Untangling Complexities of Moldova: A Conversation with an Expert
Moldova was recently in the news, with Russians fanatically hyping up a false narrative that Ukraine was about to invade the temporarily occupied Transnistria. As a result, some people in Ukraine believe Moldova should be more assertive in its policy towards Russia.
Is there a potential for such a policy? And how has the Moldovan identity changed in the past year?
To disentangle these complex issues, Svidomi spoke with Dionis Cenuşa, an Eastern Europe Studies Centre Associate Expert.
The conversion to the "Moldovan" language from Russian, which is a Soviet invention, and then to Romanian, has already been happening in Moldova for a long time. But had there been a spike in the interest in the Romanian language after the full-scale invasion started?
— This is a rather complex situation. Of course, the Russian aggression against Ukraine influenced this situation.
But also, we had an important decision to grant the membership perspective to Moldova and Ukraine, which influenced the linguistic situation. So it is a combination because, but for the aggression of Russia against Ukraine, I think neither Ukraine nor Moldova would receive the membership. So this comes in the package.
I believe it’s right to assume that Romania and the Romanian language became more popular due to the support we were receiving from them. Romania was speaking on behalf of Moldova on different occasions. Romania, France and Germany initiated the Moldova Support Platform. The popularity of the Romanian language in Moldova benefited from active Romanian diplomacy in support of Moldova in the context of Russian aggression against Ukraine.
What is the position of the “Moldovan” language in the laws? Am I right to assume that in Moldovan schools, you would have most of the curriculum in Romanian and not “Moldovan”?
— Pupils are studying the Romanian language. We still have "Moldovan" language and primary and secondary legislation mentioned in the Constitution. But other than that, I think teachers and professors would not refer to the "Moldovan" language in universities or schools.
Still, the "Moldova"/Romanian language issue is political. It is present in the legislation and the opinions of people you will meet in the streets.
Speaking of the streets, if I were to walk through an average Moldovan city, how often would I hear the Romanian language, and how often would I hear Russian?
— In Chișinău, you will definitely hear almost equal proportions of Romanian and Russian. And if you go to the north, there are some towns and villages where Russian is the lingua franca, as in Găgăuzia or Transnistria.
I think that we have quite a romantic perception of Romanian, which is spoken in Moldova. Therefore, the level of or the type of Romanian Moldovan citizens use differs from what you will hear in Romania. However, in Romania itself, you have different regional accents and linguistic twists.
In Moldova, people could tell you that they speak Romanian. Still, they will probably use some words from the Russian language in the same sentence just because of the Romanian language's high level of russification, which took place during the Soviet times up to independence. But, of course, the quality of the Romanian language is much higher on TV, in some political parties and the education sector. But it is different if you go and speak to ordinary people, especially at the market or any other place in Moldova.
I would even be able to understand some words if I spoke to some severely Russified people, right?
— Yes. If they avidly use Russian words, then you could understand something. But, unfortunately, this makes the Romanian language spoken in Moldova sometimes incomprehensible for Romanians when they come to Chișinău.
They may not understand everything, like 100%, because the language is very much infiltrated with Russian words or words in Russian which were Romanized. Similarly, we use English words and try to integrate them into our speech. The same happened to Russian: they simply immigrated into the Romanian language that the Moldovan citizens speak.
What is the place of the Russian language in Moldova, both legally and practically speaking?
— Russian was considered the language of inter-ethnic communication, which is no longer the case. However, due to its outdatedness, there is no new status for the Russian language after the law annulation. Nothing was adopted to replace this law which had given the Russian language a privileged position in Moldova. And I think that nothing will be adopted soon. Maybe even never, but never say never.
Interestingly, many Ukrainians who came to Moldova as refugees feel comfortable in Moldova because the society is Russified. Many Ukrainians came from the Odesa region, where Russian was widely spread. So now, these people can integrate themselves into Moldova. They can interact with the population in the Russian language since Moldovans don't speak Ukrainian. This situation was helpful for the refugees. Of course, this is not a favourable situation but an unbiased reality.
