2. Bessarabia is not a melting pot

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* Bessarabia, also known as Budjak It is the most ethnically diverse province in the country, as well as a transit route to Romania and the EU.

Bessarabia is a largely Russian-speaking province, which still proudly commemorates Russian imperial victories over Ottoman enemies in the eighteenth century. 

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.

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.

The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at:  carnegieeurope.eu

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