The “Bessarabian People’s Rada,” a Kremlin separatist project in Odesa Oblast, has just laid claim to a part of Moldova
The Russian propaganda project the “Bessarabian People’s Rada” just changed from being a thinly-veiled separatist project to an openly separatist project, and it is now targeting Moldova in addition to Ukraine. The website for the People’s Rada says that they declared that they wanted independence during a conference in late October and planned to hold a referendum soon in the territory they claim. Most interestingly, they also declared that Gagauzia, a portion of southern Moldova, would be part of their new “Republic of Budjak.” Gagauzia is an autonomous region in Moldova populated by a Turkic people (for background, see this article by Luke Coffey from earlier this year).
Gagaúzia, formally known as the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, is an autonomous region of Moldova.
The phrase “Bessarabia Awakens” (Бессарабия пробуждается) is already circulating through the Russian echo chamber, though Russia’s main propaganda outlets in English have mostly ignored the story so far. That will probably not last.
The Bessarabian People’s Rada was started in April 2015, supposedly as a local group appealing for autonomy in the south-western corner of Ukraine, in rural Odesa Oblast. The rhetoric of the movement and its promotion by Russian propaganda indicated it was in fact a Russian separatist project. Shortly afterwards the SBU announced it had stopped a major attempt to start another people’s republic in Ukrainian Bessarabia much like the ones in Donetsk and Luhansk. The website of the People’s Rada continued to operate and stories about the Rada continued to appear on Russian news websites. (Read our previous backgrounder on the Bessarabian People’s Rada.) This independence announcement with a claim on territory outside of Ukraine is a big shift in rhetoric. Such a dramatic change with nothing to show on the ground in Ukraine may make some suspect that the whole thing is a provocation- an announcement designed to just spread confusion or get a response, but without substance.
Among those who suspect it might just be a provocation (or perhaps merely an inept move) is a leader in another separatist movement, Oleksiy Albu, a member of the so-called “Odesa Fraternity” and the “Committee to Liberate Odesa” who is currently based in Russian-occupied Donetsk. In an interview on the Russian Website Svpressa, he criticized the Rada saying that such a declaration of independence without serious work beforehand made “not only our enemies laugh, but also our potential supporters!” He said that before a referendum can take place there was “huge preparatory work” that must be done first, such as “the formation of fighting groups, the forming of public opinion… and political momentum must be matched correctly with a time of acute contradictions within the existing regional ruling elite…” This casts light on his own plans for Odesa. In the same article on Svpressa, Vladimir Bukarsk an attendee of the first conference of the People’s Rada said that he did not think the new declaration was serious and belittled the prospects of separatism in southern Moldova.
What is the Purpose?
The “Republic of Budjak” may be a provocation or inept, or it may be another step towards a long-term subversive project in both Ukraine and Moldova. By staking a claim to Moldova, this pre-existing separatist project can be used by Russia as a political front in both countries. If Russia can eventually succeed in seizing Bessarabia, a “People’s Army” based in that region can be used as a proxy to seize part of Moldova, and vice-versa. A frozen conflict in one area could be the base for an active conflict in the neighboring area. The first step is to masquerade as a legitimate political body about to hold a “referendum,” then film or fake a crackdown by the Ukrainian security services. Russian proxies might even attack Ukrainian security forces already in SE Ukraine with the pretense of “defending the referendum.” The announcement of the People’s Rada hinted that violence may be in the offing: “We are ready for any fight. Even today, on our side, people’s militias are operating, and a popular assembly elected a legitimate commander of Bessarabia, who will repel any attacks on the peaceful construction of Budjak.”
The report of the conference from the Rada’s website said that a number of Moldovan notables attended this conference. Several of them have since denied that they were at the conference or had anything to do with this separatist project. The Moldovan notable Nikolai Dudoglo said that Gagauzia would always be part of Moldova. The Moldovan politician Sergei Anastanov similarly said that “There is a border between Moldova and Ukraine. There are two countries, and Gagauzia is part of one of these: Moldova.” The Moldovan Bishop Markel said that he was not even in Ukraine during the supposed conference, in fact, he has been banned from Ukraine since November 2014. He called a separatist attitude “unacceptable.”
This is not the first time the People’s Rada has claimed unwitting people as allies. In late July they claimed that a Ukrainian named Alexander Yankov was their “People’s Defender” and Russian propaganda quickly claimed he had been elected a “People’s Governor.” Shortly afterwards Yankov denied all connections to the People’s Rada and said that the whole thing was a Russian attempt to break the unity of Ukraine.
Why does the People’s Rada do this? Perhaps they are hoping to generate grievances by getting Ukrainian or Moldovan security services to act hastily and arrest the supposed collaborators before they have a chance to deny their involvement. Perhaps they are just using the names of prominent local citizens to convince credulous pro-Russian locals that the separatist movement has wide support, -or perhaps, to convince them that a sinister conspiracy is at work to force these otherwise pro-separatist citizens “suddenly” start denouncing the separatist project.
As Russian propaganda projects go, the “Republic of Budjak” may be dangerous but it is not very well executed. Unfortunately the fakery is only obvious if one does a little research and followup, which many are not inclined to do.
A Useful MEP?
According to the Russian news outlet Izvestia, a Bulgarian MEP named Angel Dzhambazki already announced his support for this “initiative” saying it was in line with European and international standards. So far, there has been no further reported comment from Mr. Dzhambazki about his support for separatism in Ukraine, and if the People’s Rada is consistent with its identified foreign supporters, Mr. Dhambazki may have not said anything about the “Republic of Budjak.”
Edited by: Alya Shandra
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