Ukraine’s great geographical, cultural, and ethnic diversity is both an asset and a challenge. Since the Euromaidan revolution of 2014, the government has undertaken a new effort at state building that aims to incorporate regions with very different characters and histories more closely into a national whole. Areas of the country that have long been neglected by the center are now the target of policy directives from Kiev.

One such region is Bessarabia, also known as Budjak.1 It is the most ethnically diverse province in the country, as well as a transit route to Romania and the EU. Bessarabia is not a hotbed of separatism, as some commentators fear. Although nostalgia for the Soviet Union is high and Russian is the regional lingua franca, political allegiance to Moscow is weak. Surveys show that a sense of civic Ukrainian identity has grown since 2014.

Carnegie Europe research from 2017 suggests that the central government in Kiev needs to manage two issues—the decentralization process and education reform—with special sensitivity if it does not want to provoke instability.2 How Kiev manages Bessarabia will be closely watched in other regions of the country—such as Transcarpathia and eastern parts of Ukraine, where Russian is also the lingua franca—where political trust in the central authorities is still low.3

A Local Identity

Bessarabia forms the southwestern corner of Ukraine, lying between the Rivers Dniester and Danube, with Moldova to the north and Romania to the west. It was ruled first by the Ottoman Empire, then by a succession of Romanian, Russian, and Soviet overlords. Initially known in Soviet times as Izmail Region after its biggest city, Bessarabia was integrated into Odessa Region in 1954, becoming a part of independent Ukraine in 1991.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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No national group forms a majority in Bessarabia, with ethnic Ukrainians making up less than half the total population of around 600,000 people.4 Its other ethnic groups are mainly also Orthodox Christians of different backgrounds, who have traditionally lived in the Russian-Ottoman borderlands. Bulgarians comprise a substantial ethnic group (129,000 according to the 2001 census), followed by an estimated 78,300 Moldovans. Smaller numbers of Gagauz (Orthodox Christians who speak a Turkic language), Russians of the Old Believer faith, Albanians, and Roma complete the ethnic mosaic.

Bessarabia is not a melting pot. Most villages are mono-ethnic, and cross-community marriage rates are low. Different nationalities work in different sectors of the economy, with Bulgarians cultivating grapes and Russian Old Believers engaging in fishing. Most people say that they are good neighbors with other ethnic groups. The only community that is an exception are Roma, who have been subject to hostility and racism. In August 2016, Roma families were violently evicted from the village of Loshchynivka following the murder of a nine-year-old girl, which was blamed on a half-Roma, half-Bulgarian man. Local and regional authorities did nothing to protect the civil rights of Roma who were deported as a result.

Confrontation and interethnic tensions are possible, according to a dynamic set out by scholars of ethnic conflict, such as Rogers Brubaker. This is not owing to any deep-seated animosities among the population based on old historical grievances, but because some unscrupulous local leaders can exploit divisions for their own ends and “code” them as being ethnically based. “The villagers won’t go against each other with knives, the conflict is on the level of village heads,” observed one local journalist. “Conflict is made artificially.”

Conflict is less likely because locals express a strong sense of regional Bessarabian identity. This is more of a passive than an active phenomenon. It does not manifest itself in cross-community efforts to build regional self-government or a thriving economy. Rather, locals of different ethnic groups talk of banding together to protect themselves against malign outside actors—a legacy surely of the region’s long history of rule by faraway governments. According to one local, “Today there is one state here, tomorrow another. That means that you are a hero today, tomorrow a traitor.”

More than a quarter century after Ukraine won independence, Kiev is still distant to many Bessarabians. Many—especially the elderly—speak the Ukrainian language poorly and do not watch Ukrainian television. In Izmail, the region’s largest city, located on the banks of the Danube, respondents said they got more information from nearby Moldovan and Romanian radio stations than from Ukrainian ones. Carnegie’s survey shows that a high number of residents of Bessarabia rely on gossip or unsubstantiated personal reports for information. This leaves them open to disinformation and manipulation by local media and politicians, especially during election season.

Balázs Jarábik
Jarábik is a nonresident scholar focusing on Eastern and Central Europe with particular focus on Ukraine.

Economic factors top the list of discontents. Although the region is well known for its rich soil and high-quality fruit and vegetables, the agricultural sector has suffered in recent times due to lack of investment. Factories have closed in Bolhrad and Izmail, and unemployment is high. As in neighboring Moldova, working-age women in particular have migrated to take up low-skilled jobs in EU countries.

