Last Moldovan Schools Under Threat In Trans-dniester

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 55

Trans-Dniester’s Russian-installed authorities — chosen partners of the U.S. State Department and OSCE in the project to “federalize” Moldova — seem bent on enforcing a complete prohibition on Latin script in the territory under their control. Moldovans form a plurality of the total population and an absolute majority of the native population in that territory. However, the Latin script of the indigenous language — and even the use of that language itself — has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from the mass media and public institutions.

Only six Moldovan schools have managed to survive, and they instruct some 4,000 primary- and secondary-school pupils — a small fraction of all school-age Moldovans. This month, the authorities have launched a campaign against those last remaining schools. Either these schools switch to the Cyrillic script and Russian curriculum, or the authorities will close them down.

On July 1, Trans-Dniester’s leadership officially announced that those remaining six schools would have to submit to Trans-Dniester “legislation” or be closed before the school year begins in September. Following that announcement, the authorities began cancelling rental, electricity, heating, and water supply contracts with those schools. On July 14, Trans-Dniester’s self-styled “foreign affairs minister,” Valery Litskay and “justice minister,” Viktor Balala described those six Moldovan schools as “Trojan horses,” equivalent to “military outposts” of Moldova, and “potential hotbeds of tension.” Litskay and Balala, having landed in Moldova from the Russian cities of Tver and Voronezh, respectively, are principal interlocutors of the OSCE’s American-led Chisinau Mission in the project to “federalize” Moldova (Olvia-Press [Tiraspol], July 14, 15).

On July 15, Trans-Dniester’s security service and police took over the Moldovan school in Tiraspol — the largest of the six — carting off furniture, books, and other property, and cordoning off the vandalized building until further notice. OSCE Mission representatives rushed to the scene in an attempt to stop the seizure, but they were refused access to the school or to Tiraspol officials. The OSCE Mission could only send a cable asking Trans-Dniester’s leader, Igor Smirnov, to refrain from such measures and resume negotiations over the fate of these schools. Negotiations have been ongoing for several years, but the only result was an understanding in 2003 that the schools would not be seized or closed while negotiations are in progress (Moldpres, July 15). Trans-Dniester’s authorities have now breached that understanding.

As late as May-June 2004, Trans-Dniester leaders were assuring visiting Western officials — such as the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles — that negotiations over the schools would continue. The OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, Rolf Ekeus, visiting Tiraspol on July 14, was told something similar by officials there, 24 hours before the takeover of the city’s Moldovan school. Ekeus issued a statement terming the campaign against Moldovan schools “nothing less than linguistic cleansing,” an “illegal, inhuman, reprehensible measure” (OSCE HCNM, The Hague, July 15). The Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, similarly decried the “assault” on Moldovan schools. Expressing his disappointment with the failure of Gil-Robles’ “serious effort at mediation,” Schwimmer concluded, “Trans-Dniester’s authorities seem to have lost any interest in negotiating as a trustworthy partner” (Moldpres, July 17). The Chisinau embassies of the United States and European Union member countries issued a joint communique expressing their concern and readiness to monitor the situation closely (Flux, July 20).

Moldova’s Foreign Affairs Ministry appealed publicly to Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE’s Chairmanship — mediators in the “federalization” negotiations — to intercede with Trans-Dniester leaders and protect those six schools. For once in this protracted affair, the ministry’s appeal managed to label the problem as one of de-nationalization of the Moldovan population and termed Trans-Dniester’s authorities “anti-constitutional” (Moldpres, July 16).

Over the last few years the Office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (briefly in tandem with a local UN representative) had helped those remaining six Moldovan schools to survive under mounting pressure. That Office, although a component of the OSCE, never endorsed the “federalization” project, which would legalize Trans-Dniester’s foreign-imposed authorities and grant them a share of power in the rest of Moldova as well. U.S. and OSCE diplomats in Chisinau, justifying this Russian-initiated project, claimed that federalism is suitable for Moldova because the country has national minorities. But the OSCE’s own High Commissioner on National Minorities has never made such a claim.

Although Trans-Dniester’s authorities continued and even intensified the Soviet policy of linguistic russification of Moldovans and Ukrainians after 1991, international organizations (with the above-mentioned exception) ignored the situation for more than a decade. In theory the “Moldovan” and Ukrainian languages have official status alongside Russian, but only Russian is used in the public sphere. Moldovans have lost most of the schools they had prior to Trans-Dniester’s 1991 secession. Trans-Dniester authorities used the clever tactic of focusing narrowly over those six — now five — Moldovan schools in negotiations, thus distracting attention from the overall problem of linguistic russification through the education system, mass media, local administrations, paramilitary forces, and other instruments of socialization and repression.

Proponents of Moldova’s “federalization” within the U.S. State Department and at the OSCE have in recent weeks suffered three severe embarrassments. First, Trans-Dniester followed through on its threats to send armed volunteers to aid South Ossetia in its conflict against Georgia. Second, on July 8 the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights issued a finding that defined Trans-Dniester as a territory seized by the Russian military, and Trans-Dniester’s authorities as a creation of that military. Finally, the authorities’ campaign against Moldovan schools has proved awkward. In spite of all this, a handful of American diplomats, acting in tandem with Russia as mediators, would legalize those same authorities in left-bank Moldova and empower them in right-bank Moldova as well.