At first glance, Chisinau—the capital of the Republic of Moldova—is a relatively typical post-Soviet city in Eastern Europe. Aging Soviet-style apartment blocks loom over colorful fast-food restaurants and westernized cafes; white minibuses called marshrutkas share the streets with both Soviet-era trolleybuses and sleek new European cars. Amidst this familiar landscape of a city caught between two eras and identities, which can be encountered across the post-Soviet space, one relatively new—and unique—feature stands out: small kiosks scattered sporadically throughout the city, painted in red, yellow, and blue, the colors of the Moldovan and Romanian flags.
(photo by Alexandra Price)
Walking up to a kiosk one afternoon, I saw a boy sitting with a collection of flyers, which were organized in neat stacks on the table in front of him. Written in Romanian, the flyers sported slogans such as “Sign to support unification!” and “What unites us with Romania?” Though the movement for the unification of Moldova and Romania has existed since the final years of the Soviet era, its popularity has waxed and waned. However, with 2018 marking the hundred-year anniversary of the original formation of “Greater Romania,” the movement for unification has regained momentum. “Greater Romania,” as the twenty-two-year union between the two countries is fondly remembered by many supporters of unification, rose from the ashes of the World War I. After the Russian Empire lost control over its east European territories as a result of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, Moldova briefly became independent, and then voted to become a part of Romania.
“May I take one, please?” I asked in Russian, pointing at one of the flyers and hoping my polite formulation would somewhat lessen the impact of the undesirable language––the “language of the oppressor,” in the eyes of some Romanian nationalists. To no avail—the boy stayed silent. He slowly reached for two flyers, handed them to me, and sent me off with a nod. I got the message.
“La revedere,” I offered with a wave as I walked away. Goodbye in Romanian. The boy smiled weakly in reply—a small victory.
The so-called “language question” is not usually so visible in Chisinau, where I have spent over eleven months living and speaking primarily Russian over the past few years. In fact, in comparison to language policies in other post-Soviet states, Moldova’s approach is relatively measured. In recent years, Estonia has begun to crack down on Russian-language schools, requiring that material be taught primarily in Estonian and sending inspectors to evaluate teachers’ fluency in Estonian. Georgia, bitter over the history of Georgian-Russian relations—not least about the war that reached its ten-year-anniversary this year—has recently switched to a Georgian-English bilingual system, abandoning the Soviet lingua franca that prevailed in the country for nearly seventy years.
In Moldova as a whole, in contrast, Russian-speakers live relatively comfortably to this day, despite the nationalist sentiment that emerged just before the fall of the Soviet Union and gripped Moldova for the next few years. As glasnost took hold in the late 1980s, Moldovan writers and journalists began to speak publicly, as their contemporaries in the Baltic states had begun to do, about the forced Russification of their country. Street names were changed—for example, Lenin boulevard became Stefan cel Mare boulevard, recognizing one of Moldova’s greatest historical figures from the 14th century—and Russian signs around the city were gradually replaced with their Romanian equivalents. In Moldova, the initial movement against the Russian language was tempered by the country’s ethnic and linguistic diversity—according to the 1989 census, only around 65 percent of Moldova’s population was ethnically Moldovan, with ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and several other nationalities making up the other 35 percent. Moreover, Russian was the primary language of virtually all of the minority populations, either as the native tongue or as a lingua franca. As a result, instead of trying to completely replace Russian with Romanian in 1989, Moldovan politicians chose to pass a law requiring all workers working with customers to speak both Russian and Romanian. In this way, they hoped to give both languages equal status before the law.
There are some, however, who have always seen such moves as first steps towards the eventual integration of Moldova into “Greater Romania.” In the late 1980s, the Popular Front of Moldova, a political party that initially pushed for Moldovan sovereignty, began advocating for Moldova to reject its Soviet history and “return to its roots”—that is, to return to Romania. It was at this moment that the modern unionist movement in Moldova was born.
