Bessarabia in southern Ukraine is ready for regional renewal
When President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits Later this fall, in the Bessarabia region of southern Ukraine, to discuss local economic development, a brand new wind farm, the largest recent investment project in the region, will be one of the first things to welcome him. The newly completed network of ten wind turbines in the town of Belgorod-Dneistrovsky welcomes visitors descending the M5 motorway from the Odessa oblast, brilliant white against a backdrop of blue sky and rolling hills. There might as well be an âopen for businessâ sign.
Sparsely populated and dominated by small-scale agriculture, Bessarabia’s economic potential has been overlooked for decades by Kiev politicians and international investors. This paradigm is changing as the region’s strategic importance and commercial potential is highlighted. Bessarabia is getting ready for its close-up.
Bessarabia is nestled in the southwest corner of Ukraine between the Dniester River to the north and the Danube to the south. The region has a long history dating back to ancient times. Ukrainian Bessarabia has traded hands between the Principality of Moldova and the Ottoman and Russian Empires for much of its modern history. It was then briefly absorbed into a unified Romania before being integrated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic after World War II. It has been part of the Odessa oblast in Ukraine since the country declared independence in 1991.
While its colorful and sometimes bloody history helped give today’s Bessarabia its multi-ethnic tapestry, it has also meant that the region has rarely had the opportunity to develop economically. Little more than an exotic outpost to the imperial centers of Istanbul and Moscow, Bessarabia was a territory to be controlled rather than developed. Unfortunately, this legacy continued in the region’s first decades as a part of independent Ukraine. Even in 2018, residents reported feel neglected by Kiev. The region is currently home to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Ukraine.
Subscribe to the latest news from UkraineAlert
UkraineAlert is a comprehensive online publication that regularly provides information and analysis on the development of politics, economy, civil society and culture in Ukraine.
The fortunes of Bessarabia could finally change. In recent years, a combination of courageous international investors, courageous local initiatives and regional development projects with neighboring Romania and Moldova have succeeded in breathing new life into the economy.
The recently opened Belgorod-Dneistrovsky wind farm is only the first phase of what to become spending $ 150 million in renewable energy in the region. The project funded by the West, which full capacity can provide electricity to more than 100,000 homes, is even more important given the challenges facing green energy investors elsewhere in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government and Western energy companies are engaged in a long-standing dispute over unpaid “green tariffs” with no end in sight. But in Bessarabia, wind projects are advancing.
The exceptional crop yields in recent years have boosted the regional economy, even amid the negative downstream effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The opening of the land market earlier this year is expected to further stimulate agricultural markets as the value of farmland increases and Bessarabian farmers gain the ability to take out loans on their property.
The region’s nascent tourism industry is also growing. Travelers have long walked south to see the small Danube town of Vylkove, nicknamed the “Ukrainian Venice” for its intricate system of canals. But today the area is full of additional points of interest and brand new routes.
The Bessarabian wine scene is beginning to emerge, largely thanks to the wine traditions of the Bolgrad region and the Petrov vineyard in Strumok, the first 100% organic winegrower in Ukraine. Visitors can book archaeological tours of Kiliya, which claims to be the oldest city in Ukraine, dating from the 2nd century AD Scythian settlements. On a more traditional note, the Alexander Suvorov Museum in Izmail describes the Russo-Turkish wars of the 18th century in stunning detail, with an impressive array of historical artifacts for a city of just 70,000 inhabitants.
Regional connectivity projects with neighboring Romania and the European Union help to remove obstacles to contacts between Ukraine and its European partners. The success of a new Danube ferry crossing in Romania has given rise to additional border crossings and opened discussions to remake the region’s river ports.
Brussels has also invested in the physical and human capital of Bessarabia, by financing educational institutions and funding for capacity building training. Above all, the EU Strategy for the Danube region (EUSDR), a transversal initiative of thirteen Member States and non-EU members, proposes a roadmap for the development of the region. Indeed, Zelenskyy’s visit to Bessarabia this fall is timely, as Ukraine takes over the EUSDR presidency on November 14.
Kiev also contributed in part to the economic recovery of Bessarabia. The Odessa-Reni highway was repaved in 2019, reducing the journey from six hours to four. More recently, President Zelenskyy’s âBig Constructionâ initiative has helped reduce transportation costs in the region by repairing roads in small towns and villages. Zelenskyy’s recent trip to strategically located Snake Island 30 miles off the coast of Bessarabia shows that he understands the importance of the region’s security in the ongoing conflict with Russia.
And yet to pay increased attention to Bessarabia solely out of fear of Kremlin intervention and the region’s so-called Russophilia, as some experts have suggested, would be a mistake. Kiev must of course remain vigilant in the face of Russian aggression, especially in the east of the country and in the Black Sea region. But viewing Bessarabia strictly through a security lens only continues the Russian and Ottoman imperial legacy of prioritizing development control.
In fact, Bessarabians are more in tune with traditional Ukrainian politics than many might assume at first glance. Like much of the country, the region overwhelmingly voted in favor of the ruling Servant of the People party in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. However, at the local level, the Euro-Atlantic-leaning European Solidarity Party holds a higher percentage of seats in the largest party in Bessarabia municipal councils than in the Ukrainian parliament.
Ukrainian officials and the country’s international partners should invest in Bessarabia’s economic development because of its immense growth potential, and not just as a defensive security measure. A process of regional renewal is already underway in today’s Bessarabia and now needs to be further consolidated. With better access to finance for infrastructure, small businesses and human capital, this often neglected region could become a major economic asset for Ukraine.
Andrew D’Anieri is a program assistant at the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. He tweets @andrew_danieri.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation by promoting stability, democratic values ââand prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East .