“Are we less than Tatars?” Ukraine’s Bulgarians and Romanians demand autonomy


July 4, 2016 – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ

Translated by J. Arnoldski

On July 4th, the Bulgarian diaspora in Ukraine appealed to President Poroshenko to grant territorial autonomy to Bulgarians in the Odessa and Kherson regions. The Bulgarians’ resolution is connected to the Ukrainian leader’s statement on the granting of autonomy to Crimean Tatars. “The idea of granting autonomy to the Crimean Tatars significantly changes the constitutional field of Ukraine and establishes an important precedent. The Bulgarians of Ukraine residing on certain territories also have the right to autonomy,” the diaspora’s statement reads.

Poroshenko announced the intention to establish national autonomy for Crimean Tatars in Crimea on May 18th at events dedicated to the anniversary of Crimean Tatars’ deportation. At a session of the Verkhovna Rada on June 28th, the president stated the need to amend the Constitutions so that Crimean Tatars could obtain the right to self-determination. 

Before the Bulgarians of Ukraine’s appeal with a similar statement, the Assembly of Romanians of Bukovina also appealed to Poroshenko. The community urged the president to confer the status of territorial autonomy upon areas in the Chernivtsi region heavily populated by Romanians. The Romanians of Northern Bukovina (the historical name of this territory in the Chernivtsi region) account for slightly less than 20% of the region’s population (151,000 people).

The differences between the situation of Bulgarians and Romanians of Ukraine are important. Romania is seen by Kiev as an ally against Russia. It is no secret that anti-Russian sentiment in the country is strong. For example, the coincidence of Kiev and Bucharest’s interests led to the joint blockade of the Transnistria Moldovan Republic. Both countries are also participating in the joint exercises in the Black Sea region. 

These allied relations, however, are ending. The contradictions between the two countries are sharp, even if not public. Back during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, Romania established a precedent dangerous for Ukraine. Bucharest initiated a territorial dispute over the waters of Snake Island (in the black Sea across from the Danube Delta). Ukraine’s legal case was defeated, as a result of which 80% of the island’s waters were transferred to Romania. Of the total shelf space of 12,000 square kilometers, Romania obtained 9.7 thousand square kilometers. The country obtained not only a strategically important bridgehead allowing it to close the Danube basin, but also access to the oil and gas deposits discovered on the islands shelf. A dangerous legal precedent was thus established: henceforth, Ukraine could be deprived of its own land territories and waters.

Romania is one of the countries of Eastern Europe with a victim complex. The Romanian elite and public opinion in the country believe that the victors of the Second World War dealt with them harshly. Romania itself, as is known, was part of the Hitlerite coalition and its soldiers participated in the occupation of the south of modern Ukraine (historical Novorossiya). Their soldiers’ actions left behind bitter memories of their actions as punishers and looters on the Don and in Stalingrad. In 1940, the Kingdom of Romania lost Moldova and Northern Bukovina, re-gained them for several years during the War, and then lost them again in 1944. These territories were then obtained by the Soviet Union. In Romania, modern Ukraine is considered to be an illegal and temporary owner of Romanian lands. Therefore, Romania is pursuing an active policy in the regions of Ukraine which once belonged to its kingdom, Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia (southern Odessa). It has been reported that over 100 Romanian passports have been issued to Ukrainian citizens, including those not of Romanian origin. 

Knowing these and other facts, it is not difficult to verify that Kiev and Bucharest are more of dangerous competitors rather than allies. At the moment, Romania has more resources as an EU and NATO member, both organizations which Ukraine is striving to join. Kiev perfectly understands the danger of Romania granting passports to its citizens, hence why the official statistics of Ukraine consider the Romanians of Northern Bukovina to be Moldovans, a people kin to the Romanians living on the banks of the Dniester. 

A completely different situation concerns Ukraine’s Bulgarians who also inhabit the historical region of Bessarabia (also in southern Odessa region). Bulgarians make up a significant minority of the population in terms of number (around 205,000 people) but in terms of organization the Ukrainian Romanians completely surpass them. And what is most important is that the Bulgarian government does not pursue any expansionist policies and pays little attention to the situation of its compatriots abroad. Bulgarians historically maintain a pro-Russian orientation (as the Romanians of Ukraine have Russophile sentiments). 

For every year of its independence, Ukraine attempted to persuade Bulgaria to its side, but never managed to do so. Public opinion in Bulgaria, as before, considers Russian soldiers to be their liberators in the war of 1877-’78. Although the obedient pro-Western government of Borisov has curtsied before Ukraine and attempted to establish cooperation, the results have been very modest.

Thus, the Bulgarians of Ukraine cannot count on serious support from official Sofia. But they can obtain aid from opposition groups such as the nationalist party Ataka and other opposition parties and movements in Bulgaria. Another important ally of Bulgarians is their Romanian neighbors. As two Orthodox, neighboring peoples who fought together in the liberation war of 1877-’78, they are comrades-in-misfortune. The commonality of their interests, the necessity of preserving their cultures, and opportunities of socio-economic development have forced the Romanian and Bulgarian communities in Ukraine to work together to defend their rights. And these rights are being severely violated. 

In 2003, during the first “Orange Revolution,” Ukraine adopted the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages. However, the victory of the “oranges” did not allow this law to be enter legal force. Forced Ukrainization and the infringement upon national minorities swept the country. The victory of the Euromaidan and the surge in Ukrainian neo-Nazism are causes of legitimate concern for all the national minorities in Ukraine. 

These minorities will resort to being aided by their mother countries and creating their own self-defense units, like the Hungarians of Transcarpathia (12% of the total population, or 151,000 people) are already doing. The agenda of the day includes the creation of a common rights-defense and ethno-political movement of Romanians and Bulgarians, and perhaps Hungarians too. The Ukrainian political police, the SBU, harshly suppress any form of opposition, but in this case they’ll need to act more cautiously so as to not incur the wrath of Bucharest, Sofia, Budapest, and then Brussels, the capital of “united Europe.”

Thus, the victorious Euromaidan’s policy of forced Ukrainization, with its elements of armed violence against dissenters, leaves Ukraine’s national minorities no option but to seek legal ways out of the impasse. One of them is demanding national-territorial autonomy. While declaring a ban on discussing the prospects of federalism, the Ukrainian government itself has set the precedent by promising to grant territorial autonomy to Crimean Tatars. This chance could be taken advantage of by Ukraine’s Romanians and Bulgarians. Now it will be very difficult for President Poroshenko to explain these communities (and the parent states of Romanians, Bulgarians, and Hungarians) just why Crimean Tatar autonomy can’t be considered a precedent or why Romanians or Bulgarians in Ukraine are worse than Crimean Tatars. 

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