Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Moldovan/Romanian, Russian.
Main religions: Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Minorities and indigenous communities: in the Republic of Moldova constitute 21.8 per cent of the population. According to the 2014 census, this includes Romanians (7 per cent), Ukrainians (6.6 per cent), Gagauz (4.1 per cent), Russians (4.1 per cent), Bulgarians (1.9 per cent), Roma (0.3 per cent) and others (0.5 per cent).
Most minority members are scattered across the country, though the Gagauz region forms a self-governing administrative unit, while Ukranian and Bulgarian communities live in compact settlements.
For the first time, the 2014 census collected information on the languages spoken by Moldovan citizens. While 54.6 per cent reported that they usually spoke Moldovan, 24 per cent spoke Romanian, 14.5 per cent Russian, 2.7 per cent Ukrainian, 2.7 per cent Gagauz, 1.7 per cent Bulgarian, 0.5 per cent other languages (with an additional 3 per cent not specifying their primary language).
In terms of religion, according to the 2014 census 96.8 per cent of Moldovans are Orthodox Christians, with a number of smaller Christian minorities including Evangelical Baptists (1 per cent), Catholics (1 per cent), Jehovah’s Witnesses (0.7 per cent), Pentecostal Christians (0.4 per cent) and Seventh Day Adventists (0.4 per cent), with 0.2 per cent identifying as atheists and another 6.9 per cent not specifying their religion.
Updated January 2018
Moldova, struggling with the aftershocks of a banking scandal that has implicated a number of prominent public figures, has also faced ongoing political instability in the context of increasing polarization between largely pro-Russian parties and a pro-European alliance that is itself fragmented by internal divisions. The legacy of Moldova’s complex ties with both Romania and Russia, as well as its diverse ethnic composition, has also shaped its political development. Though the government finally presented a draft strategy for integration of national minorities for public consultation in 2015, minorities have struggled to achieve adequate representation and recognition at a national level. This has encouraged many members of certain communities, including Gagauz and the country’s Slavic minorities, to align themselves increasingly with left-leaning, pro-Russian parties such as PSRM.
While the Constitution protects the right of all citizens to practice their faith freely, the ‘exceptional importance’ of Orthodox Christianity is enshrined in the law and the Moldovan Orthodox Church continues to play a powerful role in the country’s public life. Members of other Christian denominations, including Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals, continue to be subjected to harassment, vandalism and verbal abuse. In many cases these groups have faced institutional discrimination at a local level – for example, being prevented from using places of worship or registering as a legal entity – often reportedly as a result of pressure from Orthodox clergy. Muslims have also been subjected to similar incidents, including confiscation of religious materials by security forces.
Language remains a deep source of separation in Moldova. In particular, Moldovans are divided between its Russian speakers – including not only Russians but also national minorities such as Ukrainians, Gagauzians and Bulgarians, who tend to employ Russian more than the state language – and those who use Romanian/Moldovan. The two main linguistic groups inhabit two largely separate societal spheres, with different media and educational institutions. One of the reasons why this occurs is that the teaching of minority languages is provided only in schools with Russian as the main language of instruction. As a consequence, persons belonging to national minorities study the state language as a third language, which often leads to a lack of fluency. As in the Soviet period, minorities continue to use Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication. Russian is defined in Article 3 of the Language Law as the ‘language of inter-ethnic communication’. Therefore, it seems to be placed in a third category between those of ‘official’ and ‘minority’ languages.
The Republic of Moldova, formerly the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, is situated between Ukraine to the north, east and south, and Romania to the west. Since independence in 1991 the country has faced a secessionist challenge in its eastern region, Transnistria (also known as Transdniestria or the ‘Predniestrovian Moldovan Republic’), lying on the eastern side of the Dniester river.
At the heart of contemporary minority issues are the different relationships that developed between Moldova’s ethnic groups under the various empires that have controlled the region – the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The legacy of external control for Moldova is a society arranged around a complex series of loosely interconnected socioeconomic, political and ethno-territorial subsystems often organized on the basis of divergent sets of interests. Of central importance is the different imperial history experienced by the peoples living in the Moldovan territories east of the Dniester river and those to the west.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the left bank of the Dniester river had enjoyed almost uninterrupted links to Moscow for nearly 200 years and the region had only intermittently experienced Romanian rule. In 1791 (Treaty of Jassy), the eastern lands were absorbed into the Russian Empire. After a brief period of autonomy following the Russian Revolution, the left bank territories were joined to the Soviet Union in 1922, and on 12 October 1924 the Ukrainian Government established the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (MASSR) in the area between the left bank of the river Dniester and the southern Bug river, known as the Transnistria region. Tiraspol became the capital of this new political entity, which then formed the border between the Soviet Union and Romania.