Special anger is reserved for the appalling state of the roads—even though new construction projects are alleviating the situation somewhat. Poor, potholed roads—including the main highway between Odessa and Reni, leading onward to Romania and the EU—have reduced the region’s potential as a transit route and raised the export costs of its agricultural produce. “This is the transport corridor to Europe, but people are bypassing it,” says one official in Odessa, the region’s capital. Others note that the airport in Izmail has not functioned since 2010 and that the railway to Bolhrad is no longer usable.

The River Danube, another potential source of great economic benefit, is also underutilized. River traffic on the Ukrainian section of the Danube delta has declined in recent years as the Romanian side has become a major international waterway. A local businessman in Vylkove situated on the delta estimated that his town sees half the shipping on the river that they had several years ago.

A tanker sails down the Danube toward the Black Sea, near the old city of Izmail.

Discontent with Kiev does not, however, translate into widespread allegiance to Romania, the region’s other former metropolitan power and situated across the Danube. Even though many locals have obtained Romanian passports, giving them citizenship of an EU country (even though dual citizenship is technically illegal in Ukraine), this does not mean there is public support for reunification with Romania. A provocative resolution by Romania’s parliament last year to mark March 27 as a national holiday, commemorating the Day of Union in 1918 of what is now Ukrainian Bessarabia and present-day Moldova with Romania, was greeted with anger in Ukraine but had no local repercussions in Bessarabia.

Not many of the Romanian speakers in Bessarabia identify as Romanian, with an allegiance to Bucharest. A larger number call themselves and their language Moldovan—a traditional self-identification in Russia and the Soviet Union that aligns them with the neighboring state of Moldova. Anatoli Fetescu, the head of the Moldovan community in Ukraine, told the authors that Ukraine’s Moldovans had a long lineage that was distinct from Romania and sharply criticized Bucharest for unfriendly behavior toward Ukraine.5

The Ghost of Separatism

Bessarabia is a largely Russian-speaking province, which still proudly commemorates Russian imperial victories over Ottoman enemies in the eighteenth century. During Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution and the first phase of the conflict with Russia in eastern Ukraine in 2014–2015, there was speculation that Bessarabia might follow Crimea or Donbas into conflict or separation. A November 2014 report warned of the danger of a Bessarabian separatist movement, which would also cover Gagauzia in neighboring Moldova.

This prediction was wide off the mark, and Bessarabian separatism was limited to a few provocative episodes. Indeed, an attempt in April 2015 to launch a Bessarabian People’s Republic, consisting of nine western districts in Odessa Region, was an almost comical flop. The separatists held only one press conference in the Monte Cristo restaurant in Odessa. No one responded to a call to join a Bessarabian People’s Assembly (whose internet domain name was, rather too obviously, registered in Moscow).

The head of the Ukrainian security service later blamed Moscow for the scheme, saying that there were plans to blow up bridges into the region. The highest-profile plotters, such as the journalist Yelena Glishchinskaya, were arrested and detained before being sent to Russia in an exchange of prisoners. Bigger names, such as the parliamentarian Vitaliy Barvinenko, who was named in media reports as having instigated the project, stayed in the shadows. As in Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and other areas, this episode demonstrated that Moscow greatly overestimated the appeal of its Novorossiya project in southern and eastern Ukraine, which had been intended to unite regions with large, Russian-speaking populations in support of Moscow and in opposition to the new government in Kiev.

A year earlier, on May 2, 2014, an apparent Russian-backed effort to instigate violence in Izmail failed, in part, due to expressions of local solidarity. In Odessa that day, a confrontation between Euromaidan supporters and opponents ended in tragic violence, whose precise causes are still disputed to this day. After pro-Russian activists barricaded themselves in Odessa’s Trade Union headquarters, some pro-Euromaidan activists threw Molotov cocktails through the windows, setting the building ablaze. A total of forty-eight people died and 200 people were injured, most of them on the pro-Russian side. That evening, two small but angry crowds of pro-Russian supporters and pro-Euromaidan activists gathered in Izmail’s central square. However, the city’s mayor, Andrei Abramchenko, helped to de-escalate the situation and persuaded them to disperse.

In footage shot by local journalists, the town’s mayor argued with both groups—evidently with success—that they were “people of Izmail” and had no interest in fighting each other. Following this intervention and for other reasons, Abramchenko has been spoken of with respect in Izmail.

