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Bessarabia:
Disputed Territory

By Vichentie Milea

 

 

Bessarabia is region situated in the northeastern part of Romania, bordering on the Dniestr River. For time immemorial it was part of Moldova, one of three principalities, which formed the basis of the Romanian State. Romania's rich agricultural fields and its natural resources have over time attracted numerous invaders, starting with the Roman Empire and various migratory tribes up to the Germans and Russians in World War II. In this essay I will trace the tumultuous history of Bessarabia and the role it played on the political scene of World War II.

During the Middle ages the three Romanian principalities-Moldova, Transylvania and Wallachia-became a battlefield of war as the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires struggled for supremacy. The Austrian Empire annexed Transylvania and Moldova and Wallachia became Ottoman provinces, exchanging their freedom and tribute to the Sultan for protection against further violence. By 1711 the Russian czars had expanded their border to the Dniestr River and did not intend to stop (Dima 1). For the next century, war between the Turks and the Russians ravaged the Moldavian and Wallachian countryside; on May 16th, 1812, through the infamous Treaty of Bucharest, Bessarabia was carved out of Moldova and given to the Russian Empire.

  This act brings about an important question of legality: Wallachia and Moldova did not belong to the Sultan to be given away or be divided at any whim. These provinces had a special statute within the Ottoman Empire; a statute that was broken as the weak Sultan bowed to czarist pressure (Nistor 13).

 

The following century signifies a change in fortune for the Romanian people. By 1859 Wallachia and the remainder of Moldova united and were accepted as an independent nation at the Berlin Congress in 1878.

 Consequently World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution gave rise to Greater Romania, the first and only complete state; in the wake of economic and political chaos in Russia, Bessarabia declared its independence and on March 27th, 1918, its council decided to join with the mother country. At the same time the Paris Peace Conference dissolved the Austrian Empire and Transylvania and Bukovina, a small region in northwestern Romania, returned under Romanian rule.

 

   The inter-war period of the 1920s and 1930s is marked by an intense struggle between countries that were intent on changing the Versailles Treaty and the ones that tried to abide by its clauses.

Romania fell into the latter category, actively participating in the international community in order to stave off the revisionist tendencies of Bulgaria, Hungary and the Soviet Union. Under the tutelage of foreign minister N. Titulescu, one of Romania's most prominent diplomats, a bilateral alliance was developed with France in the interest of collective security. Militarily, this alliance was powerless but for the Romanians it was still a joyous occasion as this relationship signified their increased status in the political community and a tacit understanding between the two countries. Romania also supported the Protocol of Geneva of 1924, which identified the aggressor and submitted conflicts to the international court of justice and the disarmament conference in Geneva between 1932-1934.

 It signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, the convention on the definition of aggression in London, 1933 and the pact of non-aggression and conciliation in Rio de Janeiro, 1933.Romanian diplomats also supported the League of Nations in imposing sanctions against Italy after the Ethiopian incident, and perhaps most importantly, joined the Little Entente and the Balkan Entente along with Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Turkey.

 

As the newly formed Soviet Union recovered from internal chaos, it shifted its attention again towards Bessarabia. Since its union with Romania, Bessarabia had been fully incorporated into the national political, educational and economic system. New schools and hospitals had been opened to combat the illiteracy and mortality rates, which were among the highest in Europe. The province enjoyed political representation in the Romanian government and its fertile lands had become some of the most productive in Romania. Even though the union had been recognized by most of the major powers, Soviet Union refused to acknowledge it and tried to threaten and blackmail other countries into refusing to ratify the union. The Russians warned the Italians that if they ratified the union, the Soviet Union would negotiate with Greece and Turkey in order to recognize their rights to the Dodecanese Islands, which at the time were under Italian possession.

The Soviets also asked Tokyo directly not to ratify the union and immediately cut off all diplomatic relations with Romania. This came after the Romanian ambassador to Russia was arrested and the Romanian gold reserves and other national treasures in safekeeping in Russia were confiscated (Dima 21).

 

   Between 1924 and 1935 numerous talks had taken place between the two neighbors, but all were to no avail as neither country wanted to give up sovereignty over Bessarabia. Free and complete for the first time after countless centuries, Romania refused to betray its people and hand over their land to the Russian colossus.

The Soviet Union tenaciously maintained their position, waiting until the time was right to recover their frontier province. Their international prestige would suffer a terrible blow if they allowed to Bessarabians the right to self-determination; dozens of other subjugated nations would rise up and challenge their rule. The closest instance when the two countries came to an agreement was in 1935; as France and its other Balkan allies were looking to strengthen the regional collective security by signing treaties with Russia, the question remained as to how Russian troops would reach Czechoslovakia in case the Nazis attacked. The only two routes were through Poland or Romania, and Poland was out of the question because of its past hostility with both Russia and Czechoslovakia.

   As a result Romania agreed to allow safe passage for Russian troops if the Soviet Union recognized the full integrity of all Romanian borders. The treaty was drafted but the Soviet Foreign minister decided to postpone the signing until a later date. In the meantime the Romanian Foreign Minister was forced to resign and talks were never resumed.

 

This last attempt to settle a centuries old conflict marked a subtle but consistent change in the Romanian foreign policy. Pro-Western Titulescu was forced to step down as a result of friction with King Carol II and other members of the Romanian government. From this point on Romania started looking toward Germany in the hope of ensuring its territorial security. What started as a strong economic relation developed into a full-fledged alliance by July 1939 when Romania withdrew from the League of Nations and expressed its wish to join the Axis. Romania was playing its only card left: the rich oil fields at Ploesti would provide Hitler with the fuel he needed in his upcoming campaign and in turn it was hoped that the country would be spared from the ravages of another war. But this was not to be; on August 23rd, 1939 Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact which included a secret clause classifying Bessarabia as a Soviet sphere of influence. Soon after the Soviet Union demanded the return of Bessarabia and as reparations, Bukovina-a region they had never occupied- would become Russian as well. In order to avoid a war Romania was forced to comply and also accept revisionist claims from Hungary and Bulgaria. When the nightmare was over Romania had lost over a third of its land and people, out of which she would only recover Northern Transylvania at the end of WWII.

Territorial conflicts between neighboring countries exist on every continent in every corner of the world. Most disputes have a long history, dating back to an imperial area when land meant power and prestige. Like other expansionists powers, Russia never learned when to stop and its imperialistic policy affected numerous people in Europe and Asia as well. If the Bessarabian problem would have been solved in the inter-war period maybe a collective security system in Eastern Europe would have been able to stave off the German influence and history would have been different. After more than half a century the Soviet Union disintegrated and once again Bessarabia became independent, but this time there was no reunion. Free from the yoke of Communist, Romania is now struggling to adapt to a free market economy and the path towards democracy will not be an easy one. Bessarabia, now the Republic of Moldova is waiting to see what the future will bring to this region before taking a course of action. But no matter the outcome, Romanians still hope that one day they will all live together within the same boundaries.

 

Bibliography

  1. Dima, Nicholas. Bessarabia and Bukovina: the Soviet-Romanian Territorial Dispute. East European Monographs, Boulder. Columbia University Press, New York.

  2. Jewsbury, F. George. The Russian Annexation of Bessarabia 1774-1828. East European Quarterly, Boulder. Columbia University Press, 1976. New York and Guildford, Surrey.

  3. Nistor, I. Bessarabia and Bukovina. Bucharest, 1939.

  4. Popovici, Andrei. The Political Status of Bessarabia. Ransdell, Inc. Washington DC.

 

 

 

 

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