A decision by Moldova's Communist government to temporarily suspend the main opposition party responsible for daily mass protests in the country's capital has triggered criticism abroad. The protests are in response to the Communists' decision to introduce the mandatory study of Russian in schools despite the fact that the country's Russian speakers account for only one-third of the population. Officials from the OSCE and the European Parliament, as well as from Romania, are warning Moldova's Communist authorities that their actions amount to a violation of democratic principles.
Prague, 24 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Moldova's Communist government temporarily suspended the activity of the country's main opposition party on 22 January for inciting public demonstrations protesting official measures to boost the status of the Russian language.
Moldovan Justice Minister Ion Morei said the decision to hand down a one-month suspension on the activities of the Popular Christian Democratic Party (PPCD) was made because the protests had been called illegally.
Under the suspension, the PPCD cannot access its bank accounts or publish newspapers. Morei also warned that if the antigovernment demonstrations -- which have been held daily in the capital Chisinau for the past two weeks -- continue, the party may be permanently banned.
Morei said yesterday that the Communists are determined to suspend all political parties that organize public meetings without prior approval.
"Every protest that is organized and takes place in a manner violating the law on public meetings will result in the verification of the political forces involved, and those parties which violate the law or their own regulations will be suspended."
The PPCD-organized demonstrations began on 9 January, protesting what the party is calling the "re-Russification of Moldova" -- a trend they say is illustrated by the government's decision to make Russian language study compulsory in the country's schools as of this year.
The measure has stirred protest in Moldova's pro-Romanian circles, with critics accusing the government of Communist President Vladimir Voronin of trying to bring Moldova back into Russia's sphere of influence.
Moldova was part of Romania before World War II, and some 65 percent of its 4.5 million citizens speak what is locally called Moldovan, but is virtually identical to Romanian. Russian speakers are mainly concentrated in larger cities and in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region near the border with Ukraine.
Moldova is Europe's poorest country, with an average monthly salary of just $30. Voronin brought in the country's first post-Soviet Communist government last year on pledges to bring Moldova closer to Russia and restore living standards to Soviet-era levels.
Communists currently control more than two-thirds of the Moldovan parliament's 101 seats, while the pro-Romanian PPCD has only 11 seats. But despite its limited leverage in parliament, the PPCD vowed to mobilize the public in fighting efforts by Voronin's government to re-Russify the country.
PPCD leaders say they will not be intimidated by the Communists' decision and vow to continue the demonstrations. PPCD Vice President Vlad Cubreacov told protesters yesterday that despite the one-month suspension, the party and its supporters want to bring Moldova closer to Europe and still feel free to express their opinions openly.
"Our actions and our demands are based within a legal framework. What we are asking for is absolutely legitimate. Our action is a European one, and will always be based on the same [European] principles."
The party's one-month suspension has sparked harsh criticism abroad, with international bodies and neighboring Romania accusing Moldova's Communist leadership of openly violating democratic principles.
OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Adrian Severin, speaking on 23 January at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, said he was worried by the Moldovan government's decision, and warned that Moldova was distancing itself from European values.
"We have acknowledged with great concern the deterioration of the political dialogue in Moldova, as well as the ever-increasing number of measures taken by the country's leadership which might decouple the country from European value structures and institutions. Democracy does not mean the right of the majority to rule according to its tastes, but the obligation to pursue a political dialogue which could integrate the minority's opinions and aspirations with the majority's programs."
The European People's Party, which groups European Christian Democrats and their allies and holds one-third of the European Parliament's mandates, has also expressed its concern regarding the suspension.
PPCD Vice President Cubreacov said yesterday that European People's Party President Wilfried Martens warned in an open letter that the suspension of the Moldovan opposition party is an "anti-democratic act" and that Moldova was becoming a "European pariah" and "a second Belarus."
Romania leveled sharp criticism of its own. Romanian President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase both said that by suspending Moldova's main opposition party, the Communist authorities are "skidding away" from European democratic values and violating human rights.
Nastase, using unusually harsh words, added that Moldova's Communist rulers are exhibiting what he called "totalitarian behavior." The Romanian delegation at the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly submitted a resolution on 23 January calling on Moldovan authorities to cancel their decision to make Russian a mandatory subject in the country's schools. In an attempt to cool the dispute, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Severin yesterday called on both sides to show "understanding."
"I call on all parties concerned [in Moldova] to have a reasonable attitude which should demonstrate, at the same time, respect and understanding for all communities' aspirations to preserve their identity, as well as the freedom of all citizens to make their cultural choice and to determine their own future within a pluralistic, free, and open society."
But neither side seems prepared to make concessions. Communist education officials today announced that more than 90 percent of Moldova's schools have already made Russian a mandatory subject. Most of the remaining 10 percent are schools in Chisinau.
Meanwhile, daily protests are continuing in the capital, and opposition officials say almost 60,000 people have already signed a petition against obligatory Russian-language study.
In the latest sign of growing antagonism between the Communists and the PPCD, the opposition party's Vice President Cubreacov was banned 24 January from addressing the parliament.
Communist speaker Eugenia Ostapciuc refused to let Cubreacov take the floor, telling him to instead "go and speak in the city square" -- a reference to the area where protesters continue to gather.