A Ukrainian government poster in Bessarabia warns of long prison sentences for “public calls for separatism,” “treason,” and other offenses.

A sense of local solidarity strengthens the leverage of the region’s politicians against the center. In January 2015, as conflict was escalating in eastern Ukraine, local leaders mobilized people against central rule in Kiev. Locals in the ethnic Bulgarian villages of Dmytrivka and Kulevcha protested against attempts to call up young men to serve in the army in eastern Ukraine. Footage of the protestsshows villagers shouting down a local official who had come to announce the draft with calls of “No to war!” However, when the authorities backed away, the protests subsided quickly.

The three politicians who represent Bessarabia in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, benefit from this power dynamic. All have no obvious ideological affiliation and have moved between different Ukrainian political parties over the years. All are powerful local patrons. Given limited funding from the Odessa regional budget for ethnic communities—for example, the budget provides only thirty minutes a week of television broadcasting in the minority languages—these men fill the gap, using their resources to finance business and cultural projects and thereby securing the loyalty of local communities.

Barvinenko, a businessman and member of parliament for Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, has changed party affiliation twice and now belongs to the Revival faction associated with leading oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. Oleksandr Urbansky represents the city of Izmail. His brother Anatoliy is chairman of the Odessa Regional Council and their father Igor is a powerful businessman and founder of Kaalbye, a major shipping firm and weapons exporter.

Anton Kisse has the highest profile of the three. An ethnic Bulgarian, Kisse is a powerful businessman who represents Our Land (Nash Krai), a party that broke with the Opposition Bloc associated with former president Viktor Yanukovych. As well as from the Bulgarians in Bolhrad district, Kisse draws support from the small Gagauz community. He has made an issue of alleged plans to combine Bolhrad with Izmail—even though the regional authorities deny such plans exist.

With the 2019 elections approaching, these majoritarian members of parliament are likely to consolidate their leverage over Kiev, because President Petro Poroshenko needs their support to earn their constituents’ votes for reelection.

In the meantime, two looming issues threaten new trouble: a forced process of amalgamation of communities as part of the Ukraine-wide decentralization process; and changes to minority language teaching as part of the broader education reform.

Decentralization Dangers

A decentralization process was rolled out across Ukraine throughout 2017. The process entails the amalgamation of smaller districts into new territorial communities (hromadas) on a voluntary basis. The new communities receive substantial new budgetary resources from the center, with the power to build roads, run healthcare facilities, and manage schools. It has generally been hailed as a success for empowering municipal authorities to make their own decisions.

In Odessa Region, where the goal is eventually to form around seventy-six to eighty hromadas, the process has moved at a slower pace. By the end of 2017, only twenty-five new hromadas had been created in the region, mostly in its north. Very few had formed in Bessarabia.

Three specific features of Bessarabia have made the amalgamation process problematic. Bessarabia has large villages, many with 4,000 inhabitants or more, and most of them already have schools, kindergartens, and healthcare facilities—in fact, they risk losing them in the amalgamation process with neighboring settlements. In practice, the process is perceived in this region as one of recentralization. Secondly, neighboring villages are often populated by different ethnic groups, meaning that if they are combined into one new territorial unit, one village may become the new regional center and own the regional school or health clinic. This could trigger resentment between different ethnic groups. “Many people fear that four villages will be united and one will be the center,” said a representative of the Gagauz community. Finally, Bessarabia’s poor roads mean that locals will have to take long trips to access facilities that are currently on their doorstep. “It should have happened differently—first infrastructure, then the new hromadas,” argued one local village head.

The Moldovan-populated village of Utkonosivka and the nearby Bulgarian-populated village of Kamyanka are an example. The two are being encouraged to amalgamate into one new community—without the support of either village. Both are large and relatively prosperous, have their own schools and kindergartens, and see no reason to share resources with their neighbor. There is also opposition in the village of Safyany to joining another new hromada. One villager said that they might agree to be amalgamated with nearby Izmail—but that is not currently on offer.

In a third case, the small town of Vylkove on the Danube delta welcomed a new hromada. It was formed in October 2017 from Vylkove and surrounding villages. Interviewed the month before, Matvei Ivanov, the then mayor of the town, said that there was a clear economic interest in creating a new community separate from the city of Kiliya to which it had been formerly attached. Vylkove’s budget was set to increase from 5.6 million to 27 million Ukrainian hryvnia, thanks to a newly acquired ability to raise fuel duties and obtain a greater share of other taxes.6

These different cases suggest that in Bessarabia, decentralization and amalgamation are welcomed only where there is a demonstrable economic interest, as in the case of Vylkove. In many places, village heads are strongly resisting a process that they assert does not align with local needs.

