How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The controversy between Russia and Rumania over the ownership of Bessarabia (a border province of rather more than 17,000 square miles lying on the Black Sea to the west of Odessa and bounded by the rivers Pruth and Dniester) has done more than prevent the restoration of friendly relations between the two claimant nations. By refusing to consent to Rumania's annexation of Bessarabia the Bolshevists have been able to strengthen their position as defenders of the national integrity of Russia. Further, as a direct result of her dispute with Russia, Rumania's two partners in the Little Entente--Jugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, both of them Slavic--have been unwilling to commit themselves unreservedly to a defense of Rumanian policy, with a consequent weakening of the friendly ties which those three states had formed in order to present a united front against attempts to restore the Hapsburgs in Hungary.
The outbreak of the Great War produced in Rumania a wide divergence of opinion as to the most advantageous course for the country to follow. Both the Allies and the Central Powers offered Rumania territories which were not theirs but which they hoped to control as a result of victory. Austria-Hungary promised her Bessarabia if she would stick by the Triple Alliance, to which she had been a party for thirty years; the Allies talked of Transylvania, the Banat and Bukovina. Those Rumanians who above all desired to free Bessarabia from Russian control and restore it to its former union with Rumania (it having been a part, until the year 1812, of the tributory Turkish principality of Moldavia) believed that Rumania should promptly cast in her lot with the opponents of Russia and reap the proffered reward. Against these partisans of Austria-Hungary were concentrated many of the Rumanian intelligentsia, who believed that eventually the Allies would win and who thought it poor policy to forego so promising a chance of securing the freedom of the large Rumanian populations under Austro-Hungarian rule.
The early history of Bessarabia may be recapitulated in a few sentences. Trajan's conquest of Dacia in the second century did not extend to Bessarabia, though Rome's influence was felt along all the coasts of the Black Sea. Successive invasions of the Goths, the Huns, the Slavs, the Lombards, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Magyars, and the Tartars swept westward across Bessarabia from the second until the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century Rumanian elements began penetrating the country from the west and northwest, and the Moldavian ruler Stephen the Great incorporated practically the whole province in his dominions. After Stephen's death in 1504 Suleiman the Magnificent added southern Bessarabia to his empire, and during the succeeding two centuries the province was often the battle-ground of Russia and Turkey. In the course of the war which broke out between Russia and Turkey in 1806 the Russian armies occupied most of Moldavia, and by the treaty which Alexander I
concluded with Turkey on May 28, 1812, Moldavia was divided into two parts, the eastern part, known now as Bessarabia, passing to Russia.
When Russia annexed Bessarabia she at first allowed the inhabitants to retain much of their local administration and many of their local laws and customs. Bessarabia was definitely cut off, however, from close contact with the main part of Moldavia lying to the westward across the River Pruth; and in southern Bessarabia, where the population was already extremely mixed, Russia took steps to encourage the immigration of compact groups of Russians, Bulgars, Germans, etc., in order to aid the economic development of the country and possibly also to bring about its denationalization.
After the Crimean War a new frontier was drawn between Russia and Moldavia, the powers forcing from Russia the cession of the southwestern districts of Bessarabia, less with the aim of favoring Moldavia than of pushing Russia back from the Danube. This readjustment lasted only twenty-two years. (During this period, in 1861, the union of Moldavia and Walachia in the Rumanian nation was recognized by the Powers.) When Russia declared war on Turkey in 1877 Rumania did not oppose the transit of Russian troops across her territory and in return received a promise that the "integrity" of Rumania would be respected at the end of the war. Russia seems not to have considered that this promise included Rumania's possessions in southern Bessarabia, and although Rumanian troops had assisted considerably toward the success of the Russian arms, Rumania found her delegates ruled out of the Congress of Berlin. Although she was given the province of the Dobrudja by way of compensation, she was definitely deprived of southern Bessarabia.
