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Moldova: Education Officials Introduce Russian As Mandatory Foreign Language

Moldovan education officials on 18 December said Russian language instruction will become mandatory in all schools starting in January. Russia has been taught as an optional foreign language since Moldova gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but Moldova's education minister, Ilie Vancea, said Moldova decided to make it compulsory after Russian-speaking parents lobbied him. Moldova was part of Romania before World War II and 65 percent of its 4.5 million people speak Moldovan -- virtually identical to Romanian. The move sparked a row between the pro-Russian Communist government of Moldova and Romania's Foreign Ministry, which called the decision "political interference" in the education and culture of Moldova's population.

Prague, 21 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Moldova's Communist Education Minister Ilie Vancea announced on 18 December that from 1 January, Russian language instruction will become mandatory in all schools beginning with the second grade.

The move comes after Moldova's Communist-dominated parliament adopted legislation in July giving Russian language a special status. Under the law, Russian-speaking Moldovans are granted education in their mother tongue at all levels. Vancea said he decided to make Russian a mandatory subject after many Russian-speaking parents lobbied him.

But critics say the measure is part of the Communist government's drive to bring Moldova further under Russia's influence.

Romania also condemned the Moldovan government's decision. In a harshly worded statement, Romania's Foreign Ministry called the measure a "political commandment" and "political interference in education and culture" meant to give the Russian language a privileged status.

Romanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Victor Micula told RFE/RL that the move is meant to impose Russian as a second official language against the will of a majority of Moldovans: "This decision can be considered another step toward establishing a second state language, contrary to the wishes of a majority of the population expressed more and more often, including in opinion polls, which prove that citizens and civil society in general do not agree with the existence of more than one official language or with the return to a past which was abandoned when independence was proclaimed."

But Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev dismissed Romania's accusations, which he said amount to interference in another state's affairs. Tarlev told RFE/RL the measure is a domestic policy issue for Moldova and that his government is not required to give explanations to other states.

"Regarding this issue, this is Moldova's own problem, and any country that wants to make statements should do that by directly addressing our government in order to obtain -- if we so decide -- written argumentation," Tarlev said.

Moldova was part of Romania before World War II, and some 65 percent of its 4.5 million people speak what is locally called Moldovan -- virtually the same language as Romanian.

In 1989, Moldova -- then a Soviet republic enjoying a limited autonomy -- declared Moldovan its national language instead of Russian.

Since Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Moldovan has become the official language, while Russian has been available in Moldovan schools as an optional foreign language, along with English, French, German, and Spanish.

Russian and Ukrainian-speaking minorities account for some 15 percent of the population each, and are largely concentrated in the breakaway region of Transdniester, a stretch of land sandwiched between Moldova proper and Ukraine.

Russian, however, is widely spoken in Moldova's cities, and many Moldovans speak it as a second language.

Over the past decade, Moldova and Romania have established what both countries call "a special relationship" based on similar language and kinship. Romania has regularly granted scholarships for Moldovan students in Romanian schools and universities, while Romanian teachers have been working in some Moldovan schools.

But Moldovan officials have avoided recognizing the fact that what they call the Moldovan language is actually Romanian. Instead, they opted for a euphemism -- the phrase "state language" -- to be included in the constitution.

Furthermore, in recent years, Moldova -- confronted with growing poverty -- has moved politically and economically closer to Russia. The trend became stronger after elections in February, in which pro-Moscow Communists won 71 of the 101 parliamentary mandates. Many Communist deputies speak only Russian and need translators in parliament.

After his election as president by the Communist-dominated parliament in April, Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin said one of his main goals would be to bring Moldova closer to Russia and into the Russia-Belarus union.

Moldova is Europe's poorest country, with an average monthly salary of some $30. The country depends on Russia for natural gas and owes $680 million in unpaid gas bills.

Romania, itself one of the poorest countries on the continent, has been unable to offer much-needed economic support to Moldova.

But Romania's new Social Democrat government has tried since its accession to power to tighten once again its connections with Moldova, especially at the political level. Romania earlier this year lobbied successfully for Moldova to become a member of the European Union's Balkan Stability Pact, and President Ion Iliescu held a much-publicized meeting with Voronin earlier this year. Moreover, Bucharest this year contributed $1 million to Moldova's efforts to introduce new passports.

But relations worsened in October, when Moldovan Culture Minister Ion Morei referred to Bucharest's efforts at forging closer ties as "Romanian expansionism."

Now tensions are on the rise again after Prime Minister Tarlev's reaction to Bucharest's statement regarding the Russian language dispute.

Romanian spokesman Victor Micula said the Foreign Ministry's position was publicly and officially expressed and there was no need for direct notification. Micula told RFE/RL that by making this decision on the Russian language, Moldova is turning its back on European values.

"We did not want to interfere and decide what is best for Moldova's population instead of letting the Moldovan Education Ministry do that. But by adopting this position, we wanted to point out the fact that this measure takes Moldova one step farther from generally accepted European values," Micula said.

Micula also said the decision by Moldova's government to introduce Russian as a mandatory subject should have been put to public debate before being implemented.

Russia has not commented on Chisinau's decision. But there is no reason for Moscow to be anything but satisfied with this apparent victory for Moldova's ethnic Russian minority.