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After 30 years of independence, Moldova still struggles with identity issues

Moldova
©EPA-EFE/DUMITRU DORU  |   'Immortal Regiment' action at the Eternity Memorial Complex during celebrations to mark the 76th anniversary of Victory Day in Chisinau, Moldova, 09 May 2021.

30 years after the proclamation of independence in the Republic of Moldova, the country still faces identity issues. Society is divided between those who describe themselves as Moldovans, Moldovan speakers – a tribute to Soviet legacy – and those who consider themselves Romanian and speak Romanian, those who feel they belong to the Russian world, and those who look towards Romania and the European Union.

The language issue – from Romanian to Moldovan

On August 27, 1991, the Parliament in Chișinău adopted the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Moldova, against the backdrop of a national rebirth movement. The document puts the Republic of Moldova “in the historical and ethnic space of its nation-building”, which underlines the identity-sharing bond with Romanian space. Moreover, the Declaration also condemned the 1812 Treaty (“CONSIDERING the acts of dismemberment of its national territory between 1775 and 1812 as being contradictory to the historical right of its people and the judicial stature of the principality of Moldova, acts recalled by the entire historical evolution and the free will of the population of Bessarabia and Bucovina”) and drew attention to the further fragmentation of Moldovan territory in 1940, when the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR) was created and incorporated into the USSR, without any public consultation.

The break with the Soviet Union and the proclamation of independence are closely tied to the movement of national rebirth that surfaced at the end of the 1980s. This was made possible in the context of relaxation policies of the communist regime during the term in office of its last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who launched the process of reforms known as “Perestroika”. At the Great National Assembly meetings of 1989, 1990 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Moldovans traveled to Chișinău to demand, first and foremost, the return to the Romanian language, the Latin script, to national history, culture and traditions – in a nutshell, recognition they belong to Romanian space. The union with Romania was another objective of the national rebirth movement. To say you were Romanian and take up the Romanian identity was a revolutionary act. On August 27, 1989, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in downtown Chișinău to demand the rehabilitation of the Romanian language with Latin script. On August 31, 1989, the Moldovan Parliament, at the time called the Supreme Soviet of the MSSR, adopted the first major set of laws regarding the functioning of languages and the return to the Latin alphabet. The ensuing euphoria led to the adoption of the Romanian blue-yellow-red tricolor as the national flag of Moldova (April 27, 1990), while the anthem “Awaken, thee, Romanian!” became the national anthem of the Republic of Moldova (it would last only from August 27, 1991 until 1994). The History of Romanians, the Romanian language and literature were included in school curricula across the Republic of Moldova starting 1989.

However, less than 25 years after the proclamation of independence, only 7% of Moldovans still considered themselves Romanians, and only 24% said they spoke Romanian, whereas 75% considered themselves Moldovans, according to figures made public in the 2014 census. The Soviet narrative about the existence of a distinct Moldovan language and a separate Moldovan nation was back in favor.

The return of Soviet apparatchiks

The pro-Romanian drive started during the national rebirth movement lost momentum with the outbreak of the Transnistrian war in 1992, and the rupture created within the democratic forces represented by the Popular Front of Moldova. After power was again seized by elements of the former communist regime, which over the years switched to various parties, the “Moldovan” narrative was back in the spotlight. The new Constitution adopted in 1994 introduced the term “Moldovan language”, while the national anthem “Awaken, thee, Romanian!” was replaced with “Our Language”. Article 13 in the Constitution, which deals with the name of the official language, has been a bone of contention in Moldovan society for over two decades. The article is invoked particularly around an election. The Constitutional Court ruled, ever since 2013, that the text of the Declaration of Independence, which mentions the Romanian language as the official state language, takes precedence over the text of the Constitution. Yet so far, the fundamental law has not been amended as per the Court’s ruling. In recent years, several writers, philologists and historians have called on the authorities to change the name of the official language, a task which now befalls the new Parliament in Chișinău. To change the Constitution, Parliament needs at least 68 votes, but the Action and Solidarity Party, which supports this change, only holds 63 seats. The other parliamentary parties, the Bloc of Communists and Socialists most notably, support the Moldovan current, a Soviet legacy that promoted the idea of ethnic, historical, cultural and linguistic differences between the population of the MSSR and that on the other side of the Prut River, in Romania. “State Moldovenism” was reinvented during the regime of the Democratic Agrarian Party of Moldova (1994-1998), became a state policy during the regime of the Party of Communists led by Vladimir Voronin (2001-2009) and was reintroduced on the political agenda of Igor Dodon, elected president in 2016. This current distinguishes between Moldovans and Romanians, claiming they speak different languages, and that Romanians represent and ethnic minority in the Republic of Moldova. At the same time, adepts of “state Moldovenism” accuse Romania, and more recently the West, of interfering with the domestic affairs of the Republic of Moldova, although they support close relations with the Russian Federation, which endorses this current by means of various strategies. Parties promoting Moldovenism (PCRM, PSRM) have also been employing major propaganda instruments, TV stations, websites, newspapers, some funded from obscure sources, or rebroadcasts of Russian TV programmes. Moldovenist narratives, which can also be found in the governing agenda of PSRM, have been promoted including in the latest election campaigns in Chișinău. As a rule, these narratives bode well with the public / voters who are less informed and hence victims of massive propaganda targeting them and who are often corrupted by “electoral handouts”.

