By RFE RL
By Andreea Pora, Oana Despa, and Andy Heil
(RFE/RL) — For most of the world, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is the face of Ukrainian resistance to a 19-month-old Russian invasion with no end in sight. As such, he has made the pitch for continued Western resolve and support his top priority everywhere he goes.
So, while his launch of a “strategic partnership” alongside Romanian President Klaus Iohannis this week was good news for Kyiv, it might have been overshadowed by what didn’t happen in Bucharest.
Faced with threats from nationalist, pro-Russian lawmakers of something “bad” happening if they “caught” Zelenskiy in the Romanian Parliament, official plans were abandoned for the Ukrainian head of state to give a speech to lawmakers.
Iohannis and other Romanian officials were tight-lipped about the climbdown, except to cite time constraints and a “busy” schedule.
At a press conference at the presidential residence, Zelenskiy — a popular TV comic before becoming a wartime president — joked diplomatically that while “you understand that I don’t have a problem with speeches, in any country…I haven’t prepared any speech, with all due respect.”
“I’m not ready to do it,” he said. “But next time, I assure you that I’ll come and give a speech, with great pleasure.”
But the timing was particularly awkward, with fresh talk of Ukraine war fatigue among Western allies fueled by Congressional wavering in the United States and government positions seemingly hardening in Warsaw and Bratislava.
Valentin Naumescu, a professor of international relations at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj and director of the Center for the Study of the European Union’s External Relations and Global Order (EUXGLOB Center), said the cancellation represented an “abandonment of the discourse” and was “extremely depressing” for Romania in particular.
“It created the impression of a vulnerable and weak country where nationalists, extremists, and pro-Russians impose their agenda,” Naumescu said. “We are witnessing an increase in anti-Western [sentiment] that manages to intimidate the leadership at the top of the Romanian state, the fundamental institutions of democracy.”
Romania shares over 600 kilometers of border with Ukraine, including land and maritime boundaries. Along with a handful of other so-called frontline EU and NATO states, Romania is a key alternate export route for Ukrainian goods otherwise blockaded by Russia’s Black Sea naval forces.
Romania’s grand-coalition government has quietly provided military aid to Ukraine alongside its NATO allies and cautiously echoed the official EU position of strong support for Kyiv, although cracks have occasionally emerged to suggest there is some disagreement behind the scenes in Bucharest. Despite Iohannis’s pledge this week of military support for Ukraine “until victory over Russia,” the nature of that support will continue to generate political debate.
Historian Cosmin Popa told RFE/RL’s Romanian Service that the visit itself was “very clear proof…of the acceleration in the warming of relations between Ukraine and Romania” amid widening tensions with regional allies such as Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. He added, however, that Romanian officials’ apparent reluctance to go through with the invite was sure to embolden anti-Ukraine and pro-Russian voices.
Popa warned that a cancellation “for political reasons, for bilateral reasons, or for reasons related to the inability of the leaders of Parliament to control any noisy demonstrations in the Parliament shows that…those in charge of Romania are only encouraging a state of unjustified hostility toward Ukraine and [encouraging] Russian propaganda and interests.”
Many Romanians welcomed Ukrainian war refugees spilling into their country on a mass scale soon after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The UN refugee agency credited them and their government with “speed and generosity” in their response to the humanitarian crisis.
The UNHCR said this month that more than 85,000 Ukrainian refugees are present in Romania and 144,000 have been granted temporary protection, which, under EU regulations, gives them access to housing, health care, and the job market. But swelling populist and right-wing political forces, including some with pro-Moscow views, have consistently attacked Romania’s participation in Western sanctions against Russia along with military and other support for Ukraine.
George Simion, the leader of the far-right Alliance for the Unification of Romanians, and Diana Sosoaca, a notorious conspiracy theorist in Parliament, leapt on the offensive ahead of this week’s visit, Zelenskiy’s first to Romania since the Russian invasion began.
“Don’t dare to put him in the Romanian Parliament,” Sosoaca threatened in one social media post. “I’m telling you this much, Mr. Iohannis: If I catch him in Parliament, it will be bad!”
When Zelenskiy did visit Parliament on October 10 — not for a speech but to meet with individual lawmakers — Sosoaca filmed a video of herself shouting questions to him about ethnic Romanians in Ukraine and posted it on social media, adding that he didn’t have the “courage” to respond.
She also seized on Zelenskiy’s gaffe in a televised interview in which he referred to the “Moldovan language,” which is used in the region as a name for the Romanian language, saying it “doesn’t exist.”
Simion mocked the cancellation of the speech to lawmakers, saying that, “with pain in our hearts, we announce that the brave Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will not come to the Romanian Parliament today.”
Zelenskiy has addressed five European Parliaments since the war began, in addition to the U.S. and Canadian legislatures, as part of a constant push to encourage ongoing military and other assistance. He spoke to the Romanian Parliament via video link in April 2022.
Lawmakers from the far-right, pro-Russian Freedom Party in Austria walked out of Zelenskiy’s video address to their parliament in March, complaining it was a violation of the country’s constitutionally required “permanent neutrality.” Vienna has supported Ukraine diplomatically and with humanitarian assistance but not militarily.
Since Russia launched a covert invasion of Crimea in 2014 and supported armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the international community has imposed an unprecedented range of sanctions on Russia, in addition to providing political and other support for Ukraine’s defense. The sanctions were significantly strengthened following Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.
“The Romanian state was put in an embarrassing situation,” Cristian Pirvulescu, dean of the political science faculty at the National School of Political Science and Public Administration in Bucharest, told RFE/RL’s Romanian Service.
The authorities had plenty of warning that pro-Russian lawmakers like Simion and Sosoaca were likely to try to disrupt the event, he said, and could have ensured order. Their inability or unwillingness to do that placed themselves and Zelenskiy in an unpleasant situation and was “a shame.”
“You can’t let a hysteric do things like that,” Pirvulescu said.
Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL Romanian Service correspondents Andreea Pora and Oana Despa
- Andreea Pora is a freelance correspondent for RFE/RL’s Romanian Service
- Oana Despa is a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Romanian Service
- Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.