27 March, 2023
A Romanian perspective on the challenges facing Bulgarians and Gagauz in Bessarabia
Mihai Isac (source: Mihai Isac)

A Romanian perspective on the challenges facing Bulgarians and Gagauz in Bessarabia

Vladimir Mitev

The second part of the interview with Mihai Isac at Cross-border Talks is dedicated to the Romanian perspective on the relations between Romanians and Bulgarians in Bessarabia and especially in the Republic of Moldova. He recalls the history of the Bulgarian and Gagauz communities in Bessarabia and that the relations between them and the Romanian-speaking communities have had both good and bad moments. According to Isac, the main problem for Bulgarians in Moldova is not so much the issue of rights, but the fact that the settlements with Bulgarians are becoming depopulated, so that in a few decades they may disappear. Mihai Isac recalls the specific historical relationship of the Bulgarians in Bessarabia with Russia and admits that it is difficult to evolve for various reasons. Also, according to him, the Moldovan political parties have not offered alternatives to the Bulgarians and the Gagauz community.

As for the Bulgarians and their attitude towards Romanian unionism, Isac recalls that Russian-oriented parties offered them vain promises of autonomy. “I think that in the future Bulgaria and Romania should start working to help the Bulgarian community in Moldova”, whether there will be Romanian-Moldovan unification or not. Isac also mentioned that the Bulgarian university in Taraclia could have merged with a Bulgarian university or become a branch, as has happened with some Romanian universities and similar institutions in Moldova.

Mr Isac, your websites Politicaexterna.ro and http://www.karadeniz-press.ro deal extensively with the Bessarabia region. And there I saw a lot of news not only about the Romanians in Bessarabia, but also about other communities, for example, the Gagauz region. And here I might have some questions, because in Bulgaria we are used to know the Republic of Moldova, for example, through the Bulgarian community. Of course, Romania knows the Republic of Moldova very well, but I am not sure that the Romanians know the Bulgarian community in the Republic of Moldova so well, simply because it is a community that usually joins the Russian-speaking trend in the Republic of Moldova. And here I am wondering if you have noticed something that is perhaps less publicized in the media? Apart from the fact that there are contradictions between Romanian- and Russian-speakers in Moldova, obviously there is also cooperation insofar as they are part of the same country. So, I am wondering what is your perspective on the relations between the Romanian and Bulgarian communities in the Republic of Moldova and what are the prospects for these relations?

Thank you for your question. First of all, the Bulgarian community in Moldova is quite small. I think we are talking about about 80 000 or 100 000 people who come from all-Bulgarian families or ethnically mixed families throughout Moldova. As you know, when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the border between the Republic of Moldova and the Republic of Ukraine ran right through the centre of the Bulgarian community in Bessarabia. And the very strong Bulgarian centre in Bolgrad remained in Ukraine.

In Moldova, the Bulgarian minority has many rights. They have the right to use their own language in the administration. They have a small university in the city of Taraclia, which is the capital of the Taraclia region, which has, I think, 60 000 people. It is one of the smallest administrative regions in the Republic of Moldova. However, it has not been abolished or merged with other regions. So it remains a strong Bulgarian centre.

Unfortunately, as you said, Bulgarians in Moldova are not very well known in Bucharest. In our history, we have had very good relations between the Bulgarian community in Bessarabia and the Romanian community in Bessarabia. We should not forget that the Bulgarians came to Bessarabia at the beginning of the 19th century together with the Gagauz. And because of the help that the Russian Empire, Tsarist Russia, gave to these communities who were refugees from the Ottoman Empire, naturally the life and political culture of the Bulgarian community in Moldova developed a more pro-Russian character.

Let us not forget that during the Soviet period, the regional Bulgarian elite in Moldova was educated in Moscow as well as in other countries. Russian was considered the language of the upper class. If you want to become something important, you have to speak Russian. The Bulgarian language in the Republic of Moldova, the Romanian language, or the so-called Moldovan language, started to become more of a kitchen language spoken at home, at home, when you go out or when you visit your grandparents.