The western lands of Moldova have enjoyed a very different relationship to Moscow. Only in 1812 was Bessarabia – the historical territory located between the rivers Dniester, Prut and Danube – annexed to Russia. The absorption of Bessarabia led to a flood of Slavic migrants to the region, as well as Romanian-speakers from beyond the Prut, Gagauz and Bulgarians. The region remained part of the Russian Empire for over 100 years but after 1918 Bessarabia was joined to Romania and remained under Bucharest’s rule until 1940.
In the summer of 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Bessarabia. Subsequently overrun by Axis forces, in 1944 the area was reconquered by the Red Army. The bulk of Bessarabia was united with the territories of the MASSR (the Bukovina region in the north and Budjak in the south were given to Ukraine) to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Chisinau (Kishinev in Russian) became the capital. The lack of indigenous communists in Bessarabia, especially in rural areas, meant that the extension of Soviet power in the region had to rely upon personnel from the former MASSR. Thus, the post-war order in Moldavia was constructed on a system of institutionalized advantage for the Moscow-oriented east bank territories.
In the 1950s and 1960s, rapid industrialization brought a steady flow of Sovietized Slavs to the region. The new settlers were concentrated in the industrial centres, particularly the Transnistria region. By 1989, ethnic Russians constituted 27 per cent of the republic’s urban population and only 4 per cent of rural dwellers.
During the Soviet period, strenuous efforts were made to foster a local identity, separate from a Romanian one, among the Bessarabians. The indigenous population was required to identify itself as Moldavian and a Cyrillic script was introduced in 1940 to distinguish the Moldavian language from Romanian. The issue of Romanian/Moldovan identity, especially the language question, became the initial focus of protest groups in the late 1980s.
The perestroika period
The Popular Front of Moldova (PFM) campaigned for independence and a shift to the promotion of Romanian/Moldovan culture and language. As the drive for independence accelerated, a radical pan-Romanian movement of largely ethnically Moldovan organizations took control of the PFM. Its aim was the ‘restitution of the unitary Romanian state’. Unification with Romania rapidly became the leitmotif of the Popular Front.
Moves to raise the numbers of ethnic Moldovans in the state apparatus and expand the use of the Romanian/Moldovan language intensified. The new language law (31 August 1989) downgraded Russian to ‘the language of inter-ethnic communication’ and Moldovan became the state language. At the same time, plans were announced to replace the Cyrillic script with a Latin one. The position of the radicals was strengthened by success in the February-March 1990 parliamentary elections.
These changes, particularly those involving language, caused alarm among Russian-speakers, especially those in the Transnistria region. The language law provided the catalyst for the creation of opposition organizations among the non-Moldovans, of which the leading ones were: the Unity Internationalist Movement in Defence of Perestroika (Interfront) in Chisinau, the United Council of Work Collectives (OSTK) in towns in eastern Moldova, and the Gagauz Halki in Gagauzia.
Independence and civil war
After independence in August 1991, the Moldovan Communist Party was banned, permitting radical elements in the PFM to dominate republican politics. Efforts at Romanianization and the campaign for unification with Romania were intensified. Following Chisinau’s declaration of independence, the authorities in Tiraspol announced independence for the east bank region of the Dniester (originally termed the Transnistria Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, and since October 1991 the Transnistria Moldovan Republic or PMR), and the Gagauz authorities also established their own republic.
Skirmishes between paramilitary groups from these two regions and Moldovan security forces escalated in 1992 and eventually led to conflict in the summer between the forces loyal to Chisinau and to Tiraspol. Several hundred people were killed. Fighting halted with the intervention of the Russian Fourteenth Army, which was permanently based in the region. The ceasefire negotiated in August 1992 established Russian peacekeeping forces in the region. Negotiations have continued intermittently since that time, sponsored by the OSCE, yet no progress has been achieved towards a final settlement of Transnistria’s future status.
The fighting in Transnistria in 1992 led to important political changes in Moldova. The coalition government that assumed power in July 1992 presented itself as a government of national consensus. The drive for unification with Romania was halted and efforts to Romanianize society slowed. The triumph of the Agrarian Democratic Party (ADP) in the parliamentary elections of early 1994 reinforced the movement to develop a Moldova separate from Romania. The new Constitution (1994) implicitly defined Moldovans as a people distinct from Romanians and Moldova as a multi-ethnic society.
