As Ukraine orients itself toward the European Union and President Vladimir Putin raises the stakes by mobilizing reservists, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and national boundaries in Eastern Europe are tested. So are cross-border efforts and regional displays of solidarity. The current war may offer Ukraine an unexpected opportunity to improve relations with one of its EU neighbors. Rather than remaining hostages to frustrations over a difficult common history, Ukraine and Romania can work toward a fruitful rapprochement.
Whether the two countries are committed to strengthening ties for the long haul depends on the willingness of political leaders and broader societies on both sides to acknowledge that the traumas inflicted by Tsarist and Soviet imperialism will not be healed by nationalistic fervor.
HOW ULTRA-NATIONALISM GREW
Russia’s war against Ukraine exemplifies the living legacy of imperialism and expansionism. Under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union used mass deportation to cement Soviet control over the republics within the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern Bloc. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, and Romania found themselves entangled in an impossible puzzle of territorial and ethnic problems, aggravated by vivid memories of historical injustice and trauma.
Collective memory is being rewritten by the war and reshaping the story for younger generations of Romanians and Ukrainians, which has forced a change in perspective.
For Romanians, the Russian invasion of parts of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the current military occupation of Ukraine’s Donbas region bring back painful memories of a not-too-distant past. In June 1940, the Soviet Union annexed a sizable part of Romania and subdivided it into two sections: a larger territory was made into the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, and two smaller territories were incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Romanian identity was systematically suppressed in these territories, with history rewritten and language denied. Ukraine, too, suffered under policies of forced Russification.
Historic grievances between Romania and Ukraine, most notably over now-resolved territorial disputes and the current state of language rights, have understandably fanned the flames of nationalism. While border disputes regarding Snake Island, Budjak (Bugeac), and Bukovina (Bucovina) were officially put to rest, unofficially, they remain popular hot-button topics for nationalists — and for Romanians who recall the Soviet Union carving up, absorbing, and redistributing territories.
For the Romanian minority in Ukraine, the great concern is that a nationalistic Ukraine, eager to emancipate itself from Russian cultural and political hegemony, could enable practices aimed at delegitimizing and diluting ethnic minorities in the name of preserving a Ukrainian national identity. Ukrainian nationalist groups have grown since the annexation of Crimea. After the Orange Revolution, nationalist policies failed to integrate and protect minorities. While intended to safeguard the Ukrainian language, the 2019 language law (and its recent provisions) systematically discriminate against ethnic minorities, including ethnic Hungarians. The bill sparked outrage by the Romanian state and only contributed to frosty relations between the two countries.
THE POWER OF RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA
Inter-state conflict, ethnic tensions, and nationalist zeal have largely worked in Russia’s favor and fueled pro-Russian arguments since the start of the invasion. Russian propaganda, carried by state officials, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, and by Putin himself, in the televised address that preceded the so-called “special military operation,” presents the image of a mythical “Russian world (Russkyi mir)” that incorporates Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Moldova, eroding the legitimacy of these sovereign nations, and threatening former Soviet satellite states, including Romania.
On the other hand, a handful of Romanian conspiracy theorists, right-wing populists, and media personalities have expressed a fundamental skepticism regarding the reality of the war. Varnished with a veneer of “Romania first,” the rhetoric implies that what we know about the Russian invasion is manipulated by the United States, Western Europe, or the “deep state” and that the “Ukrainization of Romania” threatens Romania’s statehood. By this logic, Russia is only regaining its territories, and the only true victims are the ethnic Romanians forced to fight in the Ukrainian army.
In the past two years, voices on Romania’s far-right have also spoken admiringly of Putin’s authoritarian and “patriotic” leadership; according to a 2017 Pew Poll, 52% of surveyed Romanians agreed that “a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West.” In a country with deep-seated animosity against Russia, this is a notable twist on the usual nationalist rhetoric.
Before the war, the Romanian state, in conjunction with the Romanian Orthodox Church, called on Ukraine to protect its Romanian minority, assure language rights, and allow ethnic Romanians in Ukraine to be educated and worship in their mother tongue. Within an increasingly nationalistic Ukrainian state, the fragility of language rights for minorities seemed another flavor of old Soviet-style authoritarianism, wielded in a state seemingly bent on erasing the identity of the nations it incorporates. As such, the popular perception of Ukraine among Romanians was negative and not much different from the negative perception of the Russian Federation; in this narrative, Romanians were the sole victims of imperialism and expansionism. Today, however, Ukrainians are understood as victims of brutality inflicted by a common historic enemy. Collective memory is being rewritten by the war and reshaping the story for younger generations, which has forced a change in perspective.
The political class seems to have taken note of the shift in perception. Talks in April 2022 between Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Romania’s Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă painted an optimistic picture of future bilateral ties. They reaffirmed Romania’s support for Ukraine through defense and humanitarian assistance. Zelenskyy’s assurance to the Romanian parliament that Ukraine would protect its Romanian minority is also an encouraging sign. A robust bilateral relationship between Romania and Ukraine would reaffirm a shared history of Soviet occupation and Russification while strengthening regional security. This is especially important as Romania has stepped up to the plate to receive about 1.6 million refugees; more than 82,200 currently reside in the country. The number will likely rise with time, especially as the crisis extends to Moldova.
Focusing on strengthening bilateral ties — and confronting nationalism — would address the damage of the past constructively and could usher in multilateral efforts across Eastern Europe to promote minority and refugee rights. This can only occur if Romania successfully wards off the Russian propaganda plaguing its far-right and if Ukraine is willing to break with the inherited mold of imperialism on its southeastern border. Historical grievances might not mean much to younger generations of Ukrainians and Romanians. But addressing nationalism would ensure that relations between the two countries continue to grow after the war, unlikely to be undermined by Russian propaganda or undone by half-forgotten, half-remembered generational traumas.
Irina Bucur is a communications and journalism graduate from Chatham University and a former digital communications intern at The Stimson Center.