Locals in the Carnegie focus groups said that the public was not getting clear messages from the central government. “The state does not work; there are no structures here and that is a state problem,” said one focus group participant. “The media should be constantly broadcasting the positive meaning and successful examples of amalgamation, and that is not happening.” Local politicians are almost certainly exploiting this skepticism. They fear that decentralization will undercut their almost unchallenged economic and political authority in the region.

Uncertainty is compounded by a lack of information about what will happen when voluntary amalgamation is completed in 2018. Locals worry that the remaining towns and villages, which have not agreed to the process, will be forced into restructuring.

Education Worries

The second controversial issue among the ethnic communities of Bessarabia is Ukraine’s new education reform bill, which Poroshenko signed into law on September 25, 2017.

Most of the law is not at issue. Controversy centers on article 7, which was changed at a late stage by a group of parliamentarians without public consultation. It stipulates that most subjects must be taught in Ukrainian in secondary schools, while one or more disciplines may be delivered in the EU’s official languages.

The change drew sharp criticism not just from Russia (Russian being the second-most used language in Ukraine, by far) but from Ukraine’s western neighbors, Hungary and Romania in particular. Pursuing its own national agenda, the new Hungarian government even cited the law as a reason to block meetings of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.

Two children from Bessarabia’s Gagauz minority come home from school, walking past a statue of Vladimir Lenin in the village of Vynohradivka, near the town of Bolhrad.

Language rights, and the status of the Russian language in particular, have been a political battleground in Ukraine since independence. The 2011 law giving Russian the status of a regional language was unpopular in western Ukraine. The new law reverses that by prioritizing Ukrainian as the state language of all schools. Other languages can be used for instruction in primary schools, but their usage is restricted in secondary schools.

Article 7 makes a distinction between three minority groups. “Indigenous peoples of Ukraine” are guaranteed the right of education in all subjects in their native language throughout school. This apparently applies to Crimean Tatars and, in the Bessarabian context, perhaps to Gagauz. (A Gagauz interlocutor interviewed in September 2017 was not aware of this distinction and said that Gagauz parents were alarmed by the new law.) A second category is speakers of official EU languages—thus covering the Bulgarians and Romanians of Bessarabia—who may continue to receive at least some of their secondary education in their native language.

The third group comprises Ukraine’s other minority-language speakers—most significantly Russian—speakers. They will only be able to study their first language as a distinct subject in secondary school, with all other subjects being taught in Ukrainian.7 It looks as though Russian speakers were the main political target of the hastily drafted article 7, and little consideration was paid to the concerns of other minority communities. This is likely to be the main battleground over the new law, in eastern Ukraine especially but also in Russian-speaking parts of Odessa Region such as Bessarabia.

The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe issued a judgment on article 7 of the bill (unusually, only after the law had been adopted), which began by saying that it was entirely legitimate for Ukraine to seek new ways to cement the status of its state language; but it declared that the new law had many “uncertainties,” the downgrading of the Russian language “constitutes unequal treatment,” and that domestic and international criticism was “justified.”

The Venice Commission opinion concluded: “[The changes] could result in a substantial diminution in the opportunities available to persons belonging to national minorities to be taught in their languages, which would amount to a disproportionate interference with the existing rights of persons belonging to national minorities.” The judgment said that this might be mitigated only because of several ambiguities in the text of the law.

In Bessarabia, minority communities were poorly informed about the new education reform law and were alarmed by what they heard. Most interlocutors insisted they wanted their children to know Ukrainian so as to be able to receive higher education or get jobs in government service. “We should have introduced Ukrainian as the national language at independence,” said one local official. But they also pointed to a lack of professional capacity (insufficiently qualified Ukrainian teachers in the province to cover all subjects) and poor infrastructure (dilapidated schools and poor-quality equipment), which would make a quick transition to full Ukrainian-language teaching unfeasible.

If there is serious political fallout from the changes, it is most likely to come from the downgrading of Russian, the traditional lingua franca of the region. As reported by the Russkiy Mir Foundation, the Russian parliament called the law an act of “ethnocide,” and Russian parliamentarian Vyacheslav Nikonov said ominously, “It’s obvious that the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine will defend their right to speak in their native language one way or another.” In Bessarabia, one local in a focus group warned, “If the law is not canceled and is introduced next year, there will be problems.” Another said, “If they try to press us by force, there will be negative consequences.”

