29 September, 2023
An comment, made for the 24 February 2023 morning emission Our Day of programme Hristo Botev, Bulgarian National Radio

This is the English variant of the transcript of Vladimir Mitev’s comment on the Romanian attitude towards the war in Ukraine one year after the start of the war. It was aired in the morning of 24 February 2023 in the emission Our Day of programme Hristo Botev of the Bulgarian National Radio.

Romania meets the anniversary of the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine with anxiety and concern about what is happening east of its borders, but also with perhaps unexpected internal controversies on various issues. Bucharest, of course, is a NATO pillar in the region and is coordinating intensively with its Western allies, and also with pro-Western countries in the Black Sea such as the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, so that the region can respond to the security challenges posed by Russia. Moreover, under the rule of President and ethnic German Klaus Iohannis, who has been in office since 2015, there has been a more significant reorientation in Romanian foreign policy towards interaction with European countries, anchored by large foreign investments from Western Europe. In recent years, Romania has been betting on a united West in its foreign policy and has been trying to accommodate its regional interests – for example, regarding the Republic of Moldova and the Eastern Partnership – within a European framework, so that Bucharest can establish itself as a regional subcontractor of Western policy in the region.

However, in Romanian society it can be sensed that the so-called ‘sovereignist tendency’ is gaining strength in recent times. A political tendency that looks with adversity the liberal West, sees Romania as a colony of Western capital and demands that Romanian politicians pursue a foreign policy that is more in tune with Romanian national interests – for example, in terms of protecting Romanian minorities abroad, or of protecting the Orthodox Church from the encroachments of so-called ‘cultural Marxism’. While liberal urban elites in Romania want the country to be in solidarity with Western capitals and elites on the basis of shared values, sovereignists seek solidarity with peoples on the periphery of the West, and so divisions and contradictions arise in Romanian society.

This is exactly what can be seen in Romania’s attitude towards Ukraine over the last year. Romania has played an important role in supporting Ukraine in every form – for arms supplies, for coordination within NATO, including in the B9 format that took place this week in Warsaw, for support for Ukrainian refugees, and so on. Romania has helped to transport Ukrainian grain through its port of Constanta and has been described by Ukrainian officials as a sincere friend.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis visited Kiev in the summer of 2022, along with the leaders of Germany, France and Italy, three of the countries with the largest foreign investments in Romania. This was a sign that Romania was placing its policy towards Ukraine more in the European vector, while Poland clearly demonstrated that it was linking its Ukraine policy to the UK. The two approaches – the more defense- and security-related Atlanticist one followed by Poland and the more economy-related European one followed by Romania – are seen by some as competing, but they can also be seen as complementary – as two arms of the West acting in concert. 

However, Romania’s relationship to Ukraine is more complex, and this complexity comes from the role of the sovereignist tendency in Romanian politics. Romania has for years had disputes with Ukraine over the Romanian minority on its territory, which is perceived in Bucharest as being deprived of sufficient rights. Just a few days ago, a scandal also broke out over Ukraine’s actions to deepen one of the canals of the Danube Delta – called Bistroе. Ukraine wants to make this canal navigable so that it can export grain along it. Romania has opposed such a move for years, citing environmental and other reasons. A number of Romanian foreign policy analysts point out that there are anti-Ukrainian tendencies in Romania, which they link to unresolved bilateral issues or to competition for the position of a leading Euro-Atlantic power on NATO’s eastern flank. 

Romania’s pro-Western political elite sees an interest in shifting the center of gravity in Europe to the East, and therefore the West’s frontier to be Ukraine’s eastern border. But as analysts such as international relations expert Armand Gosu point out, the prospect of a Ukrainian victory in the war in Ukraine does not generate much enthusiasm in Bucharest. 

Thus, it seems that Romanian policy, like the policy of many countries in Southeast Europe, takes into account the need for a precise balance between different domestic and foreign interests. An important factor in it is support for the second Romanian-speaking country in the region, the Republic of Moldova. Moldova’s pro-European President, Maya Sandu, who is a Romanian citizen, recently announced that there was a Russian plan to destabilize her country and turned to her Western partners for support. Sandu met Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on 23 February this year and their meeting confirmed precisely the Romanian commitment to the security and European perspective of the Republic of Moldova. 

Bucharest provides funding for Moldova through the so-called Platform Moldova, which is a joint initiative of Germany, France and Romania. It was Romania that supported the Republic of Moldova with electricity and natural gas supplies, including gas passing through Bulgaria via the interconnector with Greece, when Moldova was plunged into an energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine last autumn. 

But even with regard to the Republic of Moldova, Romanian policy also has a sovereigntist tendency. At the end of 2022, George Simion, leader of the Union for the Unity of Romanians party, which is a third political force with the support of around 15% of voters at the moment, has demanded that all aid to the Republic of Moldova be stopped. Among other voters, his party represents politically in Romania voters who are Moldovans but have become Romanian citizens. But his party is a rival to Maya Sandu’s PAS party in Moldovan politics.

To sum up, Romanian policy towards Ukraine and Moldova is such that the Romanian political elite is preparing for different endings to the war started by Russia. Romania is a country with significant foreign investment – over EUR 110 billion by the end of 2022 – and most of it is Western European. Romania’s security elite is closely integrated into NATO, and the country’s role in the alliance can be judged by the fact that NATO’s deputy secretary general, Mircea Geoană, is Romanian. However, Romania also seems to be preparing for the scenario in which Russia, or the global South in general, increases its weight in the world or the region after the end of the war in Ukraine. It is this complex Romanian perspective on the region and on international relations that is worth further analysis in Bulgaria, where perceptions of Romania and Romanians are often schematic.

Photo: The Victoria Palace is the building of the Romanian government (source: gov.ro)

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