For the next twenty-five years Bessarabia remained a province of Russia. The peasantry, mainly Rumanian, were almost wholly illiterate. Such of the middle class as were of Rumanian blood gradually became more or less Russified, and many of the great Boyar families, as a result of their official connections with St. Petersburg, became partisans of the Russian régime. Historians have pointed out that it was probably only the Tsarist Government's chronic dislike of popular education that saved the Rumanian peasantry from compulsory Russification. According to the Russian census of 1897, the province had a population of about 2,000,000. Of them Rumanians numbered 47.6 percent; Russians and Ukrainians (Little Russians and Ruthenians) 27.8 percent; Jews 11.8 percent; Bulgars 5.3 percent; Germans 3.1 percent; and Turks 2.9 percent. Rumanians usually claim that their co-nationals in Bessarabia number as high as 70 percent of the population. Probably the actual figure lies between the Russian and the Rumanian estimates.
The Russian Revolution of 1905 introduced a new era in Bessarabia. Rumanian--or, as it was at first called, Moldavian--propaganda began to be carried on openly, nationalist organizations were formed, and a few newspapers were published in the Rumanian language. But as the vast majority of the Rumanian Bessarabians were peasants, and as the city populations were mainly Jewish and Russian, the agitation was not very effective.
When on October 27, 1916, Rumania finally declared war on Austria Hungary, she became indirectly the ally of Russia. Rumanian arms did not, however, meet with much success, and a large part of the country was occupied by the troops of Field-Marshal Mackensen. In March, 1917, occurred the Russian Revolution. In that same month the central committee of a Moldavian National Party was formed at Kishinev to work for Bessarabian autonomy. No demand was voiced, openly at any rate, for union with Rumania. The prospect (which seems to have been at first widely entertained) of coöperation in a Russian federative republic was dispelled by the declaration of the Ukraine in August that she considered Bessarabia to be included in her territory. Activity for autonomy turned into activity for independence. The disorganization resulting in all parts of Russia from the advent of the Bolshevists to power was heightened in Bessarabia by the refusal of the new rulers at Moscow to recognize the National Committee as representative of Bessarabian proletarian opinion. In October, 1917, the military committee of Kishinev summoned a congress representative mainly of Bessarabian military units, totaling, it was claimed, 300,000 men; 989 delegates assembled on October 20, and forthwith, following the example of other border territories of Russia, proclaimed Bessarabian autonomy. A Supreme Council--the "Sfatul Tzarei"--was organized, 70 percent of the 120 members being Moldavians, 30 percent representatives of other nationalities. This "Sfatul Tzarei," of rather irregular and uncertain origin, seems to have been composed not only of delegates of the different soldiers' committees, but also of representatives of the Provincial Council of Peasants, together with a few professors and other intellectuals.
On March 27, 1918, the "Sfatul Tzarei" voted Bessarabia's union with Rumania. The action was taken on certain specified conditions, viz, the retention of provincial autonomy, provision for the rights of national minorities, and the continuation of the life of the assembly until such time as it should have elaborated a system of agrarian reform. The action was voted 86 to 3, with 36 abstentions,--in other words, practically according to national lines. Some of those abstaining desired a plebiscite, some a looser federative union with Rumania, some to retain independence and some to remain in federation with Russia. In the fall of 1918 a statute for agrarian reform was adopted by the assembly, all properties of over 100 acres being expropriated for division among the workers; forests went to the state. How far this statute actually was (or has since been) put into effect is uncertain. But in view of at least the formal adoption of this reform, and in view of the inclusion in Rumania of Bukovina, Transylvania and parts of the Banat (thereby reducing the preponderance of "old" Rumania in Rumanian national affairs) the "Sfatul Tzarei" decided on November 26 to make the union with Rumania unconditional. Only a third of the members were present when this action was taken. The next day the assembly was permanently dissolved.
