Bulgaria Takes Issue With Ukraine Over Minority in Odesa Province

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 75

(Source: bulgariaanalytica.org)

The parliament of Bulgaria has adopted a declaration criticizing Ukraine’s policy toward the Bulgarian minority in Odesa province (see EDM, May 26). This move might seem to indicate that Bulgaria is about to emulate Hungary or Romania, each of which, in its own way (Hungary more persistently and harshly), has in recent years criticized Ukraine’s policies toward the Hungarian and Romanian minorities, respectively.

Those complaints developed in response to Ukraine’s reforms in the education system and the local administration system, where Soviet-legacy models are finally being replaced with European ones. And notably, those complaints come—if not in intention then in effect—as addenda to Russia’s own propaganda alleging discriminatory treatment of Ukraine’s “Russian-speaking population.” The addenda from Budapest, Bucharest or, now, Sofia are minor in volume and tenor, compared with Moscow’s propaganda. Nor are they coordinated with Moscow or instigated by it (suspicions to this effect remain largely unsubstantiated). Yet, unfounded reproofs to Ukraine over ethnic minority issues in its borderlands are disconcerting when they arise from Central and Eastern European countries of the Euro-Atlantic community with vital stakes of their own in Ukraine’s stability and cohesion.

The Bulgarian National Assembly’s (parliament) May 20 declaration “On Ukraine’s administrative-territorial reform and the protection of the Bulgarian community’s rights and integrity” expresses “categorical disagreement with the planned administrative changes” affecting the Bulgarian minority in the Odesa province’s Bolhrad district. The parliament “obligates Bulgaria’s government to take all possible actions” for preserving the Bolhrad district’s existing administrative boundaries. The parliament “insists that this is a priority issue” and calls on the government “urgently to arrange a Bulgarian-Ukrainian inter-governmental meeting” on this matter. Additionally, the Bulgarian parliament references the inter-ministerial protocols (see below) on support for Bulgarian-language schools in Ukraine (Parliament.bg, May 20).

Two members of parliament from the nationalist-conservative United Patriots, one from the right-wing populist Volya party, and one from the center-right governing party Citizens for Bulgaria’s European Development (GERB) initiated this declaration. It passed by 109 votes in favor, none against, 19 abstentions, and 102 not voting in the 240-seat chamber (Parliament.bg, May 20; Dumskaya.net, May 20).

The declaration responds to Ukraine’s administrative-territorial reform in this part of the Odesa region along the same lines as in all Ukraine. The Soviet-style, centrally-supervised districts (“raions”) are to be replaced throughout the country by smaller, self-governing communities (“hromadas”) in the framework of Ukraine’s administrative decentralization. This reform, for years in preparation, is to go into effect ahead of the local elections scheduled to be held country-wide in October.

Bolhrad raion (in red), Odesa oblast, in southwestern Ukraine (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ukraine’s Bulgarian minority is concentrated in several existing raions of the Odesa province—including the Bolhrad raion, where it forms a local majority of 61 percent. The town of Bolhrad functions as the Bulgarian minority’s informal capital. Under the imminent reform, this raion-level territorial unit would be replaced by five hromada– (community)-level units, each amalgamating several villages into a self-governing unit. Nothing would change for the Bulgarian minority in terms of voting for local Bulgarian mayors and other community leaders or running its own cultural institutions. The Bulgarian parliament’s declaration seems to misunderstand the local situation, assuming that the reform threatens the minority’s identity somehow. The parliament’s declaration seems, furthermore, to equate the Bolhrad raion with the whole Bulgarian minority in this part of the Odesa province. Bulgarians, however, also reside more or less compactly (although not as majorities) in three nearby raions: Artsiz, Tarutino and Izmail (and in smaller numbers in other raions), all of which are to be replaced by hromadas of amalgamated villages (see accompanying article).

The Bulgarian parliament’s May 20 declaration departs from the non-polemical, cooperative tenor that had characterized the Bulgarian-Ukrainian inter-governmental dialogue on the Ukrainian school reform’s impact on Bulgarian minority schools in Ukraine. The declaration is a far cry from the friendly spirit of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s discussions with Ukraine’s then-president Petro Poroshenko in 2018, when Borissov twice visited Ukraine, including the Bulgarian settlement area in the Odesa province. Borissov brought up the school issue in the wider context of bilateral cooperation projects and of both countries’ relations with the European Union (BTA, Novinite, May 26–28, 2018 and October 4–5, 2018).

Differences over the minority schools issue have been resolved after that by means of cooperation protocols between the two countries’ education ministries for the school years 2020–2024 (Ukrinform, May 20, 2020). Borissov has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to visit Bulgaria (Novinite, January 31, 2020). By contrast, Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis never visited neighboring Ukraine, and he canceled a visit by then-president Poroshenko to Romania as a protest against Ukraine’s school reform affecting Romanian schools in the Chernovtsy province.

Anton Kisse, the deputy to the Ukrainian parliament from the single-mandate electoral district centered on Bolhrad and Tarutino (see above), is plausibly believed to have helped inspire the Bulgarian parliament’s declaration. Apparently, he is interested in preserving the boundaries not only of the raions but also of his electoral district.

Kisse has been a perennial and imperishable leader of this ethnic community for the last three decades. He presides over the Association of Bulgarians of Ukraine and is a veteran deputy to the Verkhovna Rada (2004–2006 and 2012 to date). Kisse has been aligned all along with the parties in power in Kyiv, making deals with them—or with groups close to them—as they rotate in and out of the presidency and the central government. He distanced himself from Russia’s attempts to subvert the Odesa province in the heyday of the Novorossiya project and notably disavowed the Moscow-instigated “Bessarabian People’s Council” and “Bessarabian Republic” projects in the Odesa province in 2015 (see EDM, April 9, 13, 2015). A member of the Party of Regions, Kisse moved in 2015 to co-chair one of that party’s offshoots, the Nash Krai (Our Land) party, based on an informal deal with the Poroshenko administration. In 2019, Kisse joined the Za Maibutne (For the Future) parliamentary group, which is close to Ihor Kolomoysky—a move by which Kisse drew close to President Zelenskyy’s camp. Kisse is a cautious, conservative representative of the old nomenklatura, a status quo–oriented politician, interested in retaining his position as key power broker in the Bulgarian community as well as between it and the central authorities.

The Ukrainian parliament’s committee on state administration, local self-government and regional development held talks on May 22 in Kyiv with local mayors and community leaders from the Odesa province, including those from Bolhrad and other Bulgarian-populated localities there. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has rebuffed the Bulgarian parliament’s declaration as “unacceptable interference into Ukraine’s internal affairs,” while allowing, however, that the “Bolhrad district’s status would ultimately be resolved by taking the local citizens’ views into account.” The ministry has initiated discussions with the Bulgarian embassy in Kyiv on this matter, preparatory to an inter-ministerial dialogue with Sofia (Ukrinform, May 20, 22; see accompanying article).