Russian aggression in Ukraine has shown that in Eastern matters Poland takes the same position as Romania, but differs significantly from the Visegrad Group countries. This community of interests should be turned into specific actions particularly concerning Ukraine.
The illegal annexation of Crimea and the Russian invasion of Donbas was the moment of truth for the cohesion of the Visegrad Group. Unfortunately, it has shown very deep differences of position between Poland and its southern partners. On the other hand, Poland could count on full support of Romania in the Ukrainian matters in the EU and NATO. Romania has been pursuing a decidedly pro-American foreign policy, supporting NATO and EU expansion. Economic relations between Romania and Russia are limited and Russia is treated as the most important potential threat for Romanian security. Poland and Romania should utilise this community of interest now for creating a triangle with Ukraine, which needs the support of its Central European neighbors more than ever.
The Polish interest in the East has always been directed to a large degree towards the Black Sea, and it had encompassed the lands of Romania. From the late 14th century, Moldova (the largest part of which is in Romania) was a Polish vassal state for more than a hundred years. Then, until the end of the 17th century, Moldova was a de facto Polish–Ottoman condominium—for long periods. The Polish expansion in the south had its climax in the early 17th century, when Wallachia became its fiefdom for a short time. Consequently the Polish sphere of influence reached as far as Bulgaria. Romania regained an important position in Polish foreign policy in the interwar period, when it became our only ally among our neighbours (although some tensions were also present). Its importance stemmed from its role of the safest route from Poland to the West. This was confirmed in September 1939, when the Polish government along with many Polish soldiers found refuge in Romania.
In the cultural sphere a particularly important and little-known fact is the huge influence of Polish culture on Romanian intellectual life in the 17th century. The greatest Romanian intellectuals of the baroque period (Miron Costin, Gheorghe Ureche, Dosoftei) went to schools in Poland, wrote in Polish and followed Polish patterns of culture, thus opening their own culture to contacts with the West. Due to their contacts with Western culture (through the Latin language) in Poland, they spread among the Orthodox Romanians the idea of their nation originating from the Romans. For many centuries the north-eastern Moldova (in 1774 occupied by Austria) played the role of a bridge between Poland and Romania. In the 19th century many Poles and Jews from Galicia settled there. Before the outbreak of World War I the Poles constituted 5% of the population of Bucovina.
Today the foundation for closer cooperation between Poland and Romania is a strategic partnership, which was signed in 2009 by the presidents of both countries. Unfortunately, in the area of foreign policy, this agreement remained largely on paper. In recent years, Romania has been preoccupied mostly with itself. It is faced with a much more serious internal problems than Poland. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that Romanian public institutions are certainly much less effective than the Polish ones. Bilateral contacts have been regular, but not intensive. In the years 2005–2014, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk visited Romania three times, while visiting Hungary five times in the same period. In 2010–2014, Polish President Bronisław Komorowski visited Romania once and Hungary four times.
On the other hand, much has been achieved in bilateral economic cooperation. Poland has become one of the most important economic partners of Romania in recent years. The Polish share of Romanian trade is now 3.5%. By the end of 2012 the accumulated Polish direct investments surpassed $750 million. In the following years economic cooperation may increase significantly. According to IMF forecasts, in the period of 2015–2019 Poland and Romania will grow at the rate of 3–3.5%, which will make them the two fastest-growing major economies in the EU.
Romania may also be an important partner of Poland within NATO. Warsaw needs such a partner in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. Romania has the second-largest military potential among the countries of the former Communist bloc after Poland. Poland has recently launched a programme of modernising its armed forces. A great opportunity for tightening the Polish-Romanian security cooperation was created by the decision made by Bucharest in April 2014, significantly increasing defence spending from 1.4% in 2014 to 2% in 2017. Another positive development is the increase of effectiveness of government institutions in Romania, the most important example of that being the successful fight against corruption (dozens of politicians and officials convicted and arrested). But there remains the problem of the negative image of Romania and Romanians in Poland. Opinion polls show that Romanians are the most disliked nation in Poland after the Roma. This irrational hostility stems from associating Romania with the Roma and from widespread ignorance. Romania is perceived in Poland as a very corrupt country. Unfortunately, information about Romanian successes in the fight against corruption have not reached the Polish public opinion.