Moldovenism and the Soviet oppression

Another explanation behind the success of this current can be found in collective memory, shaped by Soviet ideology. Anti-Romanian sentiment was actively promoted in the Soviet period by means of projecting a negative image of a “bourgeois and land-owning” Romania, who exploited the Moldovan population, the myths of the “Romanian gendarme”, “the Romanian torturer”, “the Romanian fascist”, “the Romanian occupation [of 1918]” and “the liberation of Moldova from the Romanian-Fascist oppression [in 1940, and then again in 1944]”.

These myths were doubled by an effort to cast off the Romanian intelligentsia, people who were educated enough to resist such intoxicating disinformation. During the first years of Soviet rule, people were expediently executed, sentenced to prison or simple disappeared. The Soviet authorities started surveilling members of Romanian parties, landlords, gendarmes, officers, mayors, teachers, people who had worked in the Romanian administration up until 1940. In 1941, anyone who was considered an enemy of the new Soviet power was deported to Siberia. What followed were larger waves of deportation, in 1949 and 1951, the famine of 1946-1947, which decimated Moldovan population and forced it to abide by the new USSR policies. The oppression was toned down with the death of Stalin, but in the decades that followed Moscow was always careful to quell any pro-Romanian sentiment before it could build momentum.

School, which was mandatory for all citizens, was the most important tool for the indoctrination of the new generation of Soviet Moldovans. The new subjects were “the Moldovan language and literature” and the history of Moldova, while Romanian authors (with a few exceptions) and the history of Romania were left out from textbooks. At the same time, the authorities promoted a relentless Russification campaign in all spheres of public life. Romanian publications disappeared from book shelves. All ties between MSSR and Romania were virtually severed.

The advent of “pragmatic Romanianism”

Relations with Romania – and all things Romanian – have reported highs and lows in the 30 years since the proclamation of Moldova’s independence. Romania was the first country to officially recognize the independence of the Republic of Moldova. It provided Moldova with assistance over the years, and for the last decade it has been a staunch supporter of Moldova’s European accession. Conversely, Romania has also been a target for pro-Russian or merely populist politicians, who sought to turn Moldovans’ identity issues and the fears ingrained deep by decades of Soviet propaganda to their own advantage. 

In recent years, however, surveys have pointed to an increase in the number of people who favor a union with Romania, a 40 to 50% share of the population. This increase is determined not just by the recognition of the historical truth, but mostly by poverty, people’s disappointment with Moldovan political class in the last 30 years, corrupt and incompetent politicians who haven’t been able to solve even of the most basic problems of Moldovan society, the lack of security and fear for what the future holds. 50% of the citizens of the Republic of Moldova would vote in favor of uniting with Romania if they had the assurance that their salaries and pensions would be the same as in Romania, a survey conducted by IMAS shows.

Nearly one million Moldovans have regained the Romanian citizenship, now owning an identity card or passport, allowing them to enjoy a number of rights and privileges, including in the European Union. Moldova’s close ties with Romania were also deepened by the large number of young Moldovans studying in universities across Romania, but also by cultural and economic relations and person-to-person exchanges between the two countries.

The values promoted during the period of national liberation coincide with European values – the observance of fundamental human rights, freedom of expression, security, justice, prosperity. This reality sank in, although indirectly at times, for hundreds of thousands of Moldovan citizens who chose to work, study, live and settle down in European Union member states, most of them owning a Romanian passport. This option was clearly made transparent in the recent elections in the Republic of Moldova, when most people cast their vote in favor of a pro-European president and a pro-European party. Moldovans’ pro-European vote also reflects their pro-Romanian option. 

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  • 30 years after the proclamation of independence in the Republic of Moldova, the country still faces identity issues. Society is divided between those who describe themselves as Moldovans, Moldovan speakers – a tribute to Soviet legacy – and those who consider themselves Romanian and speak Romanian, those who feel they belong to the Russian world, and those who look towards Romania and the European Union.
  • The break with the Soviet Union and the proclamation of independence are closely tied to the movement of national rebirth that surfaced at the end of the 1980s.
  • The pro-Romanian drive started during the national rebirth movement lost momentum with the outbreak of the Transnistrian war in 1992, and the rupture created within the democratic forces represented by the Popular Front of Moldova. After power was again seized by elements of the former communist regime, which over the years switched to various parties, the “Moldovan” narrative was back in the spotlight.
  • Relations with Romania – and all things Romanian – have reported highs and lows in the 30 years since the proclamation of Moldova’s independence. Romania was the first country to officially recognize the independence of the Republic of Moldova. It provided Moldova with assistance over the years, and for the last decade it has been a staunch supporter of Moldova’s European accession. Conversely, Romania has also been a target for pro-Russian or merely populist politicians, who sought to turn Moldovans’ identity issues and the fears ingrained deep by decades of Soviet propaganda to their own advantage. In recent years, however, surveys have pointed to an increase in the number of people who favor a union with Romania, a 40 to 50% share of the population.
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