Sunday I walked to the center of Chisinau to see what was going on.
Every day for the past few weeks hundreds or even thousands of people have been demonstrating in the center of Chisinau to protest the communist government's new regulation requiring all students beginning in the second grade to take study two hours of Russian every week. Though this may not seem like an issue worth protesting in the street in the middle of winter, language is a symbolic issue with a long history in Moldova.
Moldova was governed by Russian Tsars in the nineteenth century but following World War I most of the country was given to Romania. The Soviet Union controlled a small portion of Moldova on the eastern side of the Nistru River. Soviet linguists wrote many papers describing how "Moldovan" was a different language than Romanian. They identified words that were used differently and invented different spelling for many words. Most serious academics considered this propaganda.
Romania was on the wrong side for most of World War II so they lost Moldova to the Soviet Union. The Soviets made Russian the State language but permitted schools to operate in Romanian (also called Moldovan). They changed to the Cyrillic alphabet and made other changes. But the language of government and big business was clearly Russian. Russian speakers dominated politics and business.
As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in 1991, one of the first acts of defiance by the Moldovan SSR was to proclaim Romanian as the State language. A main street in Chisinau was named to commemorate that day (31 August Street). The alphabet reverted to the Latin one we use. When Moldova became an independent republic the following year laws were passed requiring all government employees to learn Moldovan.
It is still not clear which language will dominate Moldova. Though Romanian is the language of government, many of the TV and radio shows are in Russian. You can't buy Romanian videotapes, only Russian ones. At the market when I ask in Romanian how much the tomatoes cost, often the answer comes back to me in Russian. Ethnic Romanians still worry about domination by Russians.
There were also European Union flags in the crowd.
Last February the Communist Party prevailed in elections for Parliament and President. One item on their platform was making Russian a second state language, though they said that before doing so they would conduct a referendum on the question.
During the New Years holiday the communist government announced that starting immediately all students from the second grade on would study Russian for two hours each week. The Christian Democrat Popular Party applied for a permit to hold a demonstration in the main square. They were given a permit for a smaller location two blocks away. They held the demonstration in the central square anyway, and marched down the main street blocking traffic for a couple hours. Since then there have been demonstrations almost every day.
The communist government has responded by suspending the party for one month. The party points to a provision of the constitution that permits members of Parliament to hold meetings at government buildings. That is what they say they are doing now. Now the governent has removed the immunity of the Parliament members from the party and threatened to prevent them from participating in local elections in April.
Yesterday the police arrested two university students and accused them of encouraging high school students to join the protest.
People's feelings are high. It is hard to predict what will come next.
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