“We’re Romanians, and that’s that,” Iurie Rosca, one of the original leaders of the Popular Front, explained to me in 2016. We sat in his office in the center of Chisinau, a small, dimly-lit room filled with worn books and cigarette smoke. I listened attentively as he recounted both the sensation of joy and pride in his native language that overwhelmed him during glasnost, and the sobering wisdom that dawned on him years later about the flaws in the Popular Front’s nationalist approach.
“We’re Romanians, and that’s that,” Rosca said, “but what do you do if the majority doesn’t think so?
Rosca’s point is reflected by public opinion polls dating from 1990 all the way up to the current day. Within this time frame of nearly thirty years, the amount of Moldovans who said they would vote in favor of unification has generally hovered around 20–25 percent, according to polls by various international organizations. In 1990, when the Popular Front was most actively advancing its pro-Romanianization policies, the number was even lower—according to scholar L.E. Repida, only 5 percent supported unification at the time. In Romania, the situation initially looked similar—while Romanians share a language and culture with Moldovans, the issue was not a primary political cause for many people.
Thus, for many supporters of unification, the centenary of the two countries’ prior union seems to present the perfect opportunity to revisit a long-deferred dream.
In preparation for the hundred-year anniversary this year, a Facebook group called Unirea 2018 was created by an NGO called “Unirea ODIP,” which stands for “Union—Honor, Dignity, and Homeland.” Around sixteen thousand people are in the group and over seventy-six thousand follow the Unirea ODIP page. The page has two primary functions—the first is to serve as a space in which Romanian nationalists can gather, share anecdotes, and post motivational quotes and photos highlighting the brotherhood between the Romanian and Moldovan nations. The second, more important function is to help organize protests.
Though Unirea ODIP has organized several pro-unification protests throughout the year (including one that is coming up on October 21), the most striking images emerged from the gathering that took place in Chisinau on March 25, 2018, two days before the official hundred-year anniversary of the birth of “Greater Romania.” Several thousands of people came from small villages around Moldova to attend the protest, holding up Romanian flags with the names of their towns and regions written in black marker. Soroca votează unirea! (Soroca votes for unification!), one of the signs read. Leading up to the protest on March 25, around 150 localities did the same, and their mayors signed symbolic statements of union with Romania.
Pro-unionist sentiment has picked up on the other side of the border, as well. Soon after the March 25 protest in Chisinau—which was attended by former Romanian president Traian Banescu in a symbolic gesture of support—a more official stamp of approval came from Bucharest: on March 27, the Romanian parliament voted that if Moldova were to choose unification, Romania would welcome them with open arms. According to a poll from 2015, over 65 percent of Romanians supported this move. In many ways, in March of this year, it may have seemed to outside observers that unification between the two east European countries was becoming inevitable. However, two critical obstacles continue to stand in the way of unification. Unirea’s first major opponent is the current political leadership of Moldova, which has come out categorically against the idea of reunification. President Igor Dodon, a pro-Russian politician from the socialist party, even went so far as to call the movement for unification a “political plague” that was responsible for creating divisions in Moldovan society. As is often the case in post-Soviet states, politics frequently come down to the pro-Europe or pro-Russia divide—part of the reason Dodon opposes unification is because he supports the strengthening of political and economic relations with Russia instead.Yet many pro-Europeans in Moldova oppose unification as well. Prime Minister Pavel Filip, for instance, who is tied to the pro-European coalition in Moldova and hopes to see the country join the EU in the coming years, is no friendlier to the idea than Dodon. “Too much has been said about reunification, identity, language,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “I want to look at the concrete development of the country.” The official United States position is similar to that of Filip. Back in 2016, US Ambassador James Pettit disappointed many pro-Unionists by stating in an interview that “Moldova is not Romania,” and that Moldova should seek more practical solutions to its economic and political woes than unification with its neighbor.
