Sergei Tigipko: Romania—Our Strong and Dangerous Rival

June 9, 2010
In Romania, presidential elections have taken place.
Interview by Viktor Ivanov

Ukrainian politicians were so deeply absorbed in their struggle to get elected they did not even notice the event [i.e., the Romanian presidential election referred to in the sub-headline]. Five years ago, political developments in both countries seemed almost synchronized, with both contests generating similar amounts of heat, and even the victorious opposition headed by Trajan Basescu used orange as its color, just like Viktor Yushchenko.

Nevertheless, “friendship among revolutionaries” did not develop. As between the “Orangemen” in Kiev and those in Bucharest, only the latter won. Why did that happen and what does Romania mean to Ukraine today—friend, partner or dangerous opponent? We decided to talk to Sergei Tigipko, the only leading Ukrainian politician who regularly deals with the “Romanian theme” in his campaign.

Sergei Leonidovich, after the near-simultaneous elections in 2004 of Basescu in Romania and Yushchenko in the Ukraine, many thought that all of the contradictions in Ukrainian-Romanian relations existing at that time would be easily resolved. In fact, however, if those questions have gone away—for example the matter of the partition of the shelf around Snake Island—it is because they were decided in the unilateral favor of Bucharest. Why?

Because of a false understanding of what Romania is and of what her essential national interests are. Many are familiar with the concept of Moscow as the Third Rome, often using it when referring to Russia’s nature as a great power; far fewer in the Ukraine know that on the other side of our country there is another state that pretends to the status of being an heir to Rome. Even the name Romania derives from the Latin word “Roman.” The Bucharest elite believe they are carrying out the civilizing mission of the old empire, and look down their noses at their Slavic and Hungarian neighbors, who presumably cannot boast of such ancient, noble origins. It must be understood that the idea of Greater Romania reappeared when Bucharest, as a result of the First World War, doubled the size of the lands under its control, including forcibly annexing Bessarabia and Bukovina. And the worldview of the establishment does not depend on who is president of Romania. Romanian politicians certainly fight among themselves trying to throw up obstacles to each other, but they all agree on one thing—in contrast to the Ukrainian elite, they all agree on the foreign political interests of the nation: Romania should get back the lands taken from it in 1940 by the Soviet Union (which were divided between Moldavia and the Ukraine), and become a regional leader in Eastern Europe. The logic of all Romanian policy having to do with the Ukraine is subordinated to this task. For them, we are not just a potential territorial donor, but an unwanted opponent in the struggle for economic and political dominance in the region.

But we have always considered Romania a so-called advocate of the Ukraine in the EU and NATO…

I think this formulation of the question is incorrect. We do not have any advocate in Europe. Look how the premier of Slovakia—one of our advocates—told Putin in Moscow that Bratislava, during last year’s “gas war,” fully shared Russia’s position and considered the Ukraine’s behavior to be fundamentally incorrect. And then Slovakia was serving as EU president. It is especially ridiculous to call Romania our European chaperone. Bucharest uses its membership in the EU and NATO to exert pressure on the Ukraine and discredit our country in the eyes of the West in every possible way. It is sufficient to recall the campaign against the construction of the Danube-Black Sea shipping channel in the Bystroe estuary, which the Romanians carried out with the help of their friends in the European Union. And the EU takes Bucharest’s side in Ukrainian-Romanian conflicts. Do not forget how Brussels forced us to lift visa requirements for Romanian citizens on the basis that these are not required of residents of other EU countries. Before taking this step we might have prevailed upon Bucharest to stop the practice of distributing [ed., Romanian] passports to our citizens. On October 28th of this year [ed., 2009], the Romanian parliament passed a law granting the right to Romanian citizenship to everyone residing in lands contained within the borders of 1917-1940 and their descendants up to the third generation. Thus, a large part of the populations of the Chernovitsky and South Odessa provinces can become Romanians, which would erode Ukrainian sovereignty in those lands. And the European Union pays no attention to these actions. More than this, the EU actually encourages Bucharest’s passport expansionism. For example, the European Union charged Romania with coordinating the work of the “Unified Center” [ed., edinyy tsentr] for issuance of visas to citizens of Moldavia. Clearly, those opposed to the incorporation of the republic into Greater Romania have immediate problems traveling to Europe.

