ECMI Minorities Blog. Romanians and Moldovans in Ukraine and their kin states’ engagement before and after the war – towards a triadic partnership for effective minority protection?

Sergiu Constantin
Image courtesy: Divizia

*** This entry is part of the special section of the ECMI Minorities Blog on National Minorities and the War in Ukraine. ***

AuthorSergiu Constantin   |

* Sergiu Constantin is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Minority Rights of Eurac Research. His current research projects focus mainly on language rights, political participation, and territorial/cultural autonomy arrangements. He co-edited the volumes Litigating the Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples in Domestic and International Courts (Brill, 2021) and Human and Minority Rights Protection by Multiple Diversity Governance. History, Law, Ideology and Politics in European Perspective (Routledge, 2019). His consultancy work includes projects undertaken by the Council of Europe and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in Ukraine and in the Republic of Moldova.


In March 2022, President Zelensky awarded the title of “Hero of Ukraine” posthumously to Major Ștepan Choban, a Suhoi-27 pilot killed in action during the first week of Russia’s war against Ukraine. His gallantry in combat and sacrifice became international news as printed and electronic media in the neighbouring countries of Romania and Moldova published tributes, highlighting the fact that he was a member of Ukraine’s Romanian or Moldovan minority respectively. Major Stepan Choban (Ștefan Ciobanu in Romanian) was born in Dolynske (Anadol in Romanian), a village in the Odesa oblast located at the intersection of the Ukrainian, Romanian, and Moldovan borders. Most of its inhabitants self-identified as Moldovans when Ukraine held its last census more than 20 years ago. However, dry statistics do not convey the whole picture, the much more complex realities of the Ukrainian-Romanian-Moldovan borderlands, and their shifting map of spaces and identities resulting from the crosscutting of political borders and conceptual boundaries based on ethnicity, language, and shared history.


Romanian/Moldovan minority/-ies in Ukraine

Ukraine’s 1992 National Minorities Law rather vaguely defines national minorities as “groups of Ukrainian citizens, who are not of Ukrainian nationality, [and who] show a sense of national self-awareness and community”. The country signed and ratified both the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 1997 and 2003 respectively. Ukraine’s instrument of ratification of the European Charter lists Romanian and Moldovan as distinct minority languages to be protected and promoted. However, the difference between Romanian and Moldovan is as significant as the difference between the German spoken in Germany and in Austria (or between British and American English). I will come back to this issue below.

In the 2001 census, Ukraine listed Romanian and Moldovan as separate entries under “nationality/ethnicity” and “native language”. People of Ukraine have different understandings of what “native language” means, but for many it is the language of their nationality/ethnicity. The census recorded 258,600 Moldovans and 151,000 Romanians living mostly along the borders with Romania and Moldova, in the Odesa, Chernivtsi and Zakarpattia oblasts. Overall, 0.5% of Ukraine’s population self-identified as ethnically Moldovan and 0.3% as ethnically Romanian. Among those who self-identified as ethnic Romanians, 91.7% declared Romanian as their native language, 6.2% stated that it was Ukrainian and 1.5% that it was Russian. In the case of self-identified ethnic Moldovans, only 70% declared Moldovan as their native language, while for 17.6% it was Russian and for 10.7% it was Ukrainian. The high discrepancy between ethnicity and language among self-declared Moldovans highlights the erosion of their cultural and linguistic identity during the Soviet period. This brings us to the interplay between Soviet legacies and nation-building processes in the Republic of Moldova, and this country’s identity dilemma.

In the wake of its independence from the Soviet Union, Moldova became an ideological battleground divided between Moldovanism and Romanianism, two competing visions of national and cultural identity. The former aligns with a pro-Russian geopolitical orientation, while the latter has a pro-European outlook. Moldova’s 1991 Declaration of Independence uses the terms “Romanian” and “the Latin alphabet” to define the state language, while the country’s 1994 Constitution stipulates that the state language is “the Moldovan language based on the Latin alphabet”. In 2013, the Constitutional Court of Moldova declared that the 1991 Declaration of Independence and the 1994 Constitution form a “block of constitutionality” in which they have equal status, and held that the primary constitutional text of the Declaration of Independence prevails: therefore the state language of Moldova is Romanian (Constitutional Court of Moldova 2013). In conclusion, Ukraine finds itself in a rather surreal situation: it recognizes Moldovan as a minority language distinct from Romanian, while the official language of the Republic of Moldova is Romanian. 


Consequences of Ukraine’s recognition of a Moldovan language distinct from Romanian

Ukraine’s distinction between Romanian and Moldovan languages is not merely a symbolic matter, it has practical, negative consequences for members of the minority communities concerned. The differential treatment regarding their use in the education system is a case in point. Ukraine’s 2017 Education Law has been strongly criticized both domestically and internationally for its restrictive provisions on teaching in minority languages. It changed the status quo of mother tongue-based instruction for c. 1286 schools and it established a hierarchy among three categories of languages (from the highest level of protection to the lowest): languages of indigenous peoples such as Crimean Tatar; languages of national minorities which are EU official languages such as Romanian; and languages of national minorities which are not EU official languages such as Moldovan. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission stressed that the less favourable treatment of minority languages which are not EU official languages raises questions in the light of the principle of non-discrimination.

