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Narratives about Romania and Romanians in Ukraine: between echoes of the Soviet era and “the wounds” of Donbass

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©EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO  |   Ukrainian woman, Communist Party supporter, holds a placard reading 'Back to the USSR' during a rally in the center of capital Kiev, Ukraine, 01 May 2010.
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Ukraine seems to have owned up to its European track (and discourse) after the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests and the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU in 2016. Nevertheless, the media and the political class still advance a type of rhetoric steeped in narratives of Soviet origin. A typical example in that sense is linked to mainstream discourse on Romanian statehood, the Romanian people, the history of Romanians and the Romanian community in Ukraine.

Soviet narratives: the Fântâna Albă massacre was the work of Romanians

The topic made headlines recently when the Facebook page of the Chernivtsi Regional State Administration published a video about the Fântâna Albă massacre, which grossly mystifies historical truth. Thousands of Romanians who were trying to flee the country after the USSR annexed Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, were killed by the NKVD, but the video published by the Chernivtsi Regional Administration claims only 50 people were killed, omits the fact that these were Romanian ethnics and labels the action as “a planned and deliberate act of defiance by the Romanian secret service against the inhabitants of Bukovina”. The Romanian community reacted promptly on social media and in the printed press, while Romania’s Embassy in Kiev said “the observance of historical truth in any attempt at describing the Fântâna Albă massacre” is paramount.

Soviet narratives about the Fântâna Albă massacre had two main goals: first, to obscure the details of this massacre and second, to present it as an action of Romanian and German intelligence, in an attempt to absolve the Soviet regime of any blame.

For instance, in the April 2, 1991 issue of Timp nou newspaper, quoted by “Monitorul bucovinean”, the Communist Party announced that “over the course of March, 1941, as a result of rumors spread by agents of the special services of Fascist Germany and monarchist Romania regarding forced collectivization and the confiscation of wealth, the deportation to Siberia of people who don’t wish to join the kolkhoz, the number of Romanian nationals attempting to cross into Romania from most rayons in the Chernivtsi region has gone up”. At one point, on April 1, 1941, according to communist propaganda, the crowds opened fire on the army, and the Red Army subunits were taking heavy fire. “The army returned fire and, as a result, 24 people were killed and 43 were wounded. A rifle and 10 military-grade shells, 2 handguns and 4 daggers were lifted off them. Medical care was provided to all the wounded”, the newspaper writes the year the Soviet Union collapsed. 

Therefore, the Chernivtsi regional authorities’ new narrative is a carry-over of Soviet ideology, admittedly a softer version, while Ukraine embraces European and Euro-Atlantic integration projects to the detriment of neo-Soviet ones, at constitutional level and in official discourse! With respect to the presentation of events regarding the Fântâna Albă massacre, it is unclear if the video represents the point of view of the Chernivtsi Regional State Administration leadership, of Ukraine as a state or a mistake of the producers of this video! The National Council of Romanians in Ukraine has called on the Governor of Chernivtsi to officially dismiss the respective claims. 

It’s worth mentioning, however, that the politics of history has always been a bone of contention between Bucharest and Kiev. In this respect, we recall the statement of President Zelensky about the fact that Bukovina was occupied by Romania in 1918, a claim also presented by history textbooks used by millions of pupils in Ukraine.

Kiev supports Soviet rhetoric on Moldovans and the “Moldovan language”

Another Soviet-era or even tsarist legacy is the concept of Moldovenism, which creates an artificial divide in the Romanian community in Ukraine, separating it into Romanians and Moldovans. Ukraine has Moldovan-teaching schools, a Moldovan newspaper and even TV and radio stations for the Moldovan community, which is seen as separate from the Romanian one and, according to Kiev authorities, clustered around the mouths of the Danube River, where the three counties in southern Bessarabia used to be in the interwar period. As a topic of geopolitical, sociological and psychological research, Moldovenism is a very fresh topic in Ukraine with specific underpinnings.  According to the 2001 census, Ukraine is home to 150,989 Romanians (0.31% share of the population) and 258,619 Moldovans (0.54% share). The census observes the old Romanian-Moldovan divide, and the numbers continue to be used by the central, regional and local authorities in their official reports.

The Ukrainian public television station recently broadcast a programme where an expert teaches “the Moldovan language” live, stating that “Moldovan belongs to the family of Romance languages alongside Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian. Hence its resemblance to these languages”. Note that Romanian is mentioned last. Some Ukrainian historians pick up on the narratives of the USSR and even the Russian Federation, writing that Moldova predates Romania as a state, that Romanian language is younger than “the Moldovan language”, etc. The approach of Ukrainian experts and Kiev authorities in this matter is evidence in favor of a two-headed domestic policy and a dangerous ideological split: on the one hand, a desire to break away with the “Russian world” which jeopardizes the independence of the state and to draw closer to Europe, while on the other hand, an enormous fear of discarding certain Soviet narratives.

Kiev has failed to build new political myths to replace Soviet ones, which are still deeply engrained in its civic identity. For instance, The Ukrainian Week writes: “Ukraine is not objectively interested in Moldova’s unification with Romania, since this will only strengthen the chauvinistic groups of Romanian geopolitical revanchists, particularly Romanian-imperial organizations such as “Greater Romania” and “Vatra Românească”, which see Romanian territories extending all the way to the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv… It’s worth noting that in the region of Chernivtsi alone at least 40,000 Romanian passports have been issued to our fellow countrymen. Therefore, long live independent Moldova!” Such narratives are quite commonplace in the Ukrainian media. Still, in the absence of other related information and commentaries, this kind of stories shape a large part of Ukrainian public opinion. Besides, from Kiev’s standpoint, keeping the two minorities separate and conducting distinct talks with the Romanian and the Moldovan sides makes sense in geopolitical terms.

