WITH the dramatic shift of Soviet foreign policy from an ostensible line of "peace and democracy" to one of territorial aggrandizement the future of Bessarabia becomes again a matter for prognostication. Speculation has been intensified by a mysterious episode of December 6, 1939, when a leading Moscow periodical published a bitter attack on Rumanian rule in Bessarabia, only to be disavowed promptly by an official communiqué. But the political augurs are far from unanimous as to the direction which the new Soviet policy will take in that corner of Europe. Some Balkan observers foresee a new Russian attack on Bessarabia, both as a means of recovering territory lost in 1917 and as a step towards Istanbul and the Straits. According to another school of diviners, Hitler and Stalin have already decided, as a corollary to the Soviet-German Pact of August 1939, on the partition of Rumania, with Bessarabia and perhaps Bucovina staked out as the Soviet share. Still other commentators are convinced that, in order to ensure an uninterrupted supply of Rumanian materials, especially of oil, Germany has secretly guaranteed Rumania's integrity against Soviet attack. The only public guarantee which Rumania has received is that of England and France, and it is presumably directed, like the guarantee to Poland, against Germany alone. Bucharest is supposed to have sought, so far in vain, for a guarantee from Turkey and from the Balkan Entente as a whole.

Guarantees or no guarantees, Bessarabia seems likely to live up to its reputation as one of the most contested areas of Europe. After several centuries as part of the principality of Moldavia under Ottoman suzerainty, Bessarabia was ceded to Russia in the Russo-Turkish treaty of 1812. In the Treaty of Paris of 1856 the southwestern districts (indicated on the map) were returned to Moldavia and thus came to form a part of the united principality of Rumania; in 1878 the Congress of Berlin handed them back to Russia over the protest of Rumania, which was forced to accept northern Dobruja in compensation. During the century of Russian rule the province became, ethnically speaking, one of the most crazy quilt areas in Europe. According to the Russian census of 1897, the approximately 2,000,000 inhabitants of Bessarabia were divided as follows: 47.6 percent Rumanians, 27.8 percent Russians and Ukrainians combined, 11.8 percent Jews, 5.3 percent Bulgarians, and 3.1 percent Germans, not to mention numerous smaller groups. Prior to the war of 1914 the region was a land of large estates, of periodic drought and famine, of illiteracy and anti-Semitism. Despite a weak but growing "Moldavian," or Rumanian, agitation which developed after the revolution of 1905, the question of its return to Rumania was not raised seriously until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 proclaimed the right of self-determination for all subject nationalities in the former Tsarist empire.

Following the separation of the Ukraine from Russia in the autumn of 1917, the autonomy of Bessarabia was proclaimed (October 20, 1917) by the Council of the Land, or "Sfatul Ţărei," formed on a somewhat haphazard basis (like the Russian Soviets and the Ukrainian Rada) by representatives of many local organizations both Rumanian and non-Rumanian. On March 27, 1918, the Council voted for the union of Bessarabia with Rumania, and on November 27 it dissolved.[i] Since then the province has been a part of the unitary kingdom of Rumania; its lingering hopes for provincial autonomy received the quietus with the abandonment of the plan for a federal reconstruction of Rumania with which the National Peasant Party under Iuliu Maniu had come into power in 1928.

After the act of union of March 1918, the international status of Bessarabia had still to be clarified. But action was delayed by the uncertainties of 1918-19 regarding the future régime in Russia and by American insistence on the principle of Russian territorial integrity. Both considerations ceased to operate by 1920. Recognition of the union of Bessarabia with Rumania was granted by the Treaty of Paris (October 28, 1920) which was ratified over Soviet protest by Great Britain on January 1, 1921, by Rumania on April 7, 1922, by France on March 11, 1924, and by Italy on March 8, 1927.[ii] Although Article IX of the treaty provided that Russia should be invited to adhere to it, the Soviet Government has never done so. Moscow continued to deny that the Sfatul Ţărei had had the right to settle Bessarabia's fate; it also continued to denounce the action of Russia's former allies in disposing of the territory of a country with which they had not been at war, and to demand a plebiscite in the area. To give emphasis to this agitation for the "freeing" of Bessarabia, the Soviets created an Autonomous Moldavian Republic in the Rumanian-inhabited area of southwestern Ukraine.

Bessarabia was the most backward province of European Russia and it has remained the most backward area of Greater Rumania. In 1897 only 19.4 percent of the inhabitants over six years of age were literate. By 1930 the percentage had risen to 38.1, as against an average of 57 percent for Rumania as a whole. Another index of stagnation is found in the relative decline of the province's urban population, from 15.2 percent of the total in 1897 to 12.9 percent in 1930. A special source of weakness for the Rumanians in Bessarabia is their weak representation (only 31 percent) in the towns.

