* 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.
Ukraine’s great geographical, cultural, and ethnic diversity is both an asset and a challenge.
One such region is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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