The hierarchization of minority languages allows for differential treatment, first, between the Romanian and Moldovan minorities and, second, within the Moldovan community. While Romanians may study partially in their mother tongue at secondary level, Moldovans are only entitled to teaching of the mother tongue as a subject. Moreover, in theory, persons belonging to the Moldovan minority should be treated differently depending on whether they consider Romanian or Moldovan to be their mother tongue. The Venice Commission’s Opinion on the 2017 Education Law draws attention to the peculiar situation of persons identifying themselves as Moldovans, whose language is the same as the language spoken by the Romanian minority, and is therefore an official language of the EU.

Almost half of Ukrainian citizens who self-identified as Moldovans and a smaller number of self-identified Romanians live in the Odesa oblast. Members of these minority communities are particularly affected by the current Ukrainian legal framework. Moreover, they face bureaucratic obstacles when trying to enrol at Romanian public universities. According to Romanian legislation, persons belonging to the Romanian minority in Ukraine can study at Romanian public universities without paying tuition fees. However, their application for enrolment must contain a declaration of belonging to the Romanian cultural identity as well as a certificate of Romanian language proficiency or documents proving that they have studied at least four consecutive years of school in Romanian. Since 2017, the National-Cultural Association “Basarabia” of Romanians from Odesa documented several cases of minority members whose applications for enrolment at Romanian universities were rejected because their graduation diplomas were issued by Moldovan language schools. In fact, there have been no Romanian language schools in the Odesa oblast since 1998. At that time, Ukrainian authorities transformed all Romanian language schools from this region into Moldovan language schools.   


Minority issues in the context of Ukrainian-Romanian and Ukrainian-Moldovan relations

Ukraine’s recognition of separate Romanian and Moldovan minorities and languages is one of the most contentious issues on the bilateral agenda. Over the years, the Romanian government has repeatedly asked the Ukrainian authorities to stop recognizing Moldovan as a separate language from Romanian. Bucharest maintains that the Moldovan/Romanian distinction is an artificial and ideological construct created by the Soviet Union’s propaganda to divide communities sharing the same language and culture – a position backed by historians, sociolinguists, political scientists, anthropologists etc. The language which was called Moldovan during the Soviet Union was Romanian written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Kyiv points out that the principle of self-identification is a cornerstone of minority rights and that individuals have the right to self-identify or not with the Romanian minority.

Ukraine and Romania signed their bilateral treaty on good neighbourliness and cooperation in 1997, and established a Joint Intergovernmental Commission on the Protection of Persons belonging to National Minorities one year later. This body was supposed to meet annually but it met only five times in almost 20 years (i.e., in 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2006). The Joint Commission was reactivated in September 2017 when the two governments signed a protocol which recorded their divergent views regarding minority protection in the context of the controversial 2017 Education Law. The activity (or lack thereof) of this bilateral mechanism for consultation and cooperation in the field of minority protection speaks volumes of the dysfunctional relationship between the two states.

Since the 1990s, Ukrainian-Romanian relations have been affected by a sustained deadlock. The mutual distrust was rooted in historical resentments, stereotypes, and prejudice at the level of both political elites and the general public. Most Ukrainians and Romanians knew little about each other despite living in neighbouring countries sharing a border of more than 600 km. Cross-border cooperation was rather limited although large kin-minority communities live in the border areas. Neither Kyiv nor Bucharest made particular efforts to bridge this political, sociocultural and socio-economic divide. Moreover, Ukraine and Romania did not manage to develop a sustainable trialogue framework with Moldova. The tripartite Euroregions “Upper Prut” and “Lower Danube”, established in 1998 and 2000 respectively, did not create the conditions for a sustainable partnership and did not make the expected long-term impact on creating a common cross-border space.

In comparison to Romania, Moldova has arguably a much better understanding of Ukraine because of their shared experience and historical memory. Moldovans and Ukrainians lived together under the Soviet regime. The two countries had already signed their bilateral treaty on good neighbourliness and cooperation in 1992. Ukrainians are the largest national minority in Moldova and represent almost one-third of the population of Transnistria, the Russian-backed separatist region of the country. Ukraine did not actively engage with its large kin-minority in Moldova despite the fact that it has a great potential to influence political processes in both states. Most Ukrainians from Moldova are Russophone due to decades of Russification during the Soviet period.

Since early 1990s, Ukraine has been involved in the “5+2” negotiations on the Transnistrian settlement process and its position has been that the resolution of the conflict must be based on the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova. Yet, until the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Kyiv has maintained an ambivalent policy towards Transnistria and such an approach – sometimes called benevolent neutrality – has contributed to the survival of Transnistria as a quasi-state. After 2014, Ukrainian-Moldovan relations were negatively affected by the pro-Russian stance of the then Moldovan president Igor Dodon, who publicly declared that Crimea is de facto part of Russia.