As you know personally, the Bulgarians in the Republic of Moldova are predominantly a rural population. There are many beautiful villages with a very Bulgarian population. The historical imbalance between Russian and other languages has also affected the Bulgarian community. Of course, after 1991, with the help of the various governments in Sofia, many young Bulgarians from the Republic of Moldova began to study at Bulgarian universities. As far as I know, several hundred students of Bulgarian origin from the Republic of Moldova study in Bulgaria every year. I think that they often study at the Angel Kanchev University in Rousse, at the Paisii Hilendarski University in Plovdiv or at various universities in Sofia. And, of course, this kind of cultural bridge between the Bulgarians in Moldova and the Bulgarians in Bulgaria has helped many Bulgarians economically, because young people in most cases do not return home, but find work in Bulgaria or go to Western Europe and send money back. Of course, there is also a very interesting phenomenon of Bulgarian citizenship in the Republic of Moldova. There are many Bulgarian citizens in the Republic of Moldova. Some say that there are more Bulgarian citizens than Bulgarians in the Republic of Moldova.

There is also a very important Bulgarian community in Transnistria, in the village of Parcani, which is located between the cities of Tiraspol and Bender. This is the most important transport route in Transnistria. And I personally know people of Bulgarian origin who have studied in Bulgaria. So for Bulgaria, supporting these people is an important tool. As you know, in the last few weeks the Moldovan government has started to make some changes in the university sector in Moldova. They are trying to merge several universities. In the beginning, the Bulgarian university in Taraclia was on the list. But after the intervention of the Bulgarian Government and the Bulgarian community in the Republic of Moldova, the government in Chisinau abandoned this idea and the university continues to function as before.

I think that many political parties in the Republic of Moldova are not really interested in the Bulgarian electorate, because many Bulgarians are pro-Russian by definition, are elderly or are linked to Russian business interests in the Republic of Moldova. The only party, apart from the Socialist Party, that has targeted the Bulgarian community very carefully and has started to work within it is Ilan Shor’s party. As you know, Ilan Shor is accused of being one of the organisers of the theft of USD 1 billion from the Moldovan banking system a few years ago. And the mayor of Taraclia is from that party, of course.

This party is also quite pro-Russian, given Moldova’s political history. Therefore, we must not forget, and I am sorry that I did not say it the first time, we must not forget that the Bulgarian minority in Moldova has very close ties with Russia. In the 1990s, in the 2000s and even until a few years ago, until 2014, many Bulgarians from Moldova worked in Russia, worked in construction, worked in various fields. Many Bulgarians from the Taraclia region live in Russia. They work in different fields, they are also doctors and have different professions, which allows them to help their families in the region. So it is not easy for the Bulgarians to change their world view, because with such good relations with Russia, with the historical connection with Russian interests in this region, it is difficult to ask for change in a very short time, in a very short period.

Also, as a final thought on this topic, perhaps we should not forget that the political parties in Moldova have themselves to blame for not offering any political change to the Bulgarian or Gagauz community in Moldova. If we are talking about the Gagauz community, it is very closely linked to the Bulgarians. The poverty of the 1990s and 2000s in Moldova affected both the Bulgarian community, the Romanian community throughout Moldova and the Gagauz community. Europe is full of people from the Republic of Moldova, from the regions of the Republic of Moldova. We are victims of the same economic catastrophe that was felt after the fall of communism. And we should not say that the people are to blame for this. I think it is the fault of the political elite, which does not offer a clear way of strengthening the economy and social life in the region. And for this region, when there is decay among the population, it is natural that extremist views play a more important role than in normal times. I do not know whether I answered your question well.

Yes, I like your detailed answer, and I have another question on this topic, because I know that Bulgarians in Bessarabia or in the Republic of Moldova are concerned about so-called Romanian Unionism, about the tendency to unite the two countries, Romania and the Republic of Moldova. And I am also aware that perhaps some people in Sofia, among the political elite, somehow think that there could be a rift in Bulgarian-Romanian relations if the Unionist trend develops, because obviously the Bulgarians in the Republic of Moldova who do not believe in Unionism could look for some support, as you said, in Bulgaria or perhaps in Russia. But Bulgaria is the country in the EU on which they would probably rely. So I have a challenge to you. Could there be a common Bulgarian-Romanian perspective or cooperation in the Republic of Moldova, given that there have been some differences between the Romanian- and Bulgarian-speaking communities and perhaps some uncertainty about doing things together?

