Word Games: Russian Language Disputes Could Again Fracture Moldova

The status of Russian remains deeply contentious in Moldova – and both Moscow and Moldova’s politicians have shown their willingness to exacerbate divisions by playing the language card.

Alook into Moldovan archives shows how the states treatment of the Russian language destabilised the country on multiple occasions in the 20th century – and threatens to do the same again.

The status of the Russian language has long been a contentious topic in the former Soviet republic. The issue again came to the fore when pro-Russian politicians in Moldova’s parliament passed a law that effectively made Russian the second official language.

The law, which the Constitutional Court later annulled in January 2021, made knowledge of Russian a prerequisite for all state jobs.

It was rushed through the parliament by the pro-Russian Socialist Party and its allies, whose leader, former president Igor Dodon, was recently defeated in the presidential elections by the pro-EU candidate, Maia Sandu.

The move was an attempt to undermine Sandu’s position, as she wishes to see her country move closer to the EU, not Russia.

This is not the first time that elites have used the status of the Russian language to polarise Moldova’s society. The question of what status to allocate Russian has been a reoccurring issue since 1989, when the Supreme Soviet, the country’s legislative body at the time, passed laws that made Moldovan the sole official language.

Russian speakers enjoyed preferential treatmen

Earlier in the 20th century, knowledge of Russian was a source of discrimination. In 1944, following the formation of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, MSSR, the new Soviet authorities pursued discriminatory policies against ethnic Moldovans, who they viewed as untrustworthy.

Russian speakers were granted preferential treatment and had easier access to high-level employment, as the Soviets believed it was easier to import professionals rather than train locals.

As a result, Russian speakers were generally employed in skilled labour or management while most Moldovans worked in agriculture.

Moldova thus became a divided society. In the urban centres, Russian dominated all aspects of socio-economic life, while in the countryside, Moldovan predominated.

From the 1970s onwards, however, Moldovans began to migrate from rural districts in search of work in the urban centres. Many grew resentful of being forced to speak Russian daily and over how they were discriminated against for their lack of proficiency in it.

By the time perestroika – the political reform movement initiated by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – reached Moldova, there was widespread discontent amongst newly urbanised Moldovans.

Deputies from the Supreme Soviet, most of whom were Moldovans, sought to capitalise on this by agitating for the adoption of language laws which would make Moldovan the sole official language.

These laws were supported by academics, who had grown concerned about the long-term effects that Russification was having on society. In spring 1989, the Supreme Soviet made Moldovan the official language while Russian was to remain the language of interethnic communication.

However, in the finalised version of the laws, published that August, Moldovan, not Russian, was made the language of interethnic communication.

After decades of Russification, the laws were welcomed by most Moldovans who had grown tired of linguistic-based discrimination in their own republic. This also came around the time nationality-based identification was growing in the now former communist states.

Moves to privilege Moldovan cause backlash

As the Supreme Soviet published finalised drafts in the newspapers in mid-August 1989, many were unhappy with the proposed legislation. Minorities made up almost 40 per cent of the population, and most were shocked to see Russian was neither the second official language, nor the language of interethnic communication.

In response, the Union of Joint Labour Collectives, OSTK, was formed in Transnistria, then the country’s eastern region. In the days before the Supreme Soviet met to discuss the laws, the OSTK declared an indefinite strike.

The strikes were not limited to Transnistria. Between August and September, hundreds of factories across the republic, including those in the capital, Chisinau, went on strike. At its peak, over 189 factories and 100,000 workers were on strike – an impressive figure for a country of about 3 million citizens at the time.

The strikes crippled industry and had a knock-on effect in neighbouring Ukraine. Gorbachev was forced to intervene, ordering the railroad workers to return to work.

Under pressure, the Supreme Soviet had no choice but to relent and adopt Russian as the language of interethnic communication.

The widespread backlash to laws can be partly attributed to a lack of engagement on the part of the authorities. The authorities had failed to clarify what exactly an “official” language even was.

This was particularly true in Transnistria, where reaction to the proposed laws was most severe. Here, the local communist parties made no effort to explain what the laws meant, or how they would impact workers.

The local communist parties in other cities, such as Chisinau, engaged with the workers. As a result, once Russian was adopted as the language of interethnic communication, officials were able to prevent further mobilisation.

Disappointment fuels nostalgia for Soviet times

However, the concession did not lay the issue to rest. In the early 2000s, the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova, PCRM, was elected to power by a disillusioned electorate who were disappointed by the market reforms and longed for the stability of the Soviet times.

The communists had won favour among Russian speakers after promising to make Russian the second official language. However, they quickly backtracked on this promise after widespread protests.

The importance of the language issue, or more precisely, the status of the Russian language, cannot be understated. The decision taken by the Supreme Soviet helped spur separatist movements in both Gagauzia and Transnistria, where ambitious local elites used the laws as proof that the Moldovans were pursuing an assimilationist policy.

The conflict with the Gagauz was only resolved after the authorities agreed to create the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, which has three official languages, Gagauzian, Moldovan and Russian.

Transnistria, on the other hand, has three official languages, Russian, Ukrainian, and Moldovan, and continues to use the linguistic situation in Moldova to justify its de-facto independence.

The issue also still has the potential to destabilise other parts of the country. Many of the country’s minorities still look to Moscow and may feel alienated by the pursuit of a pro-European course.

Both Moldovans and international commentators are, at times, uneasy about the influence Russia has over the country’s minorities. Some have speculated that the pro-Russian city of Balti or the region of Gagauzia could become another “Donetsk” referencing the breakaway pro-Russian area of eastern Ukraine.

Others have noted Russia’s influence in the region of Taraclia, where Russian-speaking Bulgarians reside.

Moscow’s sharp condemnation of the Constitutional Court in Moldova demonstrates how willing it is to use linguistic cleavages to destabilise the country.

For now, the ethnic minorities have not taken the bait. However, history has shown that questions over the status of the Russian language can mobilise them.

The harshest response to the language issue in 1989 may have come from Transnistria and Gagauzia, but thousands of Russian speakers from Chisinau, Balti, and elsewhere in Moldova took part in the protests as well.

Their continued supported for pro-Russian parties, such as the CPRM and the Socialists, who both advocate for Russian’s status to be increased, show that for them, the language issue is not yet settled.

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