In the interval between the last complete Russian census and the first complete Rumanian one significant changes occurred in the ethnic composition of Bessarabia. The figures for 1897 have already been given. In the census of 1930 the Rumanians accounted for 56.2 percent, the Russians and Ukrainians for 23.3 percent. Now that the relative majority of the Rumanians has been turned into an absolute one, their claim to the province has been greatly strengthened. Even when the population figures are broken down district by district, the Russians and Ukrainians combined have an absolute majority (50.8 percent) only in the district of Hotin (Khotin) in the northernmost part.

Rumania has treated her minorities in Bessarabia far worse than those in the more highly developed provinces acquired from Austria-Hungary. Although the Treaty of October 28, 1920, provided in Article III that the stipulations of the Treaty of Paris (December 9, 1919) for the protection of the rights of racial, linguistic and religious minorities should be "observed rigorously on the territory of Bessarabia," such rights have in fact been enjoyed there only by the German communities. The fact that Bulgarians, Russians and Ukrainians, unlike Magyars and Germans, are of the same Orthodox faith as the Rumanians, has prevented them from building up distinct religious-national organizations. Until recently the Slav minorities in Bessarabia had little opportunity for cultural or economic association. The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in September 1939 led to the adoption of a new policy in Rumania. King Carol immediately announced that the Russians and Ukrainians would now receive full educational and cultural opportunities on a par with the Magyar and German minorities, which have organized their own national sections within the "Rumanian Front," the only legal party in the country. At the end of February 1940 the Ukrainian leaders in Bessarabia were pressing Bucharest to hasten the opening of schools and the creation of a separate church organization for their national group.

Since 1927, when Italy ratified the Treaty of October 28, 1920, there have been no diplomatic acts dealing specifically with Bessarabia. However, beginning in 1928 several international agreements have greatly strengthened Rumania's title to her eastern province. Russia and Rumania adhered to the Kellogg-Briand Pact in which they renounced war as an instrument of national policy. On the initiative of the Soviet Government a supplementary protocol was signed in Moscow on February 9, 1929, in which the Soviet Union and its western neighbors, including Rumania, agreed to put the Kellogg-Briand Pact into effect at once, without waiting for other states to ratify.

A major flaw in the Kellogg-Briand Pact was the absence of any agreed definition of aggression, as Litvinov pointed out with great insistence and faultless logic. As far as Russia's relations with her neighbors were concerned, this defect was remedied by the London Convention for the Definition of Aggression (signed on July 3, 1933, and effective on October 16, 1933) of which Rumania was a signatory. An almost identical pact, signed on July 4, 1933, between the Soviet Union, the members of the Little Entente, and Turkey, went into effect on February 17, 1934.[iii] By Article I of each of these Conventions the contracting parties agreed to accept the definition of aggression as contained in the Politis Report of May 24, 1933 to the Disarmament Conference. Paragraph 23 of the Report stated that "by territory is here meant territory over which a State actually exercises authority." Thus, the Conventions of July 3 and July 4, 1933, constituted a further de jure recognition of the Soviet-Rumanian boundary as of the dates on which the Conventions took effect, in addition to that implied in the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Moscow protocol. Article II of the Conventions embodied a precise and exhaustive definition of aggression, while Article III provided that "no political, military, economic or other considerations may serve as an excuse or justification for the aggression referred to in Article II." The meaning of Article III was made even more precise and binding by a detailed Annex attached to the Conventions.

Almost a year later diplomatic relations were established between Rumania and the U.S.S.R. after an exchange of notes between Titulescu and Litvinov. In his letter of June 9, 1934, to the Rumanian Foreign Minister, Litvinov declared:

The governments of our countries mutually guarantee each other the full respect of the sovereignty of each of our states and the abstention from any interference, direct or indirect, in the domestic affairs and developments of the other, and especially from any agitation, propaganda or any kind of intervention on behalf of or in support thereof. The governments pledge themselves also not to create, support or authorize the establishment on their territories of organizations whose purposes would be taking up arms against the other state, an attack by force against its political and social régime, incitement to terroristic acts, or their preparation, against its official representatives, as well as those organizations which would assume the function of governing the other state or part thereof. Besides, they pledge themselves to prevent the recruiting as well as the entry on their territories and the transshipment through them of armies, armament, munitions, equipment and any kind of supplies destined for those organizations.

Between 1928 and 1934, by a series of treaties, conventions and unpublished pledges, the Soviet Union abandoned its earlier intransigence in the Bessarabian question and acknowledged Rumania's de jure possession of its entire state territory. Today the Rumanian title to Bessarabia rests not only (1) on the historic grounds that the area was in effect part of Rumania prior to 1812, (2) on the vote of the Sfatul Ţărei in 1918, (3) on the presence of an absolute Rumanian majority in that province, and (4) on the express moral recognition of England, France, and Italy, but also on the de jure recognition of the Soviet Government.