Very good question. Thank you very much for it.

Let us not forget that in recent years, including during the Voronin regime, from 2001 to 2009, and after Voronin, many pro-Russian political parties tried to get support from Taraclia by telling people there that Taraclia could become an autonomous region like Gagauzia. But they have done nothing about it. These were just empty promises to the Bulgarians.

I do not know whether Romania or Moldova will choose to become one country in the future. It depends on the population of the two states. This is not something that will happen tomorrow. But I think that in the future Bulgaria and Romania should start working to help the Bulgarian community in the Republic of Moldova. Before any union between Romania and the Republic of Moldova happens, maybe there will be, maybe there will not be – it is not up to the people to decide – this Bulgarian community, among others, has a bigger problem. It has to do with its slow disappearance. The population of the Bulgarian region in the Republic of Moldova, and not only of the Taraclia region, but also of the Bulgarian villages in the Cimislia region or of various Bulgarian villages that are not directly linked to the Bulgarian core in the Republic of Moldova, is going through a depopulation process.
This is a process that also affects the Bulgarian communities in Ukraine.

The last time I was in Bolgrad was before the war, in February this year. And in the streets, you could see that there were no more young people of Bulgarian or other origin. If you go to the villages, maybe there are some young people, but most of them are mothers with children. And the fathers have gone to work abroad, in Western Europe, in Bulgaria or elsewhere. I think that in 20 years the biggest question will be whether in 50 years there will still be a Bulgarian community in Moldova? Because this slow process of degradation affects other small communities around the world. This is not a unique phenomenon for Bulgarians, but because of the desire of the Bulgarian government or other governments to help Bulgarians in Moldova, they forgot to invest directly in Taraclia. There are no jobs in the region that are as good as those in Bulgaria. Because if the Bulgarians from Bessarabia work, say, in Varna, Stara Zagora, Haskovo or Vratsa, a place that is considered poor in Bulgaria, they will earn more money.

Unfortunately, the political system in Moldova is quite old and this layer of civil servants drains a lot of the state’s resources. And this makes many people, young people, have no motivation to stay. They go abroad. I personally know people who started businesses in the region and then went abroad. For example, I know such people in the region of Taraclia and the town of Tvarditsa. It is a very beautiful town with, I think, about 10 000 people. But half of them work abroad. And that is normal. Why stay in Moldova and earn 300 euro a month, say, or 400 euro, if you can go to Bulgaria and earn perhaps twice as much or go to Italy or elsewhere.

This is a big problem not only for the Taraclia region, but for the whole of Moldova. Young people, once they have finished their education, leave or go to study abroad, because the academic system in Moldova, like that in Romania and Bulgaria, no longer meets the needs of the labour market. In this respect, it has many problems. 10-12 years ago, there was great hope in the Republic of Moldova that, after the fall of the Voronin regime following the Twitter revolution of 7 April 2009, there would be a European change. There was great hope that there would be change. That it would be better. Today, this despair can be seen among almost the entire population. Older people are crying for lower pensions. Young people complain about low wages and lack of prospects for advancement. If you are not connected to the various political actors, this is quite a problem.

If you ask me, this is a pretty big problem for the desire of the Taraclia region to remain viable as an administrative unit. I do not know what the results of the last census in Moldova are. I do not trust the way in which the Moldovan authorities conducted this census. The local authorities have an interest in showing that they have more people than they have in order to get more money. This is a problem. There was also a census in Romania, I think a month ago. And economically, the region of Taraclia is not doing very well. This kind of economic desperation, this kind of economic corruption, is being exploited by political parties, such as the political party Ilan Shor, which controls the town hall in Taraclia, the most important city where Bulgarians live in the Republic of Moldova. We should not forget that next year, new local elections will be held in Moldova. And it will be very interesting to see how the Bulgarian voters in Moldova will elect their local leaders.

