Friday, November 2, 2007

What is a Moldovan?

Moldova is in a unique political position, and whether or not a race of Moldovans exist is a “relatively new and controversial subject,” as Wikipedia puts it. Is your ethnicity really an ethnicity? Even the Moldova Wikipedia page has been locked because of the ongoing controversy. At the office this week, I’ve been privy to a few almost-heated exchanges along these lines. It complicates the matter when you have the self-proclaimed “country” of Transnistria, the independent, seperatist area of Moldova that no other country in the world recognizes as a country.

While the law says there is such a thing as a Moldovan, and Moldovan language, in historic reality Moldovans are ethnic Romanians and Moldovan language is just Romanian. (Note when Joni was learning Romanian we didn’t call it Moldovan. This is controversial here and in talking about it with locals I have to choose which word I use carefully).

The Soviet Union did a really good job re-orienting people and re-writing some of their histories to serve the purposes of the union of the State. Moldova is one of those places where this is most evident.

Summarized history of Moldova:
  • Pre-1812, most of the land mass constituting Moldova was part of Romania.
  • 1812- this land mass was taken by the Russian Empire and named Bessarabia. Russia encouraged Russians and others to settle there, and began to replace the Romanian Orthodox church with the Russian Orthodox church, and discouraged Romanian in education.
  • 1918- Russian Empire collapses and Bessarabia joins with Romania as a single country. Transnistria splits off and forms its own Socialist Republic.
  • 1940- Hitler and Stalin sign the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact that officially gives Bessarabia to the USSR. Transnistria is united with Bessarabia and area is officially called Moldova. (Most industry would be introduced in this Transnistrian section, made up mostly of ethnic Russians and Ukranians).
  • 1941- Hitler invades USSR and Romania again resumes control of Moldova.
  • 1944- USSR re-takes Moldova.
  • Stalin begins deporting Moldovans to Siberia and Kazakhstan, while importing Russians and Ukranians to the area. The local language is officially called “Moldovan,” and a new official alphabet in Cyrillic is introduced. Changes in the official language are made to make it different from Romanian.
  • USSR also begins a new education program stating that Moldovans are their own race and Romanians are something different. (De-nationalization programs like this are designed to keep Moldova from re-joining with more independent-minded Romania, whose leadership had gotten on Stalin’s bad side).
  • 1989- Moldova passes a law restoring Moldovan language to a Latin script. “Moldovan” is still the name of official language of the country.
  • 1991- Moldova declares independence from the USSR. Some people begin to push for re-uniting with Romania. Transnistria declares independence from Moldova and civil war ensues.
  • Russian troops assist Transnistria, and a cease-fire is signed. Transnistria becomes its own entity. A 1994 vote shows that most Moldovans prefer independence to uniting with Romania. Schools in Transnistria teaching Romanian/Moldovan continue to use the Cyrillic script introduced by the Russians.
  • 2001- Moldova becomes the only country in the world with freely-elected Communist government (in name, at least). Government continues policy of Moldovan as the official language.
  • A 2004 census says that 60% claim Moldovan as their mother tongue, whereas only 16% claim Romanian.

Now, most former Soviet countries recognize Moldovans as their own ethnicity. Romania does not, recognizing them only as Romanians. The CIA World Factbook has a single term for the ethnic population—“Romanian/Moldovan”-- underscoring the problem.

You can read the heated debate among Wikipedia contributors here.

The local media, and even the national anthem, don’t refer to the national language by name only simply as “Limba de Stata” (“Language of the State”). The ruling Communist party has clearly made their commitment to independence from Romania. By keeping the name of the language separate from Romanian, you also keep the idea of the country remaining independent from Romania. Make sense?

So, is Moldovan the Soviet-modified Romanian written in Cyrillic script? Or is it the dialect of Romanian that’s spoken here in Moldova (and written in Latin script)? Or is it just Romanian that someone wants to call Moldovan so that people remain Moldovan instead of Romanian? Liberals argue that Moldovan was a purely Soviet invention and should be treated as such. These are the argument that happens every day among diplomats and politicians here.

While most Moldovans claim Moldovan as their language, hundreds of thousands are applying for Romanian passports and citizenship based on their Romanian ethnicity…

If there’s enough interest in this post, I’ll post some of the latest political theories about how this is all going to end up. If I’ve made errors here, Serghei and anyone else more knowledgeable than myself should feel free to point them out.


Keith Walker said...

I am definitely interested in hearing more about this history. Moldova surely needs to find an identity.

Serghei said...

You were pretty accurate describing history of this land and outlining all the controversy of the word Moldovan in regards to language and ethnicity.

I can only add to this hassle. Let's not forget that there are people of other ethnicities like Ukrainian, Russian, Gagauz, Roma, they are influent and important part of Moldovan state. While ethnic minorities usually dont identify themselves as Moldovans, foreigners actually call all citizen of this country Moldovans.

I had an interesting experience while I've been visiting Turkey. Taxi driver there was very much surprised that I dont speak Turkish being Moldovan, he thought all Moldovans speak Turkish! As you might know Gagauz language is very similar to Turkish and perhaps this taxi driver met some Gagauz people from Moldova and got impression that all Moldovans speak Turkish.

Moldova has been an independent nation for just 15 years and I believe it is not enough for identity building. If Moldova lives long enough and especially if it reunites with Transnistria I think the word Moldovan would mean the same as Swiss, Belgian or American, indicating a nation rather than ethnicity and language.

TaylorW said...

humm... it seems like world wars can be started with discussions on this kind of stuff. be careful


JTapp said...

Thanks for the insight, Serghei.
Discussing minority groups' roles in things definitely muddies the water a bit, but I'll post some of the political discussions I'm hearing and how they might fit in. The taxicab story is hilarious.