The new correlation of political forces within Moldova following the fighting in 1992 allowed the ethno-political problems of the Gagauz region and the PMR to be addressed. Talks on autonomy for the Gagauz gathered pace from 1994 and led to the creation of a self-governing Gagauz region in early 1995. The complex ethnic mix of the PMR prevented a similar ethno-territorially defined autonomy being offered to the area, although various forms of regional autonomy were put forward by the Moldovan authorities. The continuing presence of the Russian army in the region provided a barrier to reintegrating the PMR into Moldova.
After the conflict of 1992, the Moldovan government sought to ensure the well-being of minorities. Even before the fighting, Moldova had adopted a liberal Citizenship Law (5 June 1991) granting automatic citizenship to those who had held it before 28 June 1940 and to all residents registered before 23 June 1990. Following the fighting of 1992, the Chisinau authorities developed the twin-track strategy of granting cultural autonomy to all minorities (a law on minorities was passed in 1994) and offering territorial autonomy to special-status regions. Underlying these policies is the belief that accommodation could win the loyalty of non-ethnic Moldovan citizens and thereby reinforce the state’s territorial integrity.
Although powerful political forces emerged after 1992 in support of the development of an ethnically inclusive non-Romanian identity, the nature of the Moldovan nation remains contested and subject to political manipulation. In March 1995, large student demonstrations occurred following a decision to teach ‘Moldovan’ rather than ‘Romanian’ national history and to call for the state language to be renamed Romanian instead of Moldovan. In summer 1995, President Snegur repudiated many elements of the distinct Moldovan identity and sought to reintroduce a Romanian definition of Moldova’s language and people.
Through the late 1990s some progress was achieved in Moldova towards genuinely contested elections, political pluralism, legitimate rotations of governments and media freedom. However, Moldovan politics remained highly volatile, with eight governments in power between 1991 and 2001. Desires for stability contributed to the return of the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) to power in 2001, after which Moldovan politics shifted towards a mild form of authoritarianism. The 2003 local elections were considered the worst since Moldovan independence; media freedoms were also increasingly curtailed. While an independent press could be said to have emerged, the Moldovan authorities used regulatory and inspection powers, as well as defamation suits and extra-legal pressures to restrict broadcast media, particularly during politically sensitive periods such as election campaigns. Two leading media outlets, Euro TV and Radio Antena C, had their broadcasting licenses suspended in 2004 for two months after voicing criticism of the government. Tensions also accompanied the creation of a public broadcasting company, with many of the most independent and critical journalists losing their posts in the process. In 2004 Transparency International conducted an experiment to test Moldova’s Law on Access to Information (2000), with the result that some 26 major governmental institutions refused to grant access to public information.
The political course charted by the PCRM also evolved over time. The party increasingly – and paradoxically – aligned itself with pro-Western administrations in the region and distanced itself from Moscow, seen as a sponsor of Transnistrian separatism. The PCRM therefore sought to combine mild authoritarianism at home with an overtly pro-Western foreign policy, particularly during electoral campaigns. In doing so it seeks to capitalize on the two issues on which consensus exists in Moldovan society: future integration with and membership of the European Union, and the resolution of the Transnistria conflict within a framework of Moldovan statehood and territorial integrity.
While the PCRM won the 2009 elections, accusations of electoral fraud led to protests that subsequently became violent and contributed to a protracted state of political instability. New elections were held in 2010, bringing a liberal coalition of parties, the Alliance for European Integration, to power. They managed to retain power in the 2014 elections, but with a narrowing margin and with a significant challenge from the strongly pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), the party with the single largest share of votes. PSRM’s position was further strengthened in 2016, when its leader Igor Dodon won a separate presidential election.
Although officially a parliamentary republic since independence in 1991, Moldovan politics was between 2001 and 2009 dominated by President Vladimir Voronin, leader of the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM), the majority party in Parliament. Despite the historic links with Russia, however, deteriorating relations following a Russian-led proposal to resolve ongoing conflict in Transnistria in 2003 led the government to develop increasingly close ties with the European Union, even while adopting a relatively authoritarian approach in its domestic policies towards civil society and human rights activism.
Since 2009, Moldova has been ruled by a liberal coalition of parties, with the communists in opposition. The 2014 elections saw the pro-European Union alliance of liberal parties hold on to power, but amidst deep divisions and an increase in the share of seats of the PSRM in the opposition at the expense of the PCRM, whose share declined. The PSRM, regarded as strongly pro-Russian, subsequently won the 2016 presidential elections in 2016 on a platform advocating for a strengthening of ties with Russian rather than the EU.
