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Moldova: Opposition Protests Plan To Make Russian Mandatory In Schools

Several thousand people staged a demonstration today in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, to protest the Communist government's decision to declare Russian language instruction mandatory in schools as of January. The protest was organized by the opposition Christian Democrat Popular Party, but participants also included teachers and parents who see the government move as another step toward bringing Moldova back into Russia's sphere of influence.

Prague, 9 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Some 5,000 demonstrators chanting anti-Communist slogans gathered today in the capital to protest the government's recent decision to make Russian-language studies compulsory in Moldova's schools.

The protestors, mostly young people, gathered in downtown Chisinau, shouting "Down with the Bolsheviks!" and "Don't shove the Russian language down our throats!" The demonstrators also listened to speeches from several politicians from Moldova's opposition Christian Democrat Popular Party (PPCD), which organized the protest.

The opposition officials called on demonstrators to oppose what it called "re-Russification" and hailed the protest as a "wave of national revival." The demonstrators later marched peacefully along Chisinau's main street under the watchful eye of security forces. The protest eventually ended with no reports of violence.

The protest was prompted by an announcement in December by Education Minister Ilie Vancea that, beginning with second-grade levels, Russian-language instruction would become mandatory in all schools as of January. Vancea first attempted to push the measure forward in August, but retreated amid protests from teachers and parents.

Earlier last summer, Moldova's Communist-dominated parliament adopted legislation granting the Russian language special status. Under the law, Russian-speaking Moldovans receive the right to education in their mother tongue at all levels.

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. The rest speak Russian. Moldovan became the official language after Chisinau declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Communist government's latest decision has stirred protest in Moldova's pro-Romanian circles. Critics of the plan accuse Communist President Vladimir Voronin's government of trying to bring Moldova back into Russia's sphere of influence.

Voronin and his Communist Party came to power in 2001 pledging to bring Moldova closer to Russia and to restore living standards to pre-independence levels. Moldova is currently Europe's poorest country, with an average monthly salary of some $30.

Pro-Russian Communists control more than two-thirds of the Moldovan parliament's 101 seats, leaving the opposition largely powerless. Moreover, there are signs that interest in reunification with Romania is waning. The pro-Romanian PPCD won only 11 parliamentary seats in the 2001 elections.

But despite its limited leverage in parliament, the PPCD says it is determined to fight the re-Russification of Moldova by mobilizing civil society. In organizing today's protest, the PPCD joined forces with the newly formed Committee for the De-Russification of Moldovan Education, a group comprising mainly teachers and parents.

PPCD leader Iurie Rosca says today's protest was just a part of his party's actions to prevent Russian-language studies from becoming obligatory and to fight the Communists' stated goal of amending the constitution to make Russian Moldova's second official language.

Rosca told RFE/RL that the PPCD has launched a campaign to gather popular support: "We distributed many forms, and we organized the campaign to collect signatures from parents, students, from all citizens wishing to support our initiative -- an action which we intend to use to eliminate Russian language and literature as a mandatory subject in Moldova's Romanian schools."

Education Minister Vancea yesterday announced that schools' winter breaks would be extended by a week, prompting some critics to speculate the minister was trying to encourage teachers and students to continue their vacations and forgo today's protest.

But Vancea denied there was any connection between the extension and the scheduled protest. He told RFE/RL that the extra week of vacation was granted at the request of many teachers across the republic. "No, there is no connection [between the protest and the extension of the winter vacation]. There is no connection between the two. [The extension] was made at the request of some teachers' collectives, and I want to tell you that many of the teachers' collectives are actually beginning school on 14 January."

Despite the extended break, however, an unexpectedly large number of people turned out for today's protest, prompting the government to signal it may reconsider introducing Russian as a mandatory school subject. Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said today his cabinet is ready to "re-examine" the issue if demonstrators send him a written note of protest.

Protest organizers say they will continue staging demonstrations on a daily basis until Communist authorities revoke the decision altogether. The government's position may be complicated further if the country's teachers' unions -- which have demanded a 50 percent increase in their meager $20 monthly salaries -- decide to join the demonstrations over the next few days.