These are political questions, but how does Romania’s negative influence on Ukrainian economic interests manifest itself?

On the matter of the partitioning of the offshore areas, as a result of which 80% [ed., of the disputed area] fell to Romania, together with almost all of the oil and gas fields explored by the efforts of Ukrainian companies, I will not dwell in detail. Less well known is that Bucharest does everything possible to prevent the Ukraine even hypothetically from becoming a transit point for Caspian Sea hydrocarbons to the countries of the European Union. In July, Azerbaijani president Il’kham Aliev visited Romania. The visit resulted in the signing of a “Joint Declaration on the Agreement to Establish a Strategic Partnership.” Honestly speaking, such a step says a lot: Azerbaijan is the second country with which Romania has signed such an agreement. The first was the USA. Among the priorities of the active cooperation between Baku and Bucharest are the Nabucco gas pipline, the Constantsa gas terminal and the Constantsa-Trieste oil pipeline—a direct competitor of the Odessa-Brody-Plotsk route. And Bucharest has an array of competitive advantages vis-à-vis Kiev: the opportunity to lobby for Azerbaijani interests in the European Union, shorter transit routes, the uncertainty of completing the pipeline to the Polish city of Plotsk. In the end, the Romanian company Transgaz is a participant in the Nabucco project, which is important to Azerbaijan.

Another transport issue that collides with our interests is navigation of the Danube. The fee for the service of ships transiting the Danube and entering the Black Sea and back, as well as for the port facilities connected with it, comes to around 200 million euros a year. Unfortunately, for the most part, this money does not go to Ukraine. Around the year 2000, the Ukrainian side tried to restore shipping in its part of the delta by dredging the “Bystroe” estuary, however, in 2005, financing for the project stopped—the “Orange” authorities did not want to upset the Romanians. This allowed Bucharest to maintain a monopoly on shipping along the Danube-Black Sea route. The Romanians based their criticism of our project on their concern for the ecology. Even so, in 2007 they themselves began to actively dredge on their terrain, and in so doing, not only harmed the environment, but promoted the silting of the Ukrainian shipping lanes and a transformation of the Danube channel to the advantage of Romania. We should immediately ditch all sentimentality about Europe and renew work on the “Bystroe” estuary. In the event of the completion of this shipping channel we should be able to attract up to 60% of freight traffic as a result of the improvement over our Romanian rivals.

Why does Kiev always lose in competition with a country that is far from one of the strongest in Europe?

Because Romanians know perfectly well what is in their interest, and do not shrink from using any method to realize it. Remember how they bribed Ukrainian ecological organizations so that they would protest the dredging work in the Danube estuary. For the last five years, the Ukrainian authorities have been more concerned to please the EU and NATO and gain their support in conflicts with Russia, instead of tending to our interests in the westerly direction. Yes, its status as the USA’s most important ally in south eastern Europe and as a member of the Atlantic Alliance and European Union help Romania, but the main reason for our failure is ourselves, our incorrect sense of priorities, bordering on open betrayal of our own national interests.

The Romanians have lots of weaknesses. Bucharest has tense relations with all of its neighbors—Hungary, Bulgaria and Serbia. Within the EU, Romania has limited rights because by many legal, economic and democratic criteria it does not meet the standards of the European Union. Finally, despite the active efforts of Bucharest to have friendly relations with Moscow at Ukraine’s expense (in particular, Romania wanted to please the Kremlin by impeding Kiev’s integration in NATO), there is no trust between those two countries. And if we stopped constantly fighting with Russia, we would be able to turn these contradictions to our advantage. Romania is our strong, decisive rival, persistently working against our interests, exploiting our weakness to strengthen themselves. This does not mean that Romanians are enemies with whom we should not cooperate. We need partners and not games where we throw in the towel [ed., igrat’ v poddavki]. We should become internally strong, consolidated and no less persistent in the assertion of our interests than they are.