More significant than opposition of political elites, however, is that the percentage of Moldovans supporting reunification has remained steady—despite the large turnout at protests and symbolic declarations of union, still less than a third of Moldovans actually support the movement. This statistic highlights a major element of the reunification debate—namely, that the way one views Moldova’s national identity as a whole is often based upon individual regional, linguistic, and ethnic identities. While many in Moldova do identify as ethnic Romanians, there are still many minority groups within the country who have a different relationship to the “language question.” For example, though many Russian speakers left Moldova during the pro-Unionist period after the fall of the Soviet Union, many in Moldova still consider Russian their native language, especially in the semi-autonomous Gagauz region of Moldova, where three languages—Russian, Romanian, and Gagauz, a minority Turkic language—are considered “official languages” in the eyes of regional law. In 1994, the Moldovan government reached an agreement with Gagauzia regarding its semi-autonomy, but if Moldova were to unite with Romania, it is unclear what would become of this arrangement. Romania’s policies towards linguistic minorities are not nearly as flexible as Moldova’s, in part due to fears of separatist Hungarian-speaking populations in the northern part of the country, and this would likely affect the new nation’s policies regarding Gagauzia.
The situation with Transnistria, the separatist region on Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine, is even more complicated. Ever since Transnistria declared itself independent from Moldova in 1990 in response to anti-Russian language policies, the territorial conflict has stood as a barrier to Moldova’s economic growth, its perspectives for joining the European Union, and the possibility of unification with Romania, the latter of which would almost certainly make the conflict unresolvable.
But even looking beyond the particularly acute territorial conflicts within Moldova that have been fought over language and identity, it is unclear what unification would mean for the large number of Moldovans who, in their personal lives, tread the line between two identities—Romanian on the one hand, and Russian on the other. For much of its history, Moldova has been on the border line between Russian- and Romanian-speaking civilizations. For this reason, even today, a majority of Moldovans are bi- or trilingual, and many of them use a mix of languages in their everyday lives, whether to communicate with friends, family, people on the street, or even just to watch a wider variety of television programs.
This summer, while having lunch with a colleague of mine, the “language question” came up. His response struck me as typical—for him, speaking Russian wasn’t a political statement. He simply liked to speak Russian at times because he could express himself in a different way than he could in Romanian. No better, no worse—simply different. When I watched the way a ten-year-old girl switched with ease between Russian, Romanian, and English with me, picking and choosing her idioms from each language to fit her needs, or even as I struggled to translate typical Russian sayings into English for my friends and family at home, I had to agree with him. Multilingualism, is in many ways, Moldova’s advantage, and for thousands of Moldovans—regardless of which nationality they identify with—it is a central part of life.
When I interviewed Rosca about the history of unionism in Moldova, I was taken on a journey through the memories of a passionate young activist. I listened as Rosca recalled with emotion the firm belief that he and his compatriots had in what they were doing in the early 1990s. Righting the wrongs of the past generation, reclaiming their native language that had been suppressed for years. Later, the painful realization that perhaps they acted too rashly and tried to push too far, too fast. His eyes sparkling with energy, he extinguished his last cigarette and explained his conclusion: “We have always been a part of something bigger … We have viewed ourselves as the appendix of Romania or of the Soviet Union. The time has come to grow up. And to grow up—it’s a spiritual mission, not just a geopolitical, intellectual exercise of some sort. No, it’s spiritual.”
Ultimately, the brotherhood and friendship between the Moldovan and Romanian nations is undeniable. Only time, however, will show whether Moldova chooses to embark on its own spiritual mission of self-discovery or to continue to seek its identity in a Romanian future or a Soviet past.
All photos provided by the author.
Alexandra C. Price
Alexandra Price is a third-year History and Russian Eastern European Studies double major particularly interested in the Cold War and modern developments in the former Eastern Bloc. As the 2016 recipient of the Gate's annual Reporting Grant, she spent a summer in Germany reporting on refugee integration in Berlin. When she's not writing for the Gate, Alexandra loves to study foreign languages, read, and take long bike rides around the city.