Russia’s war against Ukraine and its impact on the Romanian/Moldovan minority/-ies

Moldova and Romania have supported Ukraine since the first day of the Russian invasion. They welcomed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and their kin minority communities  across the border played a significant role in the process, in cooperation with local authorities and non-governmental organizations. To give an example, Romanians from the Chernivtsi oblast in Ukraine strengthened the regional responsiveness to the refugee crisis and facilitated the communication between various stakeholders from Ukraine and Romania.

The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war marks a turning point in history. It has caused tectonic shifts in global affairs (e.g., energy, food, and finance crises, the balancing act of the Global South), in the Euro-Atlantic community (e.g., Finland and Sweden joining NATO, EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova) and in national politics and inter-state relations (e.g., Germany’s Zeitenwende regarding defence, energy, and foreign policy, Hungary’s outlier strategy vis-à-vis Russia that undermines its long-standing political alliance with Poland).

Often a crisis also presents opportunities. Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova can turn the current situation into an opportunity to reset their (dysfunctional) bilateral relations. The war has revealed a truth hidden in plain sight: the three countries face similar challenges and have shared interests regarding minority protection, energy, and transport infrastructure, defence and security etc. This reality calls for a paradigm shift towards a new, enhanced triadic partnership.

In April 2022, President Zelensky addressed the Romanian Parliament and emphasized that “the defence of Ukrainians of their own state is a fundamental prerequisite for security and independence of Moldova. And therefore a prerequisite for peace in the whole large region of the Danube.” He ended his speech with a message that was received with applause: “As soon as the situation allows, I want to start a dialogue with you on a new comprehensive agreement that guarantees the absolute protection and development of our national minorities – the Ukrainian community in Romania and the Romanian community in Ukraine. Because our destiny is to be as close as we can. Our destiny is to be defenders of freedom in our region. Our destiny is to be together in the European family.”

The Romanian government and political leaders of all mainstream parties welcomed Zelensky’s words and once again expressed Romania’s full support for Ukraine’s struggle against Russian aggression. However, several MPs – most of them elected on the list of the ultranationalist Alliance for the Unity of Romanians – contested the relevance of the event. Romanian journalists criticized Parliament for its rather lukewarm reaction to Zelensky’s speech, emphasizing that the Ukrainian president repeatedly mentioned the word “together” as the way forward to address open issues and challenges, and expressed the view that in the future, Romania will have a much closer relationship with Ukraine that will benefit the Romanian minority. By contrast, pro-Kremlin propaganda promoted the false narrative that Zelensky made the rights of the Romanian minority in Ukraine conditional upon Bucharest's support against Russia.

There were no immediate public comments from representatives of the Romanian/Moldovan minority/-ies in Ukraine. Few months later, the National Council of Romanians in Ukraine, an umbrella organization of 20 NGOs and media institutions, petitioned the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to restore the Romanian language schools in the Odesa oblast from 1 September 2022 and to derecognize the Moldovan language. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official answer. First, it specified that Ukraine is implementing the conclusions of the Venice Commission’s Opinion on the 2017 Education Law and mentioned the paragraph stating that the language of Moldovan is the same as Romanian. This suggests that, in practice, Ukrainian authorities do not intend to treat Moldovan and Romanian differently in the education system. Second, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that “in the context of Russia's war against Ukraine, the issue of abandoning the use of the term ‘Moldovan language’ can be used by the aggressor to incite inter-ethnic enmity in our country”. This suggest that derecognition of the Moldovan language is not currently on the table, but such a decision may be taken when the war is over.  


Issues-based pragmatism alongside the opening of possibilities for the future

The war has put on hold or delayed many decisions and processes that affect minority communities in Ukraine (e.g., the decentralization reform) and exacerbated some practical problems that they face in relation to their kin state. Again, an illustrative example regards the enrolment at of members of minority communities from the Odesa oblast at Romanian public universities. The Consulate General of Romania in Odesa suspended its activity at the beginning of war. Therefore, residents of this region who planned to enrol in the 2022-2023 academic year could not obtain the certified declaration of belonging to the Romanian cultural identity that is attached to their applications. In theory, they were expected to travel more than 1000km to receive their certified declarations at the Romanian consulates in Chernivtsi and Zakarpattia oblasts. Minority representatives raised this problem to the Romanian government.  The agreed solution is that the certified declarations can be submitted after the students arrive in Romania, by the end of the first semester of studies, and that the certification can be done in Romania.

In mid-September 2022, the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Romania and Moldova met in Odesa and launched a new trilateral cooperation format, “the first of its kind” in the history of their relations. While this first meeting focused on security and energy, the ministers also stressed their “interest in developing trilateral cooperation in all areas of mutual interest, first and foremost in deepening political dialogue” (Joint Communique 2022). Working together makes more sense now than ever, especially now that Ukraine and Moldova are EU candidate countries that must meet the Copenhagen criteria. Issues related to kin-minority protection (including the question of Romanian/Moldovan minority/-ies in Ukraine) could be addressed and solved within the framework of such a triadic partnership. It is a matter of political will and priorities.


This blog post was prepared by the author in their personal capacity. The views expressed in this blog post are the sole responsibility of the author concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues.

Back to overview

ECMI Founders