Friendship between Romania and Ukraine: For Keeps?

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The challenges in relations between the two countries are covered by the fog of war so far, but sooner or later they will have to return to their settlement, especially if Brussels opens negotiations with Ukraine on joining the European Union
Sergey CHEBAN, RTA: The flow of news unpleasant for Ukraine about the bans on the import of its agricultural products is lasting. Yesterday, Turkey joined the restrictive measures of the Eastern European states. Now, the only neighboring country that initially planned to follow the example of others, but eventually changed its mind, is Romania. After long internal consultations, Bucharest announced that it would wait for the decision of the European Commission, which would provide for measures of financial support for agricultural producers affected by cheap Ukrainian grain and food that flooded European markets. Since last year, Romania has become one of the key partners for Kyiv because of the alternative logistics routes laid through its territory, including the Black Sea port of Constanta and the Danube canals. However, the regional realities have not completely “smoothed out” bilateral relations. For example, despite Bucharest’s objections regarding the Bystroye Canal, the Ukrainian government intends to further develop the Danube port cluster and expand the ability to export food via the river. In particular, contrary to international obligations, it is planned to continue dredging to make the canal an alternative route for Ukrainian agricultural exports. Romania is obviously not happy about such plans, because the Danube branches Kiliya and Bystroe could be included, under pressure from Kyiv, in the trans-European transport network to the detriment of similar Romanian channels. This issue became the reason for a major scandal in February. This is not the only point where the interests of the two countries diverge. During the thirty-year period of independence in Ukraine, Romania has firmly entrenched the image of a state that always looks predatory at Ukrainian territories, one way or another, which have absorbed part of the historical Romanian area. Although territorial disputes have faded into the background since the Russian invasion, some Romanian politicians from time to time voice territorial claims against Ukraine. The latest example relates to the controversial senator Diana Sosoaca, who introduced a bill involving the annexation of part of Ukrainian territories and called on the government to immediately stop any support for the neighboring state. The opinion of Romanians about Ukraine also did not differ in a positive direction. Traditionally, Ukrainians are perceived with caution there, considering them as unpredictable “junior Russians”. Although, because of Russian aggression, the vast majority of Romanians now believe that Ukraine’s place is in the European Union and NATO. We must admit that despite all the problems I have mentioned Bucharest has taken the most loyal position towards Ukraine. Starting from February 24, the borders were opened for Ukrainian refugees. More than 100 thousand of them remained in Romania and receive the necessary assistance. Romanian cities arranged hubs to receive and further distribute humanitarian, military and technical aid to Ukraine from abroad and Europe. Romania also made several important political decisions. So, in November 2022, MPs and senators voted for a declaration condemning the Holodomor, which the Ukrainian people suffered as a result of the 1932-1933 Soviet occupation. This year, a joint meeting of both Parliament chambers adopted another “condemning declaration’ on the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. How long this benevolence of Bucharest will last is a very big if. Still, there are enough problems in relations with Ukraine, and they cannot be hidden indefinitely in the fog of war. Sooner or later, both countries will have to return to them again and look from a completely different (geo) political point of view. Especially if Brussels opens negotiations with Ukraine on joining the European Union, and in any case, Kyiv will have to settle first all the difficulties with its neighbors. Perhaps the most pressing issue is the Romanian-speaking minority in Ukraine, which became more acute with the adoption at the end of last year of the law on national minorities. Romania perceived this step critically, highlighting the unclearly regulated issues of language, education and the use of languages of national minorities in the official discourse. In addition, against the backdrop of the “abolition” of the Moldovan language in Moldova, Romania will probably continue to demand even more insistently from Kyiv to do the same and recognize only the Romanian language on its territory. In addition, the new law does not include a separate provision on the right to manifest religious identity or belief. Taking into account the ongoing processes around the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which also includes Romanian parishes, Bucharest fears the risk of a religious schism among its diaspora and proposes to transfer these parishes either to the Bessarabian Metropolis, or to form a separate religious structure to unite Orthodox Romanians in Ukraine. Judging by the trends that have prevailed in the Eastern European countries, we can assume an adjustment of the Romanian policy on Ukraine, especially on the eve of local, parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next year in Romania. In the end, the stock of social, political and humanitarian favor of Romanian population is not unlimited. A clear example is the results of recent sociological surveys, according to which, the solidary population of Romania is in favor of an early peaceful settlement between Ukraine and Russia, even if this requires Ukrainian territorial concessions. For Romania, of course, it is important that the Russian Federation does not win the war, and Ukraine retains its integrity, becoming part of the European Union along with Moldova. Thus, from a military and political point of view, Ukraine will keep Russia at a safe distance from the North-Western Black Sea region and the Danube Delta. Therefore, most likely, Romania will continue to help the neighboring country, in order, at a minimum, to ensure the containment of any attempts by Russia to move westward. Nevertheless, adequate Romanian-Ukrainian long-term relations could be possible only with mutual respect for interests, rights of minorities, international law, primarily on the Danube. Therefore, Kyiv’s position will mean a lot: whether it sees these relations as partnerships or as a conjuncture of circumstances that do not require a serious reconsideration of its policy in this direction.