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Moldova: Minority Report -- Russian Speakers A Minority But Russian Language Rules (Part 4)

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Although ethnic Russians are only the second-largest minority group in Moldova, Russian remains the main language of ethnic minorities, and is spoken by more than a third of the country's population. Furthermore, Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester remains under the control of Russian-speaking separatists, who want to become an independent entity and demand official status for the Russian language alongside Moldovan. Part 4 of RFE/RL's series on Russian minorities in former Soviet republics looks at the situation of Moldova's ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minorities.

Prague, 21 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the European ex-Soviet republics, Moldova remains a special case, mainly because of its endemic poverty and a long-simmering standoff between the central government and the pro-Russian separatist region of Transdniester.

Moldova has a sizeable Russian-speaking population, which accounts for more than a third of total residents. In the absence of recent statistical data, the reference point remains the Soviet-era 1989 census, although analysts and politicians agree that the situation may have changed significantly since.

According to the 1989 census, 65 percent of Moldova's 4.5 million population are Moldovans, who speak what is officially called Moldovan, but is actually identical to Romanian. Most of Moldova was part of Romania before World War II, under the name of Bessarabia. It was annexed by Josef Stalin and turned into a Soviet republic after the war.

Ukrainians are the largest ethnic minority, making up some 13.5 percent of the population, followed by Russians, with some 12.5 percent, or half a million people. The rest consists of other ethnic groups such as the Gagauz, a Turkish group, and Bulgarians. But for all non-Moldovans, who together account for 35 percent of the population, the lingua franca is Russian.

Igor Pivovar, of the Moldovan government's department of interethnic relations, explained: "The Russian-speaking population also includes other nationalities than Russians, such as Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Gagauz, sometimes even gypsies [Roma] who speak Russian, other nationalities. In our legislation there is no such notion as a Russian-speaking population because [other nationalities than Russian] -- Ukrainians or Bulgarians, for example -- know their native tongue but prefer to use Russian in their dealings with the authorities because they cannot speak the state language [Moldovan] at a satisfactory level."

Moldova proclaimed independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But pro-Moscow separatists in Transdniester, a narrow strip of land situated in the east of the country, had already seceded from Moldova in 1990, over fears that Moldova might seek reunification with Romania.

Moldovan affairs expert Vladimir Socor of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, argues that the justification for Transdniester's secession was not Russian nationalism, but Soviet-style proletarian internationalism. "National awareness was least-developed among Russians, compared to other ethnic groups and nationalities in the former Soviet Union," Socor said. "Transdniester is the only case in the entire Soviet Union in which local Russians rebelled against a newly independent former Soviet republic. That rebellion was conducted not under Russian national slogans -- even now this is not the case. It was conducted under purely Soviet slogans. Moldova and the Moldovan national democratic movement were accused of dismantling socialism, of undermining the interests of the Soviet Union, of undermining the communist rule and socialism."

However, unlike other newly independent ex-Soviet states, Moldova adopted a tolerant stance toward its Russian-speaking minorities and granted them unconditional citizenship. "When Moldova became independent in 1991, it gave automatic citizenship to all its permanent residents, regardless of their knowing the state language or not, regardless of their nationality. There was no requirement for them to know the state language at that time. Currently, if somebody wants to become a citizen of Moldova, they must know the state language," Igor Pivovar said.

As early as 1989, when Moldova reinstated the Latin alphabet and declared Moldovan as the state language, Russian -- at the Kremlin's insistence -- was given official status as the language of "interethnic communication."

Transdniestrian separatists are now demanding that Russian gain equal official-language status with Moldovan. They are also seeking complete independence and equal status within a loose confederation of autonomous states.

But according to the 1989 census, even in Transdniester itself, ethnic Russians account for only a quarter of the population, making them the region's third-largest ethnic group after Moldovans and Ukrainians. The census indicated that most of Transdniester's Russian speakers were massed in its capital, Tiraspol.

But, as ethnic Russian Moldovan journalist Dmitrii Chubashenko explained, the separatists have since imposed the dominance of Russian in the breakaway region. "Formally, there are three official languages in Transdniester: Russian, Ukrainian, and Moldovan," Chubashenko said. "But in reality, everybody speaks Russian and no Transdniestrian leader knows Moldovan. Maybe some of them speak Ukrainian. And all of them are citizens of Russia. Their political idea is that Transdniester is a kind of Russian territory and they imposed and preserved the current state of affairs there: the dominance of the Russian language."

As for the rest of Moldova, ethnic Russians and Russian speakers are concentrated mostly in the capital, Chisinau, where Moldovans account for just about 50 percent, and in the towns of Balti and Tighina, which is partly controlled by Tiraspol.

Moldova offers schooling in Moldovan and Russian from kindergarten level to postgraduate studies. But education in other minority languages is virtually nonexistent, which causes Ukrainians in particular to turn to Russian schools.

Government official Igor Pivovar told RFE/RL that the percentage of students in Russian schools exceeds by far the percentage of ethnic Russians in Moldova. "In Moldova there are 276 Russian schools and 93 Moldovan-Russian schools," he said. "There are 124,899 students who are studying in Russian -- that is some 21 percent of the total population. But in the Russian schools there are also students belonging to other ethnic groups than Russian."

Aside from a very small party called "Equality," ethnic Russians have no notable political representation in Moldova, like the ethnic Hungarians have in neighboring Romania.

Even civic organizations for ethnic Russians are scarce, and they are mostly made up of elderly people. One such organization is the Russian Communities Congress. Its leader, Valerii Klimenko, told RFE/RL that ethnic minorities are not being properly represented in the state administration, despite the government's promises.

"In Moldova, ethnic minorities account for 35.3 percent of the population. But in the state administration, they are represented by only 1 percent, although President Vladimir Voronin's Communist Party promised before the election that it will ensure that ethnic minorities are proportionally represented in the state administration," Klimenko said.

But journalist Dmitrii Chubashenko told RFE/RL that, in general, ethnic Russians and Russian speakers have a comfortable situation in Moldova. "If we speak in general terms, the situation [of the Russian-speaking minority] is rather good," he said. "After the breakup of the USSR in 1991, Moldova adopted the so-called 'zero option.' Everybody who lived in Moldova at that time could become a citizen of the new state and a majority of the people accepted and became citizens. They enjoy all the rights, I think."

Media-wise, Russian radio and TV broadcasts dominate almost completely. Up to 90 percent of the content of most commercial radio and TV broadcasts are made in the Russian Federation, although Romanian public TV is also available in some parts of Moldova.

Analyst Vladimir Socor said Moldovan authorities are to blame for failing to protect the official language. "Moldovans have displayed an extremely low level of willingness to enforce language legislation or to ensure that the native language is being used," he said. "The contrast could not be greater between Moldova and the Baltic states in this respect. In Moldova -- especially in the cities, but in all of Moldova -- the airwaves are actually dominated by Russian television and radio stations."

Print media is also Russian-dominated, with advertising revenues coming almost exclusively from advertising in Russian, since ethnic Russians control the country's business environment.

(Sergiu Praporscic of RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report.)