Commentary: How To Turn Moldovans Into A Minority In Their Land

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 63

Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council’s special session on Moldova, held in Vienna on July 22, U.S. Ambassador Stephan Minikes misinterpreted the recent assault on Moldovan schools in Trans-Dniester as a problem involving an ethnic minority. Minikes cast the issue in those terms no fewer than three times in his three-minute speech. He cited the closure of “the minority language school” in Tiraspol, the threat to “five other schools serving national minorities,” and the need for a “solution that upholds the rights of minorities.”

Those definitions are inaccurate both by ethnic and linguistic criteria. Moldovans form a 40% plurality of Trans-Dniester’s total population, and an outright majority of the native population. Ukrainians and Russians are the second- and third-largest group, respectively, in Trans-Dniester. All sides to the debate (Western chancelleries, international organizations, Moscow, and the Tiraspol secessionist authorities themselves) accept and work with these facts. Minikes’ July 22 speech is the first known case of mis-defining Moldovans as an ethnic minority in Trans-Dniester.

By the same token, defining the Moldovan/Romanian language as a “minority language” is only possible by counting Ukrainians as a “Russian-speaking population,” thus erasing the Ukrainian national identity. This idea is a common one in Russian nationalist circles, and also inspires Russian government policy in some cases; but has never been proposed with regard to Trans-Dniester, where all three languages have official status: Russian, Ukrainian, and “Moldovan.”

Inexplicably, Minikes referred to the five schools under threat as “serving national minorities,” the plural obscuring the fact that they are Moldovan schools. Among the many ambassadors who made statements at the special session, the U.S. ambassador was the only one to describe Moldovans as an ethnic and linguistic minority. (PC.DEL/700/04 July 23). For example, the Bulgarian chairmanship stated that “a large part of the population of [Trans-]Dniester” was being targeted. The European Union’s collective statement noted that Moldova’s “state language,” not a minority language, was under attack.

In a follow-up intervention during the same Permanent Council session, Minikes criticized the Trans-Dniester authorities’ actions against Moldovan schools as an infringement of the OSCE’s 1990 Copenhagen commitments, which he quoted: “To ensure that persons belonging to national minorities, notwithstanding the need to learn the official language or languages of the state concerned, [should] have adequate opportunities for instruction in their mother tongue, as well as, wherever possible or necessary, for its use before public authorities in conformity with applicable national legislation.” However, this is clearly the wrong instrument to invoke in this situation. Holding Trans-Dniester’s authorities accountable under commitments that by definition apply only to recognized, sovereign states is one step toward treating Trans-Dniester implicitly as a state and its “national legislation” as a legitimate point of reference.

To define Trans-Dniester Moldovans as an ethnic and linguistic minority is implicitly to accept Trans-Dniester’s secession. It also implies separating the Moldovans on the left bank from those on the right bank — arithmetically, legally, and politically — along the secessionist-imposed “border.”

A political appointee, unfamiliar with and apparently confused about Moldova despite several visits there, Minikes seems also to be disadvantaged by poor staff work at the U.S. mission to the OSCE. Minikes and William Hill, head of the OSCE’s Chisinau Mission, belong to a now-dwindling handful of U.S. diplomats pushing jointly with Russia for “federalization” of Moldova through empowerment of Trans-Dniester authorities, without a proper understanding of the issues involved, and based on geopolitical assumptions of a past age.