Romania stands out in the EU as a country with big advantages in the post-Soviet area. It is a key player in Moldova, and it maintains active relations with South Caucasus and Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan. On the other hand, its relations with Ukraine are not very good. Bucharest and Kiev were in dispute for almost 20 years after the downfall of Communism about the course of their maritime boundary. There are still several contentious issues between the two countries, including the Ukrainian plans to re-open the Bystroye channel between the Black Sea and the Danube, the status of minorities, especially the Romanians in Ukraine, and differing interpretations of the verdict of the Hague Court in the dispute over the Snake Island in the Black Sea, which was favourable for Romania. Mutual ignorance and stereotypes constitute a serious challenge. Romanian identity was built in the 19th century on a staunch rejection of historical ties with Orthodox Slavs, often treated as a homogenous mass. This process was made easier by the fact that since the establishment of the Romanian state in 1861, the political elite has been clearly dominated by the Balkan-directed Wallachia, followed by Transylvania looking to Central Europe, while Moldova, cultivating its relations with Ukraine, comes third. The legacy of this situation is a limited expert knowledge on the eastern neighbour (e.g. very few experts speak Russian or Ukrainian). On the other hand, since gaining their independence Ukraine wrongly perceived Romania as a country threatening its territorial integrity.
However, there are very strong social and historical bases for building friendly Romanian- Ukrainian relations. A personification of the very close cultural links between Moldova and Ukraine is the seventeenth-century Patriarch of Kyiv Peter Mohyla, originating from a princely family from Moldova, who had a huge contribution to the culture of both countries (academies, publishing houses). Common historical space favoured intermingling of the two nations. Romanian and Romanian-speaking Moldovans are the largest minority in Ukraine after the Russians. According to the 2001 census more than 400 thousand Romanians live in Ukraine. On the other hand, close to 450 thousand Ukrainians live in Moldova. Ukrainians constitute the largest minority in Moldova, more than 10% of the population. At least 50 thousand Ukrainians live in Romania alone. Ukrainians are not this intermingled with any other nation in the EU.
The rather poor political relations mean that the potential for economic cooperation between Romania and Ukraine is largely wasted. The border between the two countries is over 530 km long, about 100 km longer than the Polish- Ukrainian border. However, the Romanian exports to Ukraine are the same as to Moldova, despite its economy being many times smaller than the Ukrainian one. Furthermore, the volume of trade between Romania and Ukraine is only slightly bigger than that between Ukraine and Lithuania.
The revolution in Ukraine has opened a window of opportunity for improving Romanian-Ukrainian relations, strengthening Polish-Romanian and Polish-Ukrainian cooperation and ultimately establishing a Polish-Romanian- Ukrainian triangle. It should especially focus on trade, investment, energy, infrastructure, higher education and security. Development of cooperation in the Polish-Romanian-Ukrainian triangle requires profound changes in mutual perceptions. It will not be easy, but it is not impossible. Poland should play the role of an intermediary in this process. It is crucial for each of these countries to realise that their strategic interests overlap and are tightly connected. Finlandisation of Ukraine by Russia, the loss of its access to the Black Sea, or its transformation into a failed state would not only undermine the interests of Romania in Moldova, but also directly jeopardize the security of Romania. From the point of view of Polish security the stability of Ukraine is fundamental. Ukraine‘s integration with the EU is the most important tool for modernization and defence against Russian domination.
In the EU, Ukraine cannot count on many fully devoted friends. Poland is one of the few of its advocates. Despite bilateral issues, Kiev can also count on Romania much more than on most EU members, including its neighbors, Hungary and Slovakia. If close cooperation in the Polish-Romanian-Ukrainian triangle could be established, then it could be an engine for cooperation with other countries in the region, especially with Turkey.
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