CHISINAU | As Moldovan politicians engage in seemingly endless skirmishes over control of the parliament, the presidency, and the purse strings, the status of the country’s main language may not seem terribly urgent. Yet one member of parliament has chosen this politically fraught time to introduce a new language law that has some speakers of smaller languages anxious for the survival of their communities.
The bill states that Romanian shall be the language of communication in public dealings with state bodies and nonprofit organizations, and within all public or private organizations.
Ethnic minorities comprise around 22 percent of the Moldovan population, according to the 2004 census, which excludes the secessionist Transdniester territory.
Consumer advocate Petru Gutul, one of more than 350,000 Moldovans who have Russian as a first language and a critic of the proposal, said it was “only a pretext to suppress language minorities and assimilate them.”
LANGUAGES OF POWER
Yet Russian itself, the language of Moldova’s former Soviet masters, is seen as a tool of assimilation by some of the roughly one in 10 citizens whose mother tongue is neither Romanian nor Russian.
Some language activists now put their hopes in a little-known European language charter, while others say steps are needed to force the authorities to obey language rights enshrined in existing national law.
Ethnic Russians, who make up around 6 percent of the population, reacted especially nervously when the language bill was introduced in March. Drafted by deputy Ana Gutu, the measure immediately raised concerns among Moldovan Russians and from Russia itself that it would suppress the use of Russian. Since independence, Russian has enjoyed a privileged role and has been used alongside Romanian/Moldovan in all areas of public life.
The bill also attempts to clear up the 22-year confusion over the name of the state language. The country’s declaration of independence refers to the state language as Romanian. However, the 1994 constitution declares the state language to be Moldovan – although it specifies that the language be written in the Latin alphabet, a change from the Cyrillic script imposed in the Soviet era. Most linguists believe the two are the same language, with only minor differences.
The bill also met a mixed reaction from the business community because it would oblige companies to issue all documents in Romanian only. Gutul, the head of the independent Consumer’s Rights Association, called for legal action against any state institution that tries to prohibit private entities from serving their clients in the language they prefer.
Parliament’s human rights committee recommended against the bill on 10 April, saying it discriminated against speakers of languages other than Romanian.
The deputy chairwoman of the committee, Stella Jantuan, said the law would be humiliating for speakers of minority languages, who could be ordered to pay fines for refusing to speak or write in Romanian. This was hardly the best way to encourage minorities to speak the state language, she said.
Gutu said the bill will likely reach the full chamber for debate by mid-June after passing through other parliamentary committees. At around the same time parliament is expected to consider Gutu’s request to the Constitutional Court for an interpretation of her proposal to enshrine the name of the state language by constitutional amendment.
The Russian community sees the bill as one more tool in a campaign to transform Moldova from a bilingual to a monolingual society where the role of Russian would be severely diminished, according to former member of parliament Mihail Sidorov, an ethnic Russian.
If adopted, the law would probably raise objections from human rights monitors at the Council of Europe and the EU, he said.
“In addition, such a law would increase the separatism of the Transdniester region and as a result bring tension to bear on a solution to the conflict in Transdniester, where Russian is the main language of public and private life,” he said.
ONE CHARTER TO RULE US ALL?
Although Gutu’s bill purports to guarantee the rights of language minorities, language policy expert Serghei Ostaf argues that it falls far short of the recommendations in the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which Moldova signed in 2002 but has yet to ratify.
Even though the charter is little-known and lacks an enforcement mechanism, politicians in many ethnically diverse Eastern European countries look at it askance, and it has been ratified by just two of the 10 former Soviet republics in Europe and the Caucasus.
The charter obliges signatories to respect and promote the use of historical minority languages on their territory. As they see fit, states can go further, adding protections for specific language minorities in such areas as justice, media, culture, education, and public services.
After consultations with the Council of Europe and other minority protection groups, the government in 2012 produced a list of eight languages to be listed for protection when the charter is ratified: Russian, Gagauz, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, German, Yiddish, Polish, and Romani.
Gutu said she does not oppose ratification of the charter, although she insists only one language would meet its specifications: Gagauz, a Turkic tongue spoken by around 140,000 people, most living in the autonomous Gagauzia region in southern Moldova. Most of the country’s other ethnic languages are spoken only in a few villages, she said, while Russian is too widespread to fit the charter’s definitions of “regional” and “minority” languages.
The debate over the status of the state language does not just pit Romanian speakers against minorities. It also reflects divisions within the non-Romanian-speaking communities that have existed since Soviet times, when Russian was the main language of public life. Ostaf, the language expert at Chisinau’s Human Rights Resource Center, believes the Russian community is suspicious of the language charter.
“Those who oppose the ratification of the language charter serve an external interest that does not wish to see Moldova become a peaceful interethnic society. This resistance is an attempt to further marginalize other linguistic minorities [in favor of] a Russian identity,” he said.