Last week, there was a bit of a kerfuffle when the Ukrainian President Zelensky gave a speech on Unity Day that upset some Romanians.
I really don’t want to get bogged down in Ukrainian politics, but the short version is that “Unity Day” commemorates an event in 1919 that saw most of what is now modern Ukraine become united for the first time in history. However, that unity was short-lived as Ukraine was split up again shortly thereafter and absorbed by Poland and the Soviet Union.
Since 2014, Unity Day has taken on a lot more symbolic importance in Ukraine, for obvious reasons, and that’s why one particular remark about Romania militarily occupying Bukovina caught the attention of the Romanian government.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Romania, Oleksandr Bankov, then tried to paper over Zelensky’s remarks with a couple of lies.
“I understand that few people in Romania were paying attention to President Zelensky’s remarks in the original Ukrainian but instead relied on the translation into English, in which the phrase “Північну Буковину зайняли румуни” was translated as “Northern Bukovina was occupied by Romanians [in 1918].
Yes, that is the official English translation, but keep in mind that it is just a translation and not the original wording. What Zelensky meant to say was that Romanians “took control” of Bukovina, not that Romanians “occupied” Bukovina, which has a different legal meaning.
The historical context of 1918 includes the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire based on national movements in its territory, leading to a situation where there was no international consensus over who ruled these areas. Therefore, a neighboring state which “took over” the area should not be construed as an “occupation.”
To begin with, although I know just a handful of words in Ukrainian, the verb that Zelensky used (зайняли) is nearly identical to the Russian verb (занимали) – and both quite clearly mean “occupied.”
The verb for “took control of” (Romanian: preluat) would’ve been захватили in Russian or захопили in Ukrainian.
Therefore, clearly, President Zelensky said “occupied” in his speech and not “took control.” And I don’t care how much Ambassador Bankov wants to spin this thing – he’s clearly lying in order to ease diplomatic tensions.
Officially, Romania didn’t get legal control over Bukovina until 1919, so what happened in 1918 was a de facto Romanian (with French support) military occupation of the area combined with a pseudo-democratic “vote” by unelected local landowners who wanted to join the Kingdom of Romania.
Romania would continue to rule over northern Bukovina until 1940 when it was annexed by the Soviet Union and apportioned to Ukraine despite Bukovina being technically supposed to go to Nazi Germany (and its ally, fascist Romania) based on the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
Bukovina had been a part of Austro-Hungary since 1774 but was earlier the heartland of the medieval principality of Moldova and is and continues to be where a lot of Romanian speakers live.
Today, Ukraine and Romania are supposed to be “best buddies,” partly because it’s what America wants and partly because both countries are full of patriotic nutjobs who blame all of their problems on Russia.
Nonetheless, Ukraine passed a law in 2019 that outlaws the use of all foreign (i.e. non-Ukrainian) instruction in schools starting in September of this year.
Obviously, this was primarily designed to minimize the amount of Russian used in schools, but it also will phase out the use of Hungarian, Romanian, and Moldovan (Ukraine makes a distinction between the two) by 2023 as well.
Romania has weakly protested this law but to no avail. And now, Romania’s “ally” Zelensky is giving major speeches complaining about the Romanian occupation of Ukrainian land (although most Romanians see it as rightfully belonging to them), something that clearly also refers to more recent events concerning Crimea and Donbas.