In the Republic of Moldova, the Law on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National Minorities and the Legal Status of their Organizations, no. 382/2001 is the legal framework for minority issues. The law stipulates equal protection before the law of persons belonging to national minorities, and it prohibits any kind of discrimination based on national minority affiliation. The weakness of the legal framework and its implementation explains Moldova’s linguistic educational policies and its limited linguistic integration in general.
The Republic of Moldova is party to seven of the nine core international human rights treaties. The Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities was signed by Moldova in 1995 and ratified in 1996. The Republic of Moldova signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages 2002, though it has not yet been ratified.
In 2012, the Republic of Moldova adopted two important pillars of anti-discrimination legislation: the Law on Ensuring Equality followed by the adoption of the Law on the Activity of the Council for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination. The National Human Rights Action Plan for 2011-2014 was adopted in 2011. The same year, the government adopted the Action Plan to Support the Roma Ethnic Group in the Republic of Moldova for 2011-2015. In 2013, for the first time in Moldova’s history, an advisor to the Prime Minister was appointed whose portfolio included Roma inclusion and minority issues.
The Bureau of Interethnic Relations is a specific government body responsible for state policies toward ethnic minorities. The Coordinating Council of National Minorities functions as an advisory body of the Bureau of Interethnic Relations, with leaders of minority organizations serving as members. The consultation mechanisms with the Coordinating Council are weak, however, and minority organizations are often left out of meaningful consultation over issues concerning minorities.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Moldova Without Nazism
African and Asian immigrants
COTAARM (Comunitatea Originarilor din Tarile Africii si Asiei in Republica Moldova)
Association of the Ukrainian Youth in Moldova ‘Zlagoda’
Sources and further reading
Chinn, J. and Roper, S.D., ‘Ethnic mobilization and reactive nationalism: the case of Moldova’, Nationalities Papers, vol. 23, no. 2, 1995, pp. 291-325.
Dailey, E., Human Rights in Moldova: The Turbulent Dniester, New York, Human Rights Watch, 1993.
European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, Report on Moldova, Strasbourg, November 1999, Council of Europe, retrieved 27 March 2007, http://www.coe.int/t/e/human_rights/ecri/5-archives/1-ecri%27s_work/1-country_by_country/CBC1-Moldova.pdf
Fane, D., ‘Moldova: breaking loose from Moscow’, in I. Bremmer and R. Taras (eds), Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 121-53.
King, Charles. The Moldovans. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1999.
‘Moldova: No Quick Fix.’, August 2003, International Crisis Group, retrieved 27 March 2007, http://www.crisisgroup.org/library/documents/report_archive/A401086_12082003.pdf
‘Moldovan identity and the politics of pan-Romanianism’, Slavic Review, vol. 53, no. 2, 1994, pp. 345-68.
Way, Lucan. ‘Weak States and Pluralism: The Case of Moldova’. East European Politics and Societies 17, no.3 (2003): 454-482.
World Congress on Language Policies website: http://www.linguapax.org/congres/taller/taller3/article23_ang.html
Website: Minorities at Risk Assessment for Slavs in Moldova, http://www.cidcm.umd.edu/inscr/mar/assessment.asp?groupId=35902
Russians and Russian-speakers
Minorities at Risk, Assessment for Slavs in Moldova: http://www.cidcm.umd.edu/inscr/mar/assessment.asp?groupId=35902
Gagauz Place: http://www.geocities.com/ai320/gagauzplace.htm
Gagauziya (Based in Russia, information about the Gagauz in Russian): http://besorabia.narod.ru
Minorities at Risk Assessment for Gagauz in Moldova: http://www.cidcm.umd.edu/inscr/mar/assessment.asp?groupId=35901
Thompson, Paula. ‘The Gagauz in Moldova and their Road to Autonomy’. In Managing Diversity in Plural Societies: Minorities, Migration and Nation-Building in Post-Communist Europe, edited by Magda Opalski. Forum Eastern Europe, 1998.
Donald Leroy Dyer. ‘The Bulgarians of Moldova and Their Language.’ Current Trends in Caucasian, East European and Inner Asian Linguistics, edited by Dee Ann Holisky and Kevin Tuite. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2002; pp. 48-59.
Euro-Asian Jewish Congress: http://www.eajc.org
Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/moldova.html
Minorities and indigenous peoples in