Conclusion

Many of Bessarabia’s problems are those of Ukraine writ large. These include economic neglect, misuse of resources, the disproportionate influence of local barons who have their own business agendas, and a lack of communication between the center and the regions.

Other problems are specific to the region. Separatism is a chimera here—indeed, overreaction by Ukrainian nationalists to Bessarabia’s continued use of the Russian language and economic ties to Russia might be more of a danger than overt support from Moscow. The issue is more that locals feel the impact of Kiev in negative terms—manifesting as consistent neglect. “We don’t feel the influence of Romania, or Russia—or Ukraine,” said one Bulgarian interlocutor in the town of Bolhrad.8

The empty plinth where Lenin’s statue once stood in the center of the town of Bolhrad.

The decentralization process has been welcomed in much of Ukraine, as local budgets for healthcare and infrastructure have increased. Bessarabia’s specific context means that it is viewed with much greater suspicion, suggesting that a one-size-fits-all format for amalgamating communities does not work everywhere and can stir up tensions on the ground.

The issue of minority-language teaching in schools is sharply felt in Bessarabia, as it is in the Hungarian-speaking regions of Transcarpathia and in parts of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Here timing is of crucial importance. Locals say that, in principle, they are happy to see their children make a transition to Ukrainian-language instruction so long as this happens over a long period. But, as the Venice Commission noted, “the short deadline [of September 2020] for the implementation of the new rules raises serious concerns about the quality of education.”

Most people in Bessarabia insist that the risk of outright conflict is low. One focus group participant said, “Everyone lives peaceful in the villages, knows their limits. The problem comes when reforms are imposed from above.” This is a warning that clumsy implementation of the central government’s decentralization and education reforms could spark resistance. These issues are already being instrumentalized by local politicians who wield de facto power in their local fiefdoms.

What will happen as Kiev tries to extend its post-Euromaidan nation-building agenda to hitherto largely neglected regions—both here in Bessarabia and elsewhere in Ukraine? One Odessa-based commentator said that, by default, Bessarabia tends to live by “common law,” interpreting state practices and laws to its own purposes and ignoring state directives when appropriate. Locals have honed this tactic over many years to survive rule by governments in faraway capitals.

However, ignoring government reforms is not a policy prescription for a democracy. Bessarabia needs more attention from central government, not less, so long as it is informed by local knowledge. A region with rich farming land that borders the Black Sea, the Danube, and the EU, Bessarabia has great but underutilized economic potential. Its ethnic diversity should be a source of pride rather than anxiety. Targeted investment is part of the solution. Central government should work harder to direct funding to the struggling small farmers of the region, in partnership with the EU, which has invested in infrastructure projects such as the Odessa–Reni highway. But not just money is needed. Bessarabia’s full potential can only be realized—and trouble avoided—by much better communication between Kiev and a region that still feels itself to be on the margins of the new Ukraine.

Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for its financial support of this publication.

Notes

Correction: A note has been added related to the name Bessarabia for clarification purposes.

1The name Bessarabia is used to refer to different geographic areas, which can cause confusion. For Romanians, the term is generally used to cover a much wider territory which includes present-day Moldova as well as parts of eastern Romania. This is not how the word is understood in Moldova or Ukraine. For the purposes of this article, the name Bessarabia is employed as Ukrainians use it, to refer only to the Ukrainian region.

2Research for this article is based on two focus groups in the towns of Bolhrad and Izmail conducted by the Odessa-based scholars Iuliia Serbina and Tatyana Krivosheya in August 2017, as well as two trips to the region by the authors in 2017.

3 In this article, Ukrainian towns and villages are referred to by their common names, with the exceptions of Kiev and Odessa, which have retained their customary English-language spellings.

4 These are the figures of the last available census data of 2001 and may be out of date.

5 Interview in Odessa, September, 2017.

6 Ivanov subsequently lost the election of October 29 to be head of the new community after a scandalous campaign.

7 Moldovans find themselves in a peculiar situation with regard to this law. Formally, they belong to the third category, but because Moldovan is almost the same as Romanian, they will be able to receive instruction in Romanian, which is an “EU language.”

8 Bolhrad happens to be the birthplace of President Petro Poroshenko, but none of our interlocutors spoke of him in positive terms. The president is said not to have visited in recent years or invested in the local economy.