As far as your question is concerned, I do not see a way. I do not see the political will in Sofia or Bucharest to work towards a common goal in Moldova. Because in Sofia, in my opinion, they use this kind of nationalist rhetoric towards the Bulgarian community in the Republic of Moldova whenever it suits them, whenever political necessity arises…

Bulgaria, say, could help the Bulgarian university in Taraclia. It could be organized as a branch of another Bulgarian university. There are great universities in Bulgaria. “Kliment Ohridski” in Sofia, “Angel Kanchev” in Ruse, maybe other universities. And it would be better for ethnic Bulgarians who would like to study here. They have a Romanian example of that. The University of Galati has a branch in Cahul. The University of Iasi has a branch in the northern town of Beltsi. In these branches of Romanian universities, people study who are ethnic Romanians and even ethnic Bulgarians. They receive scholarships from the Romanian State, but they live at home and it is much cheaper for them. Their diplomas are recognised as European diplomas.

I think this could be a good example for Bulgaria, but, of course, it depends on the economic results and the legal issues, which I am not aware of. But at the moment, there is no political will in Romania and Bulgaria to work together to achieve this common goal of helping Moldova. And I think you are talking about Unionism as something that will have a negative impact on the Bulgarian community.

First of all, I think that Romania has had very good practices in recent times with regard to minorities. I hope you agree. There are many minorities in the Romanian Parliament. Minorities are free to use their language. You have the Hungarian example in Transylvania, the Bulgarian example in Banat and other examples, including examples of the Russian minority in various regions of Romania, such as the Danube Delta. They use their own language in administration. There is no method of forced Romanianisation, as there may have been during the communist period.

But I think that in today’s world to talk about Unionism with the fear that Hitler is coming is very wrong. The idea of a ‘Greater Romania’ will only unfold once the people of both countries vote. The Republic of Moldova has many problems – the problem of Transnistria, the problem of the Gagauz, it has many problems before it is given the chance to unite with Romania or become a member of the European Union.

And if you want, you can see an example in the mirror. Relations between Sofia and Skopje, on the one hand, and relations between Bucharest and Chisinau, on the other. I think that in the minds of most Bulgarians Macedonia is Bulgarian at all costs. Furthermore, in the minds of many Romanians, Bessarabia is Romanian. Because that is the way our history is taught. It is how our culture is built. And, of course, if I go to a village in Moldova and speak Romanian from Bucharest, people will understand me.

So it is quite difficult to say what the future will bring. This kind of discussion about how bad Unionism is should be had, there is no problem, but let us bear in mind that no change in Romania’s borders will be made without the agreement of NATO or EU countries. Romania will not start from its own desire to change the borders of Eastern Europe. Let us be serious. The government with Ciuca as Prime Minister is one of the most pro-European and pro-NATO governments since the revolution. So I do not see Mr Chuka ordering our army to cross the Pruth without the consent of our allies, including Bulgaria.

Given our relations with Bulgaria throughout our history, I think we have common ground on which we can build. Let us not forget that the first Bulgarian high school in the world was in Bolgrad, when Bolgrad was under Romanian, not Russian, but Romanian administration. And let us not forget that the cities of Craiova, Giurgiu, Braila and Bucharest were hotbeds of Bulgarian activity to achieve Bulgarian independence. I am not trying to revive history. I am simply saying that if we want to, we can do something good together.

Good. Thank you for the few things you mentioned. Let me just say that, as far as I know, there is an interest on the part of the University of Rousse to integrate the University of Taraclia as its branch. But it seems that in the Republic of Moldova there is also an administrative issue and a decision in this sense is not being taken. That is the view I have got, at least from talking to the Bulgarians. Of course, this may not be the most accurate point of view.

It is a very accurate point of view. You need political will, and if you don’t have political will, nothing happens. If you have political will, you can build bridges.

Photo: The region of Taraclia and the Gagauz Autonomous Region whose center is Komrat have a traditional proximity since the Bulgarians and Gagauz settled in Bessarabia simultaneously (source: Wikipedia Commons)

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