Language is, of course, not the only constituting element of identity. The memory of the past is also essential. Have there been any changes in Moldova in that regard recently?
— Moldova, which was, historically speaking, an artificially created state, these topics are controversial. However, the public legitimacy for political forces, still insisting on Moldovanism and the Moldovan language, is significant in Moldovan society. What is happening now is the beginning of a considerable debate and probably radical changes in the public perception of language and identity.
Since these topics are easily politicised, the population might not take them seriously. There are other issues, which in my view, are competing and even prevalent in terms of their importance. This is about the socio-economic situation. This is about the consequences of the Russian war against Ukraine. So I'm not sure if the attempts which are now carried out by the ruling party to rename the language in the Constitution will be understood correctly by the majority in society. That's my concern.
Still, we need policies to change the public perception of historical memory. But it should be conducted smartly, with much communication to the population, without ignoring other pressing topics. Then, I think this will be a successful beginning of a considerable change in the collective ideas of Moldovans about who they are and what language they speak.
And what would these changes be about?
— The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (the Soviet Union occupied Moldova after concluding the pact — Svidomi). About the artificial creation of Moldovan identity. About the differences between Moldova and Romania. It will open many doors and conversations about clarifying who Moldovans are.
Even European integration can proceed more effectively because it is tough to go in any direction if you don't know where you are coming from. So this is a civilisational choice.
Am I right to assume that until now, these pro-European discussions about public memory were limited to, let’s say, upper-middle-class parts of society? This is not something that was widely discussed by the public, right?
— Yes, it only happened in some clusters of society. We cannot speak about something widely discussed and widely accepted in society.
There will be a considerable obstacle to sincere conversations about the Moldovan language and identity and the Russian influence on Moldova. The fear of the de-Sovietization of Moldova with regard to the language will overlap with the fears or even phobia against reunification with Romania.
The pro-Russian forces are going to use this. They will have a card to play, and unfortunately, the population will be confused, especially when people are starving because of inflation (around 30% throughout 2022 — Svidomi). I'm not saying everyone is starving, but the poverty rate is high.
The Moldovan president has Romanian citizenship. So she spends more time travelling abroad than meeting with the citizens. Well, of course, she's president and has more foreign policy competencies. But still, the pro-Russian forces are using these notions to argue that Moldova is governed by foreign forces.
Looking at the polls, if we sum up the support for the Socialist, Communist and Sor parties (these are pro-Russian forces — Svidomi), I think we would have more than 50% of the population. If we also look at the population's opinions about reunification with Romania, more than 60% are against it. However, more than 50% of the population support membership in the EU.
The picture you draw is rather pessimistic, I would say.
— I think it is very nuanced. I do not want to create a black-and-white picture of Moldova. I know that the government is trying to create a very positive narrative, but if you go to Moldova, you are going to see different shades of grey.
Unfortunately, the government is facing a diversity of crises. They have to think critically about communicating with the public, including on controversial issues that could play against them in the short term.
We have elections that will take place this year, next year, and two years from now. So it's about being strategic while being efficient in communication and implementing policies that you decide to carry out which are controversial and, therefore, risky.
Regardless of their noble intentions, all decisions might hit the rock because you don't have enough legitimacy. For example, when the governing party was elected, it was popular. So they came up with some radical decisions. These decisions had a lot of cascade effects that are not positive for the party and the country now. But currently, they're in a position where they have a low legitimacy, and they have to think twice before adopting decisions that could hurt themselves and help the pro-Russian forces.
This is not about not dealing with the Romanian language or not changing the Constitution. But it's about how to do that in such a way that it is beneficial for reducing the influence of Russia in Moldova and not helping Russia to actually strengthen its capacity to promote pro-Russian politicians in Moldovan politics.