastructure at the regional level and to complement the projects between these three states that already exist. I think this is also about transportation and also economic ties. I think that this approach will not only assist Ukraine in an efficient reconstruction process, but also benefit the broader region, the region of Black Sea, but also other regions. But by using Ukrainian infrastructure to basically enhance connectivity from this state, because, for example, I know about the project of a new high rise railway from Lviv to Cernăuți. I think it could easily be extended to connect, for example, Poland and Romania. And I think that, for example, because I mentioned Moldova, Moldova association with the Three Seas initiative will basically foster this cross-border cooperation between the three states.

I thank you for mentioning Moldova. You’re originally from there. You studied in the University of Bucharest, but Moldova is a country you understand very well. So what is the role of the Republic of Moldova in the relations between Romania and Ukraine?

Yes, you are right. I’m originally from the Republic of Moldova, and I think that Moldova holds a really important role in shaping Romanian-Ukrainian relations due to its strategic position between Romania and Ukraine. And also we know that Ukraine and Moldova both have European aspiration and think that the recent developments in the region, particularly speaking about the granting of the EU candidate status to both Ukraine and Moldova, but also the European Commission’s recommendation of opening the negotiations with the European Union give grounds for a closer cooperation between Romania and Ukraine, but also Romania, Ukraine and Moldova. And I think, because Romania supports the European path of both Moldova and Ukraine, basically, I think this is a really good format of cooperation. If we talked about the triangle between Poland, Romania and Ukraine, there is this another triangle between Moldova, Romania and Ukraine.

President of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu, she visited Ukraine multiple times. I think that the shared European ambition between the two states has acted basically as a catalyst for these two countries to be closer, to cooperate. The Republic of Moldova is not threatened directly by the Russian military. But I think that the Ukrainian army is really fighting also for the sake of the Republic of Moldova. And that is why the Republic of Moldova must help Ukraine as much as possible as a little country, but as much as possible, for example, to facilitate transportation for the grain exports, for example, because Moldova and Ukraine already have many customs control points. As EU candidates Moldova and Ukraine, these two countries must be really, really in close cooperation.

As I mentioned, Romania is close to Moldova, because, as we know, we were in the same country. Bessarabia used to be a part of Romania. I think that is really important to highlight this special relationship between Romania and Moldova, because when we talk about the European path, I remember that when basically Moldova started the application for the European Union, it was Romania that helped with this application. For Ukraine, for example, it was Poland. So I see this really interesting connection between these two bilaterals. I think that is really important to maintain this close relationship, which was not so evident before the war.

But I would also like to mention the Transnistria conflict, because this is also an issue and a conversation between Romania, Ukraine and Moldova. And I think that Romania has historically held an interest in the resolution of the Transnistria conflict. Romania always has advocated for the inclusion of Moldova in the discussion, but more recently to also include Ukraine in the discussion. So Ukraine was more present, for example, in the format five plus two of the OSCE. But I think that it’s really important to include these three countries in the conversation and to be more aware of the fact that basically these two countries can really help Moldova in achieving this reintegration process of Transnistria.

You spoke a lot about issues that have been resolved or that are a good way of being resolved, which are of course, great news. But there must also be a question about potential challenges. Even the best relations can become spoiled at a moment, and the history of Polish-Ukrainian relations also has these recent bad moments – for example, the controversy over the agricultural imports or now the ongoing another controversy on transport companies from Ukraine, which became a kind of problem for Polish transport companies. So where do you see the potential challenges and potential problems that should be perhaps resolved in advance in Romanian-Ukrainian relations? Are they also in the field of economy or is there something else?

Of course, I was really optimistic about the Romanian-Ukrainian relations. Of course, there are a lot of issues that remain unresolved, and I think that it will take a lot of time to resolve them. On the economic side, there are, like in Poland, some controversies over agricultural imports because, for example, in Romania this year, Romanian farmers protested quite massively after the European Union announced the lifting of the import ban on Ukrainian grains, and Romania was really unhappy about this. However, in Romania they did not oppose the transit of Ukrainian grains. They said that basically they did not want Ukrainian products on the market. So this is really an issue. But I know that after the European Commission announced the compensation fund for agriculture in the European Union, for countries like Romania, Poland, Slovakia, the protest stopped. And on the other hand, now, for example, in Moldova we have farmer protests.

There are a lot of unresolved issues between the two states, but they basically concerns questions that I had spoken about. So for example, the Moldovan language issue was resolved, but this is a long process. It was resolved when they started discussing this and they started some law changes. It was not solved entirely, though. 

In Romania next year we have all kinds of elections, we have parliamentary elections, the presidential elections, European elections, local elections, all elections. It will raise some issues also about Ukraine because in an electoral campaign, the politicians have a different approach. For now, the relationship is really close as ever. But we don’t know what will happen next, because when a new wave of politicians will win the elections and the power will be changed, I don’t think that the situation will remain as it is because we have some challenges. As I mentioned, we have the rise of the pro-Russian party AUR in Romania. So I think that they will start again a debate about Ukraine. I cannot be optimistic about this, the outcome of the election, for example, in Romania, because we have some polls that say that this pro-Russian party will basically gain some 20% of the votes. And there are also other actors that will try to win some electoral points when debating about this issue. We never know.

We never know. So there is a need to watch, comment and draw conclusions. As Laurence, you said today, a lot of issues in Romanian-Ukrainian relations that seemed unsolvable were actually resolved when Ukraine was put in the most difficult historical situation in recent history, after the open invasion of the Russian troops. But there are still things that can re-emerge in the future and that will need to be discussed and a common platform will need to be found. What is important is that these relations are now part of triangles, rectangles, further regional cooperation, which also opens new opportunities for the future.

So thank you, Laurențiu, you very much for being with us today. Thank you, Vladimir, for asking good questions together with me. And I would like to encourage everybody listening to us to subscribe to our YouTube channel, but also to our channels in other social media, to our sound channels in SoundCloud and Spotify, not to miss any episode of Cross-border talks. We are waiting for your comments, opinions, and suggestions. You can always contact us. And again, thank you very much for being with us.

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