While these events were taking place in Bessarabia, the fortunes of Rumania were in the balance. At the time of Kerensky's fall the Allied front from Bukovina to the Black Sea was held by 300,000 or 400,000 Russians and some 150,000 Rumanians. When the Bolshevists signed their armistice with the Central Powers, Rumania had to adhere to the armistice also. The Russian forces scattered, and the Rumanian armies at the front were reduced to about 100,000 by the dispatch of several divisions to Bessarabia. Rumania had no choice but to accept the terms of peace laid down by the Central Powers, and in the treaty signed at Bucharest on May 6, 1918, she relinquished the southern part of the Dobrudja to Bulgaria, certain important Carpathian passes to Austria-Hungary, and the northern part of the Dobrudja to her ex-enemies jointly, this latter provision cutting her off entirely from the Black Sea and establishing German and Austro-Hungarian control over the pipe lines leading from the Rumanian oil fields to Constanza. (The Central Powers expressed no objection to Rumania's taking Bessarabia in compensation.) Rumania was only saved from this fate by the subsequent victory of the Allies.
In March, 1920, the Supreme Council sent word to Rumania from Paris of its willingness to recognize the union of Bessarabia with Rumania, in the following terms:
"After taking into full consideration the general aspirations of the populations of Bessarabia and the Moldavian character of that region from the geographical and ethnographical points of view, as well as the historic and economic arguments, the principal Allied Powers pronounce themselves, therefore, in favor of the reunion of Bessarabia with Rumania which has now been formally declared by the Bessarabian representatives, and are desirous to conclude a treaty in recognition of this as soon as the conditions stated have been carried out. They consider that in this reunion the general and particular interests of Bessarabia should be safeguarded, more especially as regards its relations with the neighboring countries, and that the rights of minorities in it should be guaranteed on the same terms as those residing in other parts of the Rumanian Kingdom. The principal Allied Powers reserve the right to refer any future difficulties that might arise from either of these two questions to the arbitration of the League of Nations."
The Powers represented on the Supreme Council have one by one given final recognition to the union of Bessarabia with Rumania as provided in the Treaty of Paris, October 28, 1920. France, although the last to act (the Chamber voted approval March 11, 1924), has come in for particularly bitter remonstrances from Moscow. Commissar Chicherin telegraphed M. Poincaré on March 14 as follows:
"The Government of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics directs the attention of the French Government to the fact that the latter has identified itself with a violation of the rights of the population of Bessarabia and of the Soviet Union in the occupation of Bessarabia by Rumania, and it is therefore responsible for the losses caused the Soviet Union by this occupation. The Government of the U. S. S. R. will draw from this all necessary conclusions."
To which M. Poincaré replied:
"The French Parliament could only be guided by the same motives which guided the British Parliament in ratifying the treaty referred to on April 14, 1922, at which time this action was not considered an obstruction to the establishment of good relations between Great Britain and Russia. . . . In any case, Article 9 of the treaty provides that Russia should be invited to affix its signature. Thus the situation in relation to Russia may be regulated in the same way as was the case with the newly created independent states on her western frontier, in accordance with the principle of the self-determination of peoples, Russia always being the first to declare its adherence to this principle."
The statement of Commissar Chicherin accords with the repeated avowals of the Soviet Foreign Office that it will never recognize the justice or validity of Bessarabia's incorporation in Rumania. Several attempts to reconcile Rumanian and Russian interests have failed. Only this spring a conference at Vienna broke up, before it had really begun, when M. Krestinsky, the principal Soviet delegate, declared that unless Rumania would agree to a plebiscite in Bessarabia other points at issue between the two countries could not even be taken under consideration. Rumanian spokesmen have steadily refused a plebiscite, noting that in the province's present state of economic depression, due to the war and the ensuing political disorganization, many might be found voting "against the government," not because they actually preferred Russia to Rumania but as a protest against the difficulties of their situation.
The reply of Moscow has been a revival of agitation for a "Moldavian Republic," to be composed of the Russian province of Podolia, Kherson (of which Odessa is the capital and in which there are few if any Moldavians), and Bessarabia, and to form a unit in the great Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Another of Moscow's suggestions for the same region has been the creation of a Jewish state. The success of this agitation will depend on a number of factors,--on the amelioration of the Rumanian régime in Bessarabia and the improvement of economic and social conditions there, on the success of Russia's efforts to attract within her orbit other border states along the Baltic or in the Middle East, and on the solidity of Rumania's diplomatic and military ties with neighboring states and with the Great Powers.
H. F. A.