Last week (May 20), pro-Russian legislative deputies in Bulgaria and pro-Moscow ethnic-Bulgarian politicians in Ukraine protested a decision by the Ukrainian government to redraw administrative borders in Odesa Oblast. The Kremlin-leaning ethnic-Bulgarians who expressed their objection said the move was intended to divide their more-than-200,000-strong community in that region and eliminate the possibility that they would be able to continue to send a (pro-Moscow) Bulgarian deputy to the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. Moscow loyalists in both countries hope to trigger a serious conflict between Sofia and Kyiv. Tensions between the countries would make it more difficult for the Bulgarian authorities to support Ukrainian aspirations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union, thus forcing Kyiv to turn back in Moscow’s direction. This Russian-backed and -exploited controversy has touched off a diplomatic row between the two governments. But despite Moscow’s best efforts at fanning the flames, for now the conflict looks unlikely to cause Kyiv to back down from its administrative reorganization plans or to encourage Sofia to oppose Ukrainian hopes for further integration with the West.
The lack of congruence between political and ethnic borders in Europe’s East has long been a notorious source of controversy. Ukraine was a particular victim of this legacy, with, until recently, relatively large ethnic-Russian communities in the south and east and sizeable (though numerically much smaller) Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian minorities in its west. In the south and east, Moscow has invaded; but in the west, it has instead relied on exploiting the nationalisms of these local minorities, both in their homelands and within Ukraine to weaken Kyiv and thus force it to accept Moscow’s preferred policies. Its efforts with regard to Hungarians are already quite well known (see EDM, July 17, 2018). Now, Moscow is doing something rather similar with the Bulgarians.
The trigger in the latest incident was the Ukrainian decision earlier this year to divide up what had been a single district in Odesa Oblast into five, thus reducing the resident ethnic-Bulgarian majorities or pluralities. This split and dilution of the Bulgarian community make it unlikely that the pro-Moscow ethnic-Bulgarian deputy Anton Kisse will return to the Verkhovna Rada, where he has a long tradition of causing trouble on the Kremlin’s behalf (Dumskaya, May 20). In Sofia, 109 mostly nationalist or pro-Russian deputies voted for a resolution demanding the Bulgarian authorities raise the issue with Kyiv. This total represented a sizeable minority within the 240-member body; most of the lawmakers, however, rather than casting a no vote, chose to abstain or did not participate in the roll call lest they anger the Bulgarian population (Parliament.bg, May 20).
Sofia ultimately did raise the issue, sparking a response from the Ukrainian foreign ministry, which not only criticized the intervention in Ukraine’s domestic affairs, but also pointed out that the charges leveled by the Bulgarian parliamentary deputies were not true (Dsnews.ua, May 20). The administrative changes are part of a countrywide reform, the ministry said; and they do not threaten the Bulgarian minority with any loss of institutional support or with assimilation (Mfa.gov.ua, May 20).
Russian media has been actively playing up this contretemps, and some of its arguments as well as those of pro-Moscow Bulgarians in Bulgaria and Ukraine have ended up being repeated by Western news sources (Balkan Insight, May 21). The latter have treated this as a straightforward controversy between Kyiv and Sofia over the handling of ethnic relations in Ukraine rather than as what it almost certainly is: an effort by the Russian government to elevate a relatively small dispute into something larger (Politobzor.net, May 22). Indeed, the timing of these Bulgarian actions strongly suggest they are in response to growing indications that many in Sofia are today ever more supportive of Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and the European Union (Topcor.ru, May 23; Mei.edu, May 21).
In an assessment of what is occurring, Kyiv-based political commentator Sergey Ilchenko says that the objections of the Bulgarians to Ukraine’s local self-administration reform are baseless. Odesa’s Bulgarians will in fact benefit from these changes because they will have a larger voice in their own governance; and the new administrative borders should have been adopted long ago. These reforms have only two losers—pro-Moscow Verkhovna Rada deputy Kisse, who may not be able to win re-election because of the redrawn electoral districts, and the Russian politicians who have supported him for the trouble he has been capable of causing in the Ukrainian capital (Dsnews.ua, May 22).
Most Bulgarians in Bulgaria understand this, Ilchenko continues. That is why the majority of that country’s lawmakers did not support the resolution pushed by its nationalist and pro-Russian parties. To be sure, most were reluctant to openly vote against this action lest it be misunderstood by their constituencies. In turn, the Bulgarian government had little choice but to raise the issue as the parliamentary resolution demanded. Under the circumstances, Kyiv had to respond in tough language. Administrative divisions within Ukraine are its exclusive right to define, and the charges that these were an act of discrimination against local ethnic Bulgarians are baseless. According to Ilchenko, this is something that the Bulgarian community in Ukraine completely understands, except for “professional Bulgarians” like Kisse, who make careers by fanning ethnic sensitivities.
Exactly what will happen next is uncertain, the Kyiv commentator acknowledges. For Moscow and its professional Bulgarian allies, much is at stake. But a lot is at stake for Ukraine as well. Consequently, further developments will be most directly affected by how far Moscow wants to push this issue. The controversy may either soon fizzle out as typical temporary bump in bilateral relations between Kyiv and Sofia; or, with the Kremlin’s encouragement, it could swell into further protests by Bulgaria or by some Bulgarians in the Odesa region. The choice is really Moscow’s, and Kyiv has no option but to defend its position, especially as the reform is non-discriminatory and even works to the benefits of ethnic Bulgarians except for a tiny few like Rada deputy Kisse.