If, however, the Soviets should decide to disregard these paper barriers and move against Bessarabia, would their aim be merely to take back that province, or would they aim to use it as a stepping-stone to the Balkan Peninsula and the Straits? From the point of view of strategy, a direct invasion of Bessarabia offers several disadvantages. The only bridge across the Dniester River, at Tighina (Bender), leads into the hilly country of central Bessarabia where mechanized forces would fight at a disadvantage. The extreme meagerness of the railway and road nets in the province would hinder an invader more than it would the defender withdrawing towards his main source of strength. If the aim of the invading army were to overcome the main forces of the defense, a more favorable route for it to follow would be to start from Soviet-held Polish Galicia and to advance southward through Bucovina and Moldavia towards Bucharest and the Danube. Along this line an advance would be favored by the relative density of railways and roads and by the greater availability of improvised landing fields. The occupation of Bessarabia alone would not bring Russia within striking distance of the Balkans and the Straits, for there is no direct connection between Bessarabia and the Dobruja except by river boats of shallow draught. The numerous branches of the Danube, with their swamps and floating islands, would be insuperable obstacles to an army on the march. Below the great Cernavoda bridge (on the Bucharest-Constanta railway) there is no passage of the Danube practicable for large or heavily armed masses of soldiers. If the Red Army should attempt to occupy Bessarabia as a first step towards the domination of the Balkans and the Straits, an advance across the Dniester would probably be merely a diversion, while the main line of advance would be through Bucovina -- that is, unless a Russian advance into the heart of Rumania and its oil fields should be categorically vetoed by the German General Staff, or unless Soviet ambitions should for some reason be sidetracked into the Bessarabian blind alley.

Since the Soviet annexation of eastern Poland the future of Bukovina has come to be bound up, as never before, with that of Bessarabia. Ceded by Turkey to Austria in 1775, Bucovina declared its union with Rumania in November 1918, after the hard-pressed Austrians had played with the idea of ceding the province to Skoropadsky's Ukrainian régime. In Bucovina the Rumanians have a relative majority of 44.5 percent (census of 1930), while the Ukrainians are 27.7 percent and the Russians 0.9 percent of the total. Classified according to mother tongue rather than nationality, the population is 41.1 percent Rumanian-speaking and 32.9 percent Ukrainian-speaking. In the two northern districts of Cernaŭţi (Czernowitz) and Storojineţ, the Ukrainians form a relative majority, with 44.5 percent and 45.5 percent respectively.

Since the German-Soviet partition of Poland, it has been commonly assumed that if Russia or Germany, or both, should move against Rumania, Hungary and Bulgaria would join in to assert their claims, the former in Transylvania and the Banat, the latter in the Dobruja.[iv] Rumania acquired northern Dobruja from Turkey in 1878 and the southern part, or Quadrilateral, from Bulgaria in 1913. In the Dobruja as a whole the Rumanians form a relative majority, with 44.2 percent of the population, as against 22.8 percent for the Bulgarians and 18.5 percent for the Turks. The Rumanians are a clear majority in the northern districts. But in the more recently acquired southern part, the district of Caliacra shows a relative majority of Bulgarians with 42.8 percent, plus 23 percent for the Turks; while in the Durostor district 34 percent are Bulgarians and 42.8 percent Turks. Since the Turks have been steadily emigrating to Turkey since the World War, the Rumanians have been increasingly hopeful of reversing these proportions by colonizing southern Dobruja; but their success thus far has been meager.

Various proposals have been put forward for effecting a permanent reconciliation between Rumania and Bulgaria. One that is privately favored by some Rumanians and many Bulgarians is the restoration of the southern Dobruja, or Quadrilateral, to Bulgaria. Indeed after the meeting of the Balkan Entente in early February 1940, and more particularly after the cordiality which marked the visit of M. Constantinescu, Rumanian Finance Minister, in Sofia later in that month, there were persistent rumors that the Rumanian Government had promised to return this area to Bulgaria at the close of the present war in Europe. Some such arrangement, if made on a sincere and lasting basis, might well relieve Rumania of concern for her southern flank; and her hold on the far larger and wealthier provinces she acquired in 1918 would be strengthened. On the other hand, some Rumanian leaders frankly fear that any territorial concessions made to one of their neighbors would only spur on the others to satisfy their ambitions at Rumania's expense; a settlement of Bulgaria's claim might thus hasten the very catastrophe which it was designed to forestall. In the long run, the fate of the Dobruja, of Bucovina and of Bessarabia will depend more upon shifts in the balance of forces between the Great Powers in Europe than upon the inherent strength of the Rumanian state and the astuteness of its government.

[i] For a more complete review of the Bessarabian question up to 1924, see H. F. A.: "The Bessarabian Dispute," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, June 1924, p. 662-667.

[ii] Technically the Treaty never came into effect because one of the signatories, Japan, never ratified it. But the moral effect of ratification by Britain, France and Italy remains.

[iii] For texts of the two Conventions see League of Nations Treaty Series, Vol. 147 (1934), p. 67-77, and Vol. 148 (1934), p. 211-219.

[iv] For an authoritative analysis of the Hungarian-Rumanian frontier see Harold Temperley: `How the Hungarian Frontiers Were Drawn," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1928, p. 432-447.

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  • PHILIP E. MOSELY, Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University; author of "Russian Diplomacy and the Opening of the Eastern Question in 1838 and 1839."
  • More By Philip E. Mosely