About 10 percent of the graduating students in the Gagauz Autonomous Region of Moldova failed their final exams in Romanian language and literature this year.
The poor showing sent tremors through the fault lines separating the tiny Gagauz minority from the rest of the country.
Parents issued an angry open letter accusing the "nationalists" of restricting the future options of Gagauz children in order to keep them "on the reservation." The head of the region, Mikhail Formuzal, promptly took a delegation to the capital to ask the Education Ministry to allow the students to take the examination a second time.
After those talks late last month, Education Minister Mikhail Shleahtitki told RFE/RL that the status of Romanian as the official state language is crucial for the unity of the country.
Moldovan Education Minister Mikhail Shleahtitki
"Every country has a state language," he said. "Without knowing it, it is impossible to take your place or flourish in that country. And in order to take a place in other countries, you must start by securing your place in your own country."
He added that participants in the meeting had agreed to form a working group to create a "comprehensive program" for improving the teaching of the Romanian language and Romanian literature in Gagauzia.
'Pride' Plays A Role In Resistance To Romanian
Gagauzia is a poor, predominantly agricultural region in southern Moldova with a population of about 160,000. Gagauz are an ethnically Turkish people who settled in the region about 1,000 years ago.
Although Gagauz, Russian, and Romanian are all official languages in the autonomy, most of the locals are Russian-speaking Orthodox Christians. Local schools teach in Russian, and there has historically been strong resistance to the intrusion of Romanian -- or, as the Gagauz generally call it, "Moldovan" -- into the region.
Gagauz, Russian, and Romanian are all official languages in the autonomy, but most of the locals are Russian speakers.
"[In Gagauzia] there are mostly Russian schools; I don't know why," said 30-year-old Viktor Furmanji, a Gagauz who lives and works in Chisinau. "But I have a job here [in Chisinau], so I studied. If I didn't have a job, I probably wouldn't know Romanian either."
Valentina Capinarli, 25, also learned Romanian after migrating to Chisinau. She attributes the Gagauz resistance to studying Romanian to "pride" and claims that learning the national language has been crucial to her own integration:
"I need it a lot," she said. "For one thing, my nephews speak Romanian. I need it for work a lot. I am able to communicate with people."
Unlike Furmanji, Capinarli also speaks a little Gagauz.
The shaded areas denote Gagauzia (Source: Wikipedia)
The history of post-Soviet Gagauzia contrasts sharply with that of Moldova's other Russian-dominated region, Transdniester. While that region fought a brief, violent war and achieved de facto independence with the heavy support of Moscow, Gagauzia negotiated an autonomy that gives it exclusive jurisdiction over education, culture, local spending, and social security.
In addition to close ties to Russia, which is the primary customer for Gagauzia's wine, the region has notable ties to Turkey.
Then-Turkish President Suleyman Demirel visited the region in 1994 and again in 1998. The Turkish Embassy and the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency have provided considerable financial and educational support since 1991.
Ankara is an active sponsor of educational and cultural exchange programs with Gagauzia. Turkish support has fostered a slight resurgence in the use of the Gagauz language. However, Russian remains dominant, and the Gagauz-language pages of the local administration's official website
are conspicuously blank.
Although relations between the autonomous region and the central government have generally been peaceful since the mid-1990s, the region remains underdeveloped. And given the fragile nature of Moldova's own national and cultural identity, on one hand, and Gagauz national pride, on the other, unresolved tensions have lingered, as the latest conflict over the Romanian-language-exam results demonstrates.
Education Minister Shleahtitki has indicated that local "resistance" to Romanian culture remains strong. "The problem is that a lot of young specialists do not want to work there because they know that there are specific problems," he said.
"It is a lot more difficult to teach Romanian language and literature there because, of course, it is a different social culture, a different cultural-linguistic environment, because that cultural environment strongly resists Romanian language and literature," he added.
"And so, in addition to simply teaching the language, you have to struggle every day to reduce this resistance and that is an additional psychological factor -- while the salary remains the same."
Following his meeting with Gagauz officials, Shleahtitki refused to allow the students who failed the examination to take it a second time. However, he agreed to grant them graduation diplomas, albeit special ones that denoted their failure to pass the Romanian portion of the exam.
Responsibility Lies With Gagauz Authorities
Local media in Gagauzia have reported that most of the 92 students in question have been accepted at institutions of higher learning in Russia or Turkey. If this phenomenon continues and grows, it can only further the separation of the Gagauz from the rest of Moldova.
It remains an open question whether local elites in Gagauzia are willing to open the door to increased instruction in Romanian, although regional head Formuzal has asked for increased help from Chisinau to do just that.
Chisinau-based political analyst Igor Botan has noted that responsibility for education lies with the Gagauz authorities, under the 1995 autonomy law. "The problem comes down to the competence of the Education Ministry and other institutions in Gagauzia itself, which are not coping with their responsibilities," he said. "I think the government needs to pass a corresponding decision to prevent such conflicts in the future."
According to Botan, the best way to gauge the intentions of the local authorities going forward is to watch where they put their resources. "I think the government must allocate the necessary funds to ensure that in the Gagauz Autonomous Region the state language is taught at the proper level," he said.