During the 30 years since the Republic of Moldova gained its independence, the language spoken in that country has been skillfully used not only as a bone of contention in domestic identity disputes, but also as a tool in the hybrid war waged by Russia on the territory of the Republic of Moldova and beyond.
Romanian vs. Moldovan language
“In official addresses and documents, Russia somehow avoids tackling the language issue. They say that this is a domestic issue of the Republic of Moldova. If we judge by the reactions [of Russian speakers] in the Republic of Moldova, we can figure out what the position of the Russian camp in the Republic of Moldova is, namely that the spoken language is “Moldovan”, not Romanian. This is explainable because the name of the language is a defining national identity element. The great battle is being fought over this phenomenon”, the political analyst and former diplomat Anatol Țăranu explained for Veridica.ro.
The theory of the Moldovan language as a distinct language from the Romanian one was intensely promoted during the Soviet era. Immediately after the annexation of Bessarabia, the Soviets began to use the so-called Moldovan language, which is basically Romanian words written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Officially, the Romanian language in Latin spelling was banned by the Soviets on February 10, 1941. Later, at the end of World War II and along with Bessarabia’s joining the cluster of Soviet republics, the Latin spelling of the Romanian language was replaced by the Cyrillic spelling.
National emancipation movements in the late 1980s and mass protests by Bessarabians forced the Supreme Soviet of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic to accept a return to Latin writing. Subsequently, in 1990, August 31 was declared a national holiday under the name of “Our Romanian Language” or “Romanian Language Day”.
Since the early 1990s, keeping citizens in a permanent state of confusion and identity warfare has often distracted attention from important issues and maneuvers carried out by Moscow. Many politicians have used this opportunity to obtain political benefits or to camouflage schemes used to steal from the state, and the legal status of the Romanian language in the Republic of Moldova has further complicated matters.
Not even the Constitutional Court’s decision of December 5, 2013, stating that the langue spoken in the Republic of Moldova is Romanian, has changed the situation much, given that it has not been implemented to this very day.
The judges of the Constitutional Court specified then that the introduction of the Romanian language as the language spoken on the territory of the newly established Republic of Moldova on August 27, 1991, prevails over the changes made to the Constitution in 1994, when the phrase “Moldovan language” was introduced.
“The Declaration of Independence is a fundamental legal document that cannot be amended or added to, much less annulled. This document is the legal and political foundation of the Constitution. Therefore, no provision of the latter can go beyond the scope of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence regards the Constitution in its entirety and has a key role in understanding and applying the text of the Constitution, and in case of divergences between the text of the Declaration of Independence and the text of the Constitution, the primary constitutional text of the Declaration of Independence prevails, the then president of the Constitutional Court, Alexandru Tănase, said just days after the Court presented its decision.
Hard to change in parliament
Almost eight years on, the deputies of the pro-European majority in Chisinau are still technically unable to change the name in the Constitution, as they would have needed 68 out of the 101 seats to have a constitutional majority allowing them to change this, Anatol Țăranu says.
“If a constitutional majority of the representatives of the Romanian part of Moldovan society is established in Parliament, I believe that this article will be amended right away. Usually, one of the first issues that is addressed by any government that includes representatives of the Romanian camp is this article”, according to Anatol Taranu.
However, he says,“we don’t know how many Romanians with a Romanian conscience are there” among the 63 PAS deputies.
On the other hand, the writer and journalist Iulian Ciocan is of the opinion that, in general, politicians have never cared much about this issue, but such an attitude somehow serves Moscow's interests.“The simple fact that the Romanian language has not been recognized as a state language and during all this time we’ve had in the Constitution this article 13 saying that the state language is the “Moldovan language” could be a consequence of Moscow’s influence. I don't really think that Moscow would like to see the Romanian language stipulated in the Constitution. On the other hand, the Moldovan officials have not been very consistent in restoring the Romanian language its natural rights”, Iulian Ciocan thinks.
Changing the Constitution is not a priority for the current government
In fact, the policy of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) in recent years has not focused on political issues related to language or other issues that have divided society in terms of identity. Although a large part of today's PAS deputies are also Romanian citizens or have publicly declared their national sentiments for Romania, it is hard to believe that changing the name of the language spoken in the Republic of Moldova will be one of their priorities.In general, the PAS follows a pro-European and inclusive rhetoric that disregards the identity or language spoken by European citizens and focuses rather on issues related to curbing corruption and increasing the well-being of the citizens of the Republic of Moldova.
