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  • Writer's pictureIrina Percemli

Cutting through the linguistic fog: the state of Moldovan language politics

The debate over whether Moldova's state language should be called ‘Romanian’ or ‘Moldovan’ has become a bitter, ideologically charged battle. This article explores how the politicisation of language has exacerbated ethnic tensions and diverted attention from the country's pressing economic and governance challenges.


Irina Percemli


Language is a central battleground in the nation-building process of many countries. It is as often an instrument of power as it is our everyday means of communication. This is especially true in Moldova, a small Eastern European nation with a complex history of external political influences. 


Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Moldova has struggled to forge a cohesive national identity, with the language being one of the most important tools and issues in this process. Even the national anthem is called Limba Noastra (‘Our Language’). Ironically, we cannot agree on what exactly the name of our language is. The Moldovan Declaration of Independence from 1991 proclaimed it ‘Romanian,’ yet the state language is referred to as ‘Moldovan’ in the 1994 Constitution. This ambiguity has been a source of political tension ever since. To avoid friction, many officials have used the term ‘state language’ (limba de stat).


In 2013, Moldova's Constitutional Court ruled that the country's Declaration of Independence prevails over the Constitution, establishing ‘Romanian’ as the official language. But the tensions continued for ten more years. Only one year ago, in March 2023, the Moldovan parliament led by the pro-European Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) finally went a step further, passing a law mandating the use of ‘Romanian’ in all legislative texts instead of ‘Moldovan’ or the syntagms such as ‘state language’ or ‘mother tongue’. This move was contested by the pro-Russian opposition, represented by the Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BCS) and the Shor Party by the fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor. 


06.03.2023 Protesters hold flags and banners as they take part in a rally against replacing the Moldovan language with the Romanian language in official documents outside Constitutional Court, Chisinau, Moldova. Rodion Proca / Sputnik / libertatea.ro


Moldovan vs. Romanian


From a linguistic point of view, Moldova and Romania share the same literary language;  the international language classification ISO 639 has classified them as synonyms since 2008. Regarding spoken language, the Romanian linguistic school considers Moldovan to be a dialect of Romanian. The Moldovan Academy of Sciences has also supported the latest legal developments changing the name of the language. Following the linguists, I will use the term ‘Romanian’ to denote the language.

 

However, the debate is very different for the people who actually use the language daily.  In the latest census, 56.7% of the population in Moldova named Moldovan their native language and 23.5% — Romanian. Why, then, is this issue so important? After all, people speak different variants of the English language in the United Kingdom, Australia and the USA, but no one advocates for ‘American’ or ‘Australian’ languages. 


The answer is that the division between Romanian and Moldovan results from political rather than linguistic disagreements. The language question in Moldova is not a simple technical issue. It's a proxy for deeper ethnic tensions, political power struggles, and unresolved historical traumas. 


Language as a tool of power


The historical context behind the language dispute is complex. Before becoming independent nations, the territories of modern-day Moldova and Romania experienced centuries of external domination by the Ottoman Empire, Russian Empire and, consequently, the USSR.  During the Soviet era, a distinct ‘Moldovan’ language written in Cyrillic script was promoted, unlike Romanian spoken across the border. This was the first time anyone had defined two separate languages, a calculated effort to forge a distinct Moldovan national identity. 


Both in Tsarist Russia and the USSR, intensive Russification policies took place in Moldova, eventually making Russian the sole language for government, commerce and education. These developments favoured ethnic Russians and discriminated against ethnic Moldovans. On the other hand, Russian became the main language for inter-ethnic communication and for social mobility for minorities. Minorities represent about 20% of the Moldovan population, and this group includes not only ethnic Russians but also Ukrainians, Bulgarians, the Gagauz and Roma people. 



With the collapse of the Soviet Union, language became a perfect instrument for the ethnically Moldovan political elites to regain power and strip the incumbent Russian-speaking elites of power. While the revival of the majority language became an important part of nationalist efforts, ethnic minorities were deeply concerned with more radical pan-Romanian narratives. Even though this fear was based on the historical trauma of discrimination during Romanian rule in the interwar period, it was quickly instrumentalised by political elites, fuelling the secessionist movements in Gagauzia and Transnistria.

 

This fear of potential unification with Romania is still kept alive today, and the minorities — people who are least ‘Moldovan’ in Moldova — are the most avid supporters of the ‘Moldovan language’. But the fact remains that most minorities still do not speak the state language, regardless of what they want to call it. This is due to poor education, the lack of high-quality language courses, and the lack of context for speaking. Only recently have Romanian language courses for adults been introduced outside of Chisinau. Given that a quarter of the Moldovan population still uses Russian daily, this multi-ethnic reality requires a more subtle and adaptive approach from the government if the aim is peaceful coexistence. Instead, hardliners on both sides weaponise language to consolidate their own power and demonise their opponents. 


Putting people first


The ideological battle over language has come at a huge cost. Instead of addressing Moldova's pressing economic and governance challenges, politicians have allowed the language issue to dominate the national discourse. Corruption, lack of economic opportunity, and weaknesses in the rule of law are the real problems that should be a priority for the government. But these vital concerns get obscured as language becomes the primary political battleground.


Moreover, this politicisation has exacerbated ethnic tensions and a sense of exclusion among Moldova's linguistic minorities, such as the Gagauz. When language becomes a totemic issue of national identity, those who do not fit the dominant linguistic mould feel marginalised in their own country. This sows the seeds of further division and conflict. 


Ultimately, a country's language should be a practical tool for communication, not an ideological weapon. If Moldova is to move past its current divisions, it must depoliticise the language question and focus instead on the needs of all its citizens, regardless of their mother tongue. This does not mean we should forget the injustices caused by Russian imperialism or ignore the historical legacy of our situation today. However, it means we should acknowledge the existing reality and work to improve it without blaming or discriminating against groups or individuals.


Photo: NOKTA.MD


This requires bold action. The government should make high-quality Romanian language classes freely available nationwide, not just concentrated in the capital. Even though the current government’s recent attempts are admirable, there is still a long way to go. The Russian language can retain its regional status without being elevated into the official language. This is also dictated by the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages, which Moldova signed but still has not ratified. Civil society should foster more cross-cultural dialogue and exchange to build understanding between linguistic communities. But most importantly, political leaders must stop using language as a wedge issue to bolster their own power. Only by putting people first, not language, can Moldova build a future of shared prosperity and social cohesion. 




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