Romania “Cautiously” Strains Relations with Russia

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By starting a diplomatic conflict with Moscow, Bucharest is following the general policy of the US and the EU. However, the Romanian authorities have to take into account the public opinion, which is dominated by neutral and pragmatic views on relations with Russia and the conflict in Ukraine.
Relations between Romania and Russia are making another sharp turn, although without any particular reason for such a sharp aggravation. Nevertheless, last week the Romanian Foreign Ministry unexpectedly demanded from the Russian Embassy to reduce the staff by 51 people (21 diplomats and 30 staff of technical and administrative personnel) in the next thirty days, and thus to align it at most with manpower of own diplomatic mission in Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry, in its traditional, unintimidating manner, stated that it considers this decision to be hostile, which will inevitably lead to further aggravation, since Russia will not leave such an unfriendly gesture unanswered. However, it is difficult to imagine who exactly in Bucharest could be strongly upset by the prospect of mutual gradual reduction in the total number of diplomats. Some experts attribute this hard line of the neighboring country to the recent statements of the Russian ambassador to Bucharest, Valery Kuzmin. In his communication with the local mass media he shared a strange appraisal of Russian-Romanian relations, which allegedly could be assessed as “more correct and neutral” than with some other NATO member states, which have a much more radical attitude towards Moscow. Moreover, Kuzmin rather eccentrically declared his firm belief that the time will come when Romania will have a Day of Russian Language and Culture on its official calendar. Contrary to the ambassador’s opinion, the tendency to gradually limit mutual contacts and reduce the number of diplomatic personnel has been observed both this year and last year, Bucharest has expelled Russian employees several times and it closed the Russian Center of Culture and Science, known as the Russian House, in February. Therefore, it is difficult to understand what the optimism of the Russian diplomat was based on, given the always very complicated relations between the two countries, especially now. Therefore, some analysts noticed in Valery Kuzmin’s behavior an attempt to provoke Bucharest to such disproportionate measures. Other signs that things are difficult between Bucharest and Moscow include the Romanians’ tacit rejection of proposals to extend some bilateral agreements, and the Romanian authorities’ refusal to work with Russian companies and investors. In addition, the Romania-Russia Friendship Parliamentary Group was dissolved, and the four Romanian MPs who decided to maintain relations with the Russian diplomatic mission were severely criticized and accused of collaboration. In a long historical path, Russian-Romanian relations have been very ambiguous and contradictory. During the XX century, they were officially interrupted several times, and the two countries were even at war. The key problems between these states have evolved over the past hundred years, including the unification with Bessarabia in 1918, Bucharest’s participation in World War II on the side of the Axis Bloc, the unsettled issue of the Romanian gold reserve, the growing movement for Unirea (unity), and Romania’s accession to NATO with the subsequent deployment of US missile defense elements on its territory. Meanwhile, Romania does seem in some respects to be more lenient toward Russia than other Western countries, for all external and historical mutual dislike. Several signs indicate the fragile anti-Russian positions of Romanian establishment. This is particularly conspicuous because Bucharest, staying totally solidary with the policy of Washington, Brussels and the North Atlantic Alliance, carefully avoids publicizing the military aid to Ukraine, hesitantly balancing between East and West, and, apparently, still being afraid of possible actions of Moscow near the mouth of the Danube and the historical lands of Southern Bessarabia. Also, despite the active official support of Kyiv, the Romanian society has ambiguous sentiments. Therefore, the pan-European sociological surveys rank Romania among the most doubtful states regarding the relevance of further military supplies to Ukraine and further hostilities. Moreover, the Romanian population is quite fragmented in terms of foreign policy preferences. Thus, only 32% of Romanians consider Russia an enemy, at the same time 15% see it as a necessary partner, and 37% do not know whether Russia is a friend or foe. 19% of the pollees choose the EU, 5% bet on the US as to whether Romania should be closer to the European Union or the United States; a quarter of respondent believes that the country should be equally close to both, and more than half believe that Romania should take care of own challenges and interests first. The fact that Romanian political environment is unsmooth, and a certain part of the elite has a neutral-pragmatic rather than radical view on the prospects of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, is evidenced by last year’s situation with the forced resignation of Defense Minister Vasile Dincu. Serious internal disagreements within the Romanian establishment almost became public after the official openly stated that the conflict in Ukraine could only be resolved through diplomacy with the participation of Western countries and the United States, because Kyiv cannot negotiate with Moscow alone, also because the Ukrainian political class cannot afford to take responsibility for the loss of territories. In many ways, relations between Romania and Russia, as well as between the peoples of the two countries, are retrospective, and it actively feeds mutual stereotypes and phobias. The contemporary Romanian historical and research thought, for example, has a thesis of twelve “Russian invasions” of Romanian territory over the past few hundred years. This instinctive fear of the Russian Army seems to be deeply imbedded in the Romanian cultural and political code, which predetermines such vigilance of the Romanians concerning the current foreign policy situation resulted in a mild split between the population and the establishment, which follow a common fairway with the Western countries. It is worth noting that the strange and possibly provocative statements of the Russian ambassador were not made by chance precisely in the midst of the domestic political crisis, as well as large-scale strikes in Romania against the backdrop of deteriorating social and economic situation in the country. Perhaps, this is the best time to work upon social disunity in order to politically weaken Bucharest. Apparently, this is exactly what Moscow and the Russian diplomatic mission are staking on, trying to fuel the anti-government, populist, anti-European views that exist in Romanian society, and also to flirt with political formations and leaders who promote such an anti-systemic course.