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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder5. Dynamics of the Moldova Trans-Dniester ethnic conflict (late 1990s to early 1990s)
View the document(introduction...)
View the document1 Introduction
View the document2 Historical background
View the document3 Linguistic disputes and growth of ethnic political activism in Moldova
View the document4 First power shift and proclamation of sovereignty
View the document5 From declaring sovereignty to declaring independence
View the document6 The august 1991 coup attempt and the transition to independence
View the document7 Large-scale inter-ethnic violence
View the document8 Bloodshed and conflict settlement in Bendery
View the document9 Socio-political change and inter-ethnic violence
View the document10 Ethno-political legitimacy crisis as transition to violence
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3 Linguistic disputes and growth of ethnic political activism in Moldova

The development of ethno-political disputes in Moldova appears closely connected with the dynamics of the rapid socio-political transition experienced by the republic since the late 1980s. These transformation processes in Moldova were largely the product of sociopolitical change in the USSR under perestroika. Democratization and glasnost proclaimed at the Union level by the Gorbachev leadership entailed a rise in political pluralism at the level of the Union republics. There came a surge of mass social movements, each pursuing its specific interests and advocating political objectives which differed from those officially endorsed by the Communist authorities.

The first stage of socio-political change in Moldova (summer 1988 to summer 1989) is connected with the formation of Moldovan and Gaganz voluntary associations of nationalist intelligentsia and activists. The initially proclaimed goals of these movements centred on the promotion of cultural and linguistic interests; very soon, however, these voluntary associations began to grow, becoming social movements numbering tens of thousands of activists and sympathizers. The ideological platforms of the movements (Popular Fronts), besides cultural goals, included ethno-political claims: the Moldovan Popular Front (MPF) was aiming at the political sovereignty of Moldova within the USSR federation, that is, for recognition of the priority of the Constitution of the Republic and its legislation over that of the USSR on the territory of Moldova; the Gagauz Popular Front (GPF) held that achieving national-territorial autonomy for Gagauzia (Southern Moldova districts) was one of its major goals, seeing this as the only way to ensure socio-cultural and socio-economic development for the Gaganz people.

Reacting to the growth of nationalist-democratic movements which challenged not only federalist but also basic Communist values, Communist leaders in industrial centres of left-bank Moldova mobilized supporters of "socialist internationalism" to form a counter-nationalist, pro-Communist movement of the Russophones loyal to the Union centre and to the "socialist choice" of "the Soviet multiethnic people." On 8 July 1989, the first institutional Congress of the so-called "Internationalist Movement" (IM) was held in Kishinev. (SM, 25 November 1989)

All three social movements proclaimed their support of perestroika, though each of them perceived the final objectives of these reforms in ethnic-political terms. Trying to enlarge their social bases, the leaders of the IM seconded the claims of the Gagauz for an autonomous status within Moldova. Competing social movements engaged in propaganda campaigns among the public. From the summer of 1989, mass rallies and demonstrations organized by activists of newly-formed movements - so unlike the previous public life of the society of "mature socialism" - became recurrent events on the political scene.

In May 1989, after the publication of the drafts of new republican legislation on the status and functioning of languages in Moldova, the issue of official language became the rallying cry of the competing social movements. The ethno-political nature underlying discussions of the status of languages was evident. The MPF claimed that the Moldovan language should receive the status of sole official language in Moldova, as an important symbol of the republic's aspirations to true sovereignty within the USSR. Without restricting the spheres of functioning of other languages in Moldova, this claim would mean that knowledge of Moldovan would become obligatory for all officers in republic level and local bodies of power, for the administrative personnel of industrial enterprises, and for employees in state-owned public services.

Previously, neither the USSR or Moldovan constitutions had envisaged any formally official language. At the same time, Communist propaganda had encouraged the molding of "the new historical community - the Soviet people" on the linguistic basis of the Russian language, and had proclaimed Russian as the only means of interethnic communication between nationalities of the federation. Russian was an obligatory subject of study in all educational institutions of non-Russian republics, whereas knowledge of the language of the titular nationality was not required of the Russophone population in non-Russian republics.

With perestroika, such inequity became particularly deeply felt by the titular nationalities. Affirming the right of the non-Russian republics to have constitutionally proclaimed official languages other than Russian meant for nationalist-democratic forces not only a revolutionary cultural affirmation but an act of political challenge, a first step on the road towards asserting the political sovereignty of their republics within the USSR. Other demands advocated by the MPF included a return to writing Moldovan in the Roman rather than the Cyrillic alphabet and constitutional recognition of Moldovan as the main language of inter-ethnic communication in Moldova - the status previously enjoyed by the Russian language.

Russophones in Moldova saw these drafts of new legislation as linguistic discrimination, and became anxious that new policies might cause their children to become assimilated Moldovans. The IM exploited these fears, aiming to enlarge its political support. At rallies and in other propagandistic activities, IM leaders demanded that both Russian and Moldovan be legally recognized as the official languages, and that Russian should have the status of sole language for interethnic communication.

Linguistic disputes over the draft legislation demonstrated the politicization of both Moldovans and Russophones and the cleavage between supporters of the values of republican sovereignty and defenders of the empire of Soviet nationalities. Recognition of Moldovan as the official language would necessarily imply a lower status for the Russian language, and thus, for parts of the Russophone population, a considerable drop in group ethno-political status.

The MPF also demanded a reassessment of the political and juridical interpretation of the historical events of 1918 and 1940 in Moldova, in official historiography which had defined them as "socialist revolution" and "fraternal liberation of the Bessarabian people from the yoke of bourgeois militaristic Romania." This demand was not met by the Moldovan authorities, but it represented another source of growing ethnic anxieties among the Russophones.

Confrontation between the MPF and the IM, as well as inter-ethnic tensions between Moldovans and Russophones in general, became particularly acute prior to the Moldova Supreme Soviet (parliament) session set to open on 29 August 1989 and to approve new republican legislation on languages. On 21 August, in the large industrial centres of Trans-Dniester (Tyraspol, Bendery, Rybnitsa, Dubossary), the Russophones went on a general protest strike, demanding that the adoption of legislation on languages in the republic be postponed until analogous legislation be taken at the Union level by the USSR Supreme Soviet. Over 80,000 workers at 116 factories and plants are said to have participated in the protest strikes in Trans-Dniester (SM, 30 August 1989). Sympathetic strikes were held in southern districts of Moldova populated by the Gagauz (Komrat and Chadyr-Lungi).

The MPF, in turn, counter-mobilized Moldovans to take part in mass rallies in support of the draft language laws. On 27 August in Kishinev, and in almost all centres of right-bank Moldova, some 400 rallies and demonstrations with approximately 500,000 participants were reported (SM, 29 August 1989). MPF activists picketed the Moldovan Supreme Soviet building.

On 31 August, after intense debate, the Moldova Supreme Soviet approved the new republican legislation on the status and functioning of languages, recognizing Moldovan as the only official language of the republic. A five-year term was established, however, for final introduction of the official language into office and clerical work in all state enterprises and bodies in zones where Russian was currently used in this function. Another concession to the Russophone deputies was the legislative recognition of both Moldovan and Russian as languages of inter-ethnic communication in Moldova. IM leaders and activists were not satisfied with the new legislation. Protest strikes in Trans-Dniester demanding the abrogation of the newly-approved language legislation and the arrival of the USSR Supreme Soviet Commission in Moldova went on till mid-September.

The August/September 1989 confrontation over the status of languages marked the first crisis in inter-ethnic relations in Moldova. Latent inter-ethnic political conflict had now become manifest.