Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 34

Europe’s sole Communist-governed country has become the scene of the first anti-Communist mass demonstrations seen anywhere in Europe since 1991. Daily demonstrations at last acquired momentum last week. The protests focus on language and national (ethnic) issues. Moldova is also Europe’s most impoverished country. Strikingly, social-economic grievances are not merging with the national-linguistic ones thus far in these protests.

Spearheaded by the Christian-Democrat People’s Party (CDPP, the former Popular Front), the demonstrations had begun on January 9 in downtown Chisinau near the government buildings, and followed a set pattern. The crowds gathered five days a week at the same location, reserving Saturdays and Mondays for rest. Crowd size averaged 2,000 to 3,000 daily, with highs of 5,000 on some Sundays and lows of several hundred on some weekdays. They were mostly composed of students and relatively educated people, mainly drawn from that small part of Moldovan society that possesses a Romanian national awareness.

The Communist authorities slept quietly at night. By day, they displayed every confidence that they had the situation well in hand. They treated the protest leaders haughtily, declined to address any grievances, and accelerated political and legislative measures that aim to roll back the limited post-1991 reforms and to restore some aspects of the Soviet system.

This week, however, the protesting crowds more than doubled in size–thanks in part to high school students–and expanded their demands, which now include resignation of the Communist government and the holding of new parliamentary elections. The government has entered into talks with CDPP parliamentary deputies, not over any resignation or new elections, but simply to keep a lid on events.

The direct catalyst of the protests last month was a re-Russification measure. Effective immediately, it made Russian an obligatory, rather than an elective, subject of language instruction in all schools, and elevated its status above that of other foreign languages by requiring Russian instruction to begin in the second year of primary school. Until now, Russian–along with English, French and other foreign languages–was elective, and taught beginning in secondary school. Minister of Education Ilie Vancea (a Communist) and other ministry officials had publicly distanced themselves from the change that favored Russian. Teachers’ unions and many parental associations opposed it, and continue to do so. Nevertheless, the measure went ahead at the behest of the Communist Party’s leadership and its parliamentary majority.

In early February, the government eliminated the subject “History of the Romanians” from the school curricula, replaced it with the subject “History of Moldova,” and approved for it a textbook–apparently the sole extant post-1991–penned by a group of mostly Soviet-era historians, ranging from veteran Stalinists to more recent-vintage Interfrontists. While the study of Moldovan history as such would only rankle a small core of pro-Romanian opinion, the content of this textbook and the hardline Communist credentials of most of its authors ensured that the government’s decision was met with outrage–at least in the capital city, where the Moldovan intelligentsia and the better schools for its offspring are concentrated.

The protestors objected, of course, to the substance of these measures. But many of them, local observers note, were also upset that the measures are mandatory, and especially that the decision to impose them was made without any public debate on the matter. They maintain that the primary issues at stake are freedom of choice and media access. Communist-controlled radio and television are keeping critics of these measures–and criticism of Communist policies in general–off the airwaves.

Requiring the Russian language in the school curriculum is only the latest in a series of steps the Communist government has made toward re-Russifying public life in Moldova. Last year, it ordered that civil records and identity documents–all of which have been written in the state language, Moldovan/Romanian, from 1989-91 to date–be written in both it and Russian, and that personal names be registered and used, in the Russian manner, with the patronymic attached to them, regardless of individual preference. This has, to be sure, been ignored in many places where the funds or the wish to implement it are lacking. Even so, the government’s decision added to other signs that it has embarked on a policy of piecemeal re-Russification.

In its victorious 2001 electoral campaign, the Communist Party promised to confer official status on the Russian language, on a par with the native “state language.” That promise helped line up the entire non-Moldovan electorate–one-third of all registered voters–behind the Communist Party. The party’s sizeable ethnic Moldovan following, with its poorly developed national awareness, stuck with the party in the elections. Once in power, President Vladimir Voronin and other party moderates backtracked on the promise to elevate the status of Russian by a constitutional move. Instead, party leadership initiated small-step measures.

In their cumulative effect, such measures may eventually amount to giving official status to the Russian language de jure and de facto, short of amending the constitution. Whether this is deliberate is unclear to local observers and perhaps also to Voronin himself. For their part, Communist hardliners–they predominate in the party’s parliamentary caucus–advocate “two state languages.” They, of course, are more fluent in Russian. Holding more than two-thirds of parliamentary seats, the Communist Party can pass any constitutional change at will.

This situation is what fuels the sense of alarm among the demonstrators in downtown Chisinau. By the same token, their concentration on language- and nationality-related grievances and, especially, their focus on Romanian identification is what prevents the ordinary populace from joining them. It also keeps the economic grievances from merging with national ones in a mix that the Communist authorities would no longer be able to manage as easily as they have until now. (Roundup based on recent Moldovan media reporting; see the Monitor, February 7).