Now that the Moldovan Constitutional Court has annulled the special status the Russian language has enjoyed in that republic since independence, Moscow is hoping to use the Gagauz nation within Moldova to defend the position of Russian there. But this decision to turn to the 200,000-strong Christian Turkic minority highlights Moscow’s weakness and likely presages the further decline of the Russian language in Moldova. Nevertheless, in the meantime, Russia may still be able to stir up enough trouble with the Gagauz to slow Moldova’s march toward integrating with Romania and the West.
Yesterday, June 4, the Moldovan Constitutional Court ruled that a 1989 law, “On the Functioning of Languages on the Territory of the Moldovan SSR,” dating back to when Moldova was a constituent Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) within the Soviet Union, had been supplanted by subsequent legislation and was, therefore, no longer in effect. As a result, the Russian language no longer has the special status it did in Soviet times; and those who try to claim otherwise have no legal basis to maintain this stance (Newsmaker.md, June 4). Unsurprisingly, the Russian government is furious, viewing this action as an attack on “the Russian world” (Russkiy mir), which President Vladimir Putin increasingly defines in terms of language rather than anything else (Iarex.ru, June 5).
Moscow is angry even though it has hardly lost everything: the Moldovan high court declared that translations of normative acts into Russian, their publication in translation, as well as state guarantees of the right of residents to receive education in Russian “do not contradict the status of Romanian as the state language of Moldova” (Newsmaker.md, June 4). (Chisinau, by legislative act had declared “Romanian” rather than “Moldovan” to be the state language of the republic in December 2013.) And in the hopes of reversing the court or at least slowing down the ultimate implications of its decision—a further reduction in Russian-language use in Moldova and the rapprochement and perhaps ultimate unification of Moldova and Romania—Moscow is now looking for any allies it can find.
It does not have any good options. Moscow can apparently continue to rely on Moldovan President Igor Dodon, who yesterday condemned the court’s decision as “the latest anti-popular, anti-constitutional decision” that, he insisted, undermined the consensus on which Moldovan statehood is based. “Any attempts to destroy this historic consensus,” Dodon proclaimed, “can lead to the most irreparable consequences” (Iarex.ru, June 5). But the Moldovan president is out of step with the parliament and the majority of the people of his country. According to the 2014 national census, over 80 percent of the residents of Moldova identify as Romanians or Moldovans, with only 9.7 percent now saying they are ethnic Russians. And Moldovans predominantly use their national language: only 5.7 percent said they use Russian as their primary tongue. The next three largest minorities, the Gagauz, Ukrainians and Bulgarians—who form 4.2 percent, 3.9 percent and 0.5 percent of the total population, respectively—utilize Russian to a significant, but by no means overwhelming, extent. Thirty-three percent of the Gagauz, 50 percent of Ukrainians, and 33 percent of Bulgarians reported speaking Russian on a daily basis in 2014 (Statistica.md, accessed June 5).
Moscow and its clients in Chisinau are thus looking for allies to add to the roughly 10 percent of ethnic Russians in the population. The Bulgarians are too few to matter, Russian-speaking Moldovans appear unenthusiastic, and members of the ethnic-Ukrainian population of Moldova are hardly likely to join Moscow’s corner given Russian aggression against their homeland and unrelenting anti-Ukrainian propaganda beamed across the former Soviet space. Consequently, Moscow is again turning to the Gagauz, a minority that it has used against Chisinau in the past (see Commentaries, April 4, 2014; EDM, November 11, 2014). And its exploitation by Russia is likely to weigh more heavily on the Moldovan government than this minority’s relatively small size might suggest.
Even before the Constitutional Court’s decision was handed down, Vladimir Kyssa, the head of the Gagauz regional parliament, said that his people would follow their own laws, which declare that there are three official languages among the Gagauz—Moldovan, Gagauz and Russian. Moreover, he added that his region would “support the Russian-speaking North of Moldova”—a euphemism for the breakaway Transnistrian “republic”—even though Chisinau takes no notice of what is certain to be Tiraspol’s opposition to the court’s decision and what activists there are already saying (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 30).
At various points in the last 25 years, Moscow has employed the Gagauz minority, together with the Transnistrian regime, to put pressure on Chisinau to do its bidding. It has implicitly threatened that if Chisinau does not back down on language issues, which some Russians argue are the primary cause of Transnistria’s breakaway from Moldova, it will not only lose that territory forever but will push the Gagauz to follow its lead. And Russian commentators have played up the provisions in a 1994 agreement between Chisinau and the Gagauz that specifies the latter has the right to pursue independence if Moldova decides to unite with Romania, as some in its parliament and population would like to do.
It is almost certain, the Russian paper Nezavisimaya Gazeta implies, that the court decision will lead to a suspension in talks between Chisinau and Tiraspol. It is also highly likely that the Gagauz will press their case against Chisinau on the Russian language with protests and appeals to European institutions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 30). If that happens, the Moldovan political situation could heat up quite quickly, possibly changing the electoral prospects of the various parties in advance of the parliamentary elections there later this year.