Romania and Ukraine have some things in common. Both countries have what can be described at best as an uneasy relationship with Russia. Bucharest supports Kiev’s bid to move closer to the European Union and NATO, organizations it joined more than a decade ago.
Both countries are wary of Russia’s military moves in the Black Sea, which laps on to their beaches.
Where the relationship becomes complicated is the issue of minorities. For Bucharest the problem is a 2017 education law that says secondary education in Ukraine must be in Ukrainian. The law has caused controversy in Hungary and Romania which both have large minorities and want to see them educated in those languages.
In a related development, Ukraine’s Parliament or Rada passed a law on July 17, 2020 to abolish 490 old districts and replace them with 136 new, smaller districts as part of administrative reforms.
The new districts are a group of towns and villages, which were initially created locally on a voluntary basis, and later decided by Kiev.
Romanian officials say there are between 400,000 and half million ethnic Romanians in Ukraine, either from the Republic of Moldova or Romania.
However, it’s hard to get accurate figures as Ukraine’s last census was in 2001. It was supposed to carry out a census this year, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the administrative realignment, the officials said Friday, there are three districts near the city of Cernauti _Chernivtsi in English_ southwest Ukraine with ethnic Romanian minorities: Cernauti, where 23.3% of the population of 655,000 are now Romanian; Nistru where 5.7% of the 158,000 are Romanian; and Visnita where just 0.2% of the population of 91,000 are of Romanian descent.
“It is a good result, not perfect,” a foreign ministry official said on Friday, declining to speak on the record due to the complexity of future negotiations about the language law and other bilateral and regional issues.
Officials said while Bulgaria and Hungary, which also have minorities in the former Soviet republic, have claimed victory with the new districts, one Hungarian district used to have 75% majority of ethnic Hungarians now reduced to 45% under the changes, while a district that had 61% concentration of Bulgarians, has less than 50% under the new configuration.
Officials in Bucharest stressed that local residents should make demands about language and identity, not call on Bucharest publicly push an agenda, which could be counterproductive.
Officials explained that drawing up districts along ethnic lines was a sensitive issue, citing Romania’s own experience with Hungarian demands to create an administrative area called Szekely land which is populated by ethnic Hungarians in the heart of Romania.
“We want to preserve the linguistic identity of the Romanian community in Ukraine, but it is not easy. It is complex, and a complicated matter to settle,” the official said.
“Ukrainian authorities have to agree. We can do something, but they have to help us on the ground,” the official said. “There has to be a balance, a legitimate balance,” with ethnic Romanians speaking both Ukrainian and Romania.
Recently, a newly established group called the National Council of Romanians from Ukraine accused the government in Bucharest of not doing enough to help the local Romanian-speaking community.
Officials said they weren’t sure “how honest” the demands from this and other groups were and who was behind them. They said the groups “appeared to be pushing a populist agenda which ruins the things we want to achieve.”
The official hit out at vocal “so-called” mostly elderly leaders of Romanian origin who live in the city of Cernauti and aren’t connected to the ethnic Romanian community which lives in outlying rural areas. “The locals have a more pragmatic approach.”
Romanian foreign ministry officials say the most efficient way for ethnic Romanians to make sure their children are educated in their mother tongue is to individually sign a petition and demand that the school offers Romanian-language education and Romanian teaching, such as history.
Romania currently offers grants to ethnic Romanians in Ukraine so they can buy Romanian-language books and are encouraged to attend Romanian-language schools which are mainly in southwestern Ukraine, bordering Romania.
“Relations with Ukraine are difficult,” the official added.
Things are even more complicated in eastern Ukraine due to annexation of Crimea, and Donetsk and Luhantsk, which have broken away from Ukraine. Under the law, there will be adminstrative reform there once Ukraine.has regained control of the territories.
Ukraine holds local elections on October 25.
“When these sensitive problems are resolved, we can sort out the big problems,” the official said.
“There is a connection. If we fix the education law, everything can go more positively.”