It is equally worth saying that, after centuries of (tsarist and Soviet) occupation and decades of propaganda, part of Romanian ethnics now identify themselves as Moldovans, the same as in the Republic of Moldova. 

Ukraine’s enemies – Romanian passports and soft power politics

Ukraine has had a relatively short amount of time at its disposal to change its approach to Romania, given that prior to 2014 Kiev’s public agenda was closely linked to its “big brother” in Moscow. Defense and security policies were significantly influenced by Russian-born politicians, who in the meantime have sought refuge in Crimea or Moscow. For a long time, Ukrainian military exercises targeted Romania as a possible enemy and a member of NATO, while Russia was seen as the traditional ally of the Ukrainian army.

Romania had been bombarded by Soviet propaganda ever since the first years of the USSR, when the Soviets advocated a fundamental myth, which would long be disseminated in the collective mindset over the decades: the bourgeois-landlord state. Shortly afterwards, Romania was associated with Fascist regimes due to its alliance with Nazi Germany and its participation in the war on the side of the Axis. Romania’s NATO membership added a whole new dimension to this rhetoric, given that the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance had itself been the target of first Soviet, then Russian propaganda.

Moreover, much like the notion of Moldovenism, Romania’s image as an enemy state is reinforced by Ukrainian nationalist forces, who sow frustration and fear amidst Ukraine’s neighbors with the hope of reaping an immediate success in the elections.

Romania resurfaces every now and then in Ukrainian media as a scarecrow whenever the fate of Bukovina and the issue of reacquiring Romanian citizenship are at stake. For instance, amidst talks launched by the Ukrainian MFA over the need to officially recognize double citizenship, some journalists and politicians have started cautioning public opinion that this decision will result in the emergence of an autonomous republic in northern Bukovina where the population will have Romanian citizenship, “given the well-known fact that Romania considers the entire Bukovina as part of its territory”.  According to the media, Romania allegedly has hidden territorial claims for Ukraine, which is why double citizenship would enable the organization of breakaway referendums, just like in Crimea.

We can notice a growing concern gripping Ukrainian society in recent years – the fear of being betrayed by neighboring Russia. More often than not, some of the good initiatives of Romanian authorities are regarded with suspicion, through the lens of “Donbass and Crimea”, as if everyone around Ukraine, including EU member states, wants a piece of Ukrainian territory. Romania’s diplomatic efforts to support Ukraine in its war against Russia, giving systematic assurances that Bucharest observes the territorial integrity of Ukraine and providing humanitarian and financial help to Kiev, resulted in a significant improvement of political pundits’ views on Romania, which however isn’t reflected in the Ukrainian media or has found few echoes in society overall.

The contrast between Ukraine’s European aspirations and its Soviet past

Soviet reminiscence in the collective and political mindset of Ukrainians regarding Romania, which is particularly transparent in various public narratives, is proof of the existing rift inside Ukraine. On the one hand, the state wants to sever ties with the Russian world and its Soviet past (a decommunization law has recently been adopted), while on the other hand the political class finds it hard, on numerous occasions, to rid itself of communist-era myths which still make up a significant layer of collective identity. Soviet myths, adapted to the realities of the 21st century, virtually tell the same story using different words. For the time being, they provide simple answers to a number of existential questions for Ukraine, while the Europenization of society should also bring about an acceptance of reality, a break with historical falsehoods and the makeshift separation of national or linguistic communities, a gradual distancing from all frustrations and historic resentments towards its neighbors. Under the Ukrainian Constitution, the country’s strategic path towards EU and NATO accession is irreversible, which means that Romania and the other states west of Ukraine now become its allies, with the borders separating them becoming increasingly formal. Put in perspective, this requires Ukraine to break the vicious circle of Soviet myths, which various politicians continue to parade even to this day in order to cling to power.

 

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  • Ukraine seems to have owned up to its European track (and discourse) after the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests and the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU in 2016. Nevertheless, the media and the political class still advance a type of rhetoric steeped in narratives of Soviet origin. A typical example in that sense is linked to mainstream discourse on Romanian statehood, the Romanian people, the history of Romanians and the Romanian community in Ukraine.
  • It’s worth mentioning that the politics of history has always been a bone of contention between Bucharest and Kiev. In this respect, we recall the statement of President Zelensky about the fact that Bukovina was occupied by Romania in 1918, a claim also presented by history textbooks used by millions of pupils in Ukraine.
  • Ukraine has had a relatively short amount of time at its disposal to change its approach to Romania, given that prior to 2014 Kiev’s public agenda was closely linked to its “big brother” in Moscow. Defense and security policies were significantly influenced by Russian-born politicians, who in the meantime have sought refuge in Crimea or Moscow. For a long time, Ukrainian military exercises targeted Romania as a possible enemy and a member of NATO, while Russia was seen as the traditional ally of the Ukrainian army.
  • Soviet reminiscence in the collective and political mindset of Ukrainians regarding Romania, which is particularly transparent in various public narratives, is proof of the existing rift inside Ukraine. On the one hand, the state wants to sever ties with the Russian world and its Soviet past (a decommunization law has recently been adopted), while on the other hand the political class finds it hard, on numerous occasions, to rid itself of communist-era myths which still make up a significant layer of collective identity.
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