“Yes, there has been an artificial discussion [on the language spoken in the Republic of Moldova], but even that has expired. I read the signs correctly. In the 1990s or even 2000s, the Romanian language or the “Moldovan language” was a reason to protest [...] the discussion would indeed take people to the streets. But somehow this issue of the spoken language has been fading away. But it would be a gift for them if this thing were rekindled because they believe that by escalating this again they would get higher in the polls” , the PAS deputy Dumitru Alaiba told Veridica.ro.
He has also stated that the current government and parliamentary majority have other priorities now.
“We want to talk about corruption, about higher living standards, about jobs, about reforms and fair justice. They are not credible when it comes to these issues. On the contrary, they prefer the more emotional issues that divide society”, he added.In turn, the PAS deputy Vasile Șoimaru, the only member of the current parliamentary configuration in Chisinau who was also a deputy in the first legislature of the Republic of Moldova in 1991, said that “Moldova's independence was later stolen twice”.“The first time in 1994, when the agrarians, a kind of communists in disguise, came to power. They were the ones who included in the Constitution Article 13, which refers to the “Moldovan language”, and divided society. The consequences of that decision are still visible today. We have remained divided up until this very day because article 13 has not changed. If we had five more votes, in addition to the 63, we could have changed the Constitution. Unfortunately, these five votes were snatched from PAS by the so-called nationalists from Bucharest [AUR]. We could have solved this problem once and for all, because when the elections come, it automatically reemerges and divides people”, deputy Vasile Șoimaru explained.In fact, on August 22, the Academy of Sciences of Moldova called on the Presidency, the Government, and the leadership of the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova to introduce the phrase “Romanian language” in Article 13 of the Constitution.
Moscow’s tools: the Moldovan language and the Russian language
The issue of the language spoken in the Republic of Moldova remains a constant in Russia's hybrid warfare in the Republic of Moldova on the identity dimension. Beyond the theories about the Moldovan language, what Moscow wants, by any means, is for the Russian language to acquire a special status as language of inter-ethnic communication. In fact, it’s a technicality that would oblige the state of the Republic of Moldova to use Russian in official acts and documents, and other legal papers. This situation would perpetuate the use of the Russian language even if it has been less and less spoken, especially by the young generation, born and raised after the collapse of the USSR.The last signals were given in December 2020, when Igor Dodon and his socialist majority brought back into discussion the “Moldovan language” as the language spoken in the Republic of Moldova and tried to assign a special status to the Russian language. However, the Constitutional Court ruled on January 21, 2021 that “the preferential treatment of the Russian language contravenes the Supreme Law” and reiterated that the Romanian language is the state language in the Republic of Moldova, and the Constitution does not contain the phrase “language of interethnic communication”. The Russian language is also present in the media space: local television broadcasts Russian-language content, Russian channels are also taken over, there are several Russian-language radio stations, as well as written publications distributed in rural areas.A peculiarity is represented by Sputnik Moldova, a media outlet supported by the Kremlin, a combination of radio and online content that also targets the Romanian audience. Anti-Western narratives and classic themes of societal division, especially concerning the Church and the issues triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, are constantly rolled by Sputnik Moldova in a way that serves Moscow’s interests. Thus, Sputnik Moldova works as an amplifier of the messages disseminated by the Russian propaganda and extends the hybrid war over the Republic of Moldova, but also further towards Romania through the Romanian language common to both states. Part of the Sputnik Moldova team comes from the former editorial office of the Flux media trust, led by Iurie Roșca, who used to promote Romanian values in the Republic of Moldova and whose journalists are still very much connected to political realities in Bucharest. Sputnik.md was launched on the market in three languages - Russian, Romanian and, of course, “Moldovan”.
The limits of Russian influence
In the 30 years since the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Moldova, Russia has remained anchored in that country, by skillfully feeding identity dilemmas, supporting the Moldovan trend that sustains Soviet theories on the existence of two different languages and two peoples, and promoting the Russian language. It has done so with the help of its local allies and by dominating the media space in the Republic of Moldova.It should be noted, however, that a century of tsarist domination failed to stifle the identity of the majority population in Bessarabia. Ever since 1812, the Romanian language has been one of the forms of resistance to the Russification process. The Soviets resorted to more brutal methods, but the national renaissance movement showed that they too had failed. Even the new post-Soviet methods have not proved more effective: the generations that have emerged in the last 30 years can speak much less Russian than those before them.
Russian influence has its limits.