Quick Hit - Parliament Votes on Romanian vs "Moldovan" Language
Language politics come to the fore in Chisinau
Last week Parliament voted to officially recognize the national language as “Romanian” and not “Moldovan.” The vote throws language politics, a common proxy for the East-West culture war, back into the fore. The law has passed the first vote in Parliament and sparked protests for opposition Socialist and Communist Parties.
Why does this matter?
Language politics have long been source of tension in Moldova. Following long suppression of the Romanian language under the Soviet Union, Moldova embraced the return of the language and latin script in the 90s… but with compromises. Officially, the state language is not Romanian, and the language people speak is referred to alternately as “Moldovan,” “The State Language” or “Limba noastră” (our language). These workarounds served as compromises between those who wanted to keep the legacy (aka Soviet) “Moldovan” language and those who want to call the language Romanian. PAS is attempting to finally put the issue to bed, but has stirred passions in the process.
The History of this political issue is one of twists, turns and contradictions.
During the Russian Empire, and then in the Soviet Period there were various official policies designed to linguistically and culturally separate Bessarabia and later the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic from Romania. In the interwar period, Romania and Moldova were united and Soviet officials sought to create separation between the countries. This included stating the Moldova had a totally separate language “Moldovan” which was written in a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet.
In the Declaration of Independence on August 31, 1989 the authors included the phrase "the proclamation of the Romanian language as the state language and the return of the Latin alphabet to it."
The Moldovan Constitution, when adopted 4 years later in 1994 stated that “The official language of the Republic of Moldova is the Moldovan language, which functions on the basis of the Latin script." Returning to the Soviet era formulation.
Political lightening rod - for all the years since the issue has lingered as a political divider. Generally speaking the population has been divided with the more urban and educated population calling the language “Romanian,” and the more rural population preferring “Moldovan.” The divide overlapped other divides between soviet nostalgia and pro-Russian sentiment and more pro-European political groups. It is also a favorite issue of Unionists (who favor Moldova reuniting with Romania) which attaches language politics to the true 3rd rail of Moldovan politics - Unionism.
In 2013 the Constitutional Court inserted itself into the debate ruling that the Declaration of Independence trumped the constitution and therefore the national language is Romanian. Their Ruling said:
According to the Preamble of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Moldova constitutes a single whole with the Constitution, being the initial and unshakable constitutional text of the constitutional bloc.
In case of conflict between the text of the Declaration of Independence and the text of the Constitution, the original constitutional text of the Declaration of Independence shall prevail.
In spite of the 2013 ruling, the status quo in state documents and laws has persisted until today with the language alternately called “Moldovan” or “The State Language.”
What is PAS Doing?
PAS lacks the votes of 2/3 of members of parliament to enact a constitutional change. Furthermore, it is unconstitutional to change the constitution when the country is in a “State of Emergency.” With this reality, PAS deputies have chosen a rather novel workaround introducing a bill the "implements the ruling of the Constitutional Court." Effectively, PAS is seeking to rely on the Constitutional Court ruling of 2013 to allow the implementation of the change with a simple majority vote.
The proposed law would make the following changes:
Update all legislation and regulation to say “Romanian language” and not “Moldovan” or “State” language.
Recognize Article 13 of the Constitution referring to the [Moldovan] language "functioning on the basis of the Latin script" as obsolete
Change the national language holiday "Limba Noastră" to become "Limba Română"
PAS Deputies passed the legislation in the first reading on March 2nd over protests and objections (and minor fights) with the Communist and Socialist Parties. The legislation will now got to a period of public comment before the second reading, after which it will be law.
The introduction and passage of this bill has torn open the language issue and well trodden talking points of the last 30 years are being brought back out.
On March 6th the Communist and Socialist parties protested in front of the Constitutional Court with people chanting "We are Moldovans”, “Respect the Constitution.”
Vladimir Voronin, leader of the Communists, has said that any change of this type should be done with a national referendum. Socialist MPs are decrying the law as unconstitutional.
PAS MP Radu Marian summed up the pro-Romanian language argument by asking what the difference between "bună ziua" (good day) in Romanian and "bună ziua" in Moldovan is? He further stated:
“It is simply ridiculous how it is possible that the scientific, legal, historical and moral fact that Romanian is spoken in Moldova is still in doubt. This is the result of brainwashing during the Soviet occupation and communist rule in 2001-2009. It's time to leave this "debate" in the past and get down to business,"
What Comes Next?
The bill will likely continue to be hotly debated until it is passed in the 2nd reading, which PAS MPs have indicated that they fully intend to do in the near future. Experts generally agree that the mechanism PAS is using is “unusual” but their position is fairly strong as well. Ultimately, the issue will likely be kicked back to the Constitutional Court.
The Big Picture
It’s not clear why PAS chose this moment to jump into the middle of a political divisive issue and introduce this bill. That said, it is likely that PAS is hoping that by relying on the Constitutional Court’s own 2013 precedent, and their current parliamentary majority, they can put the issue to bed forever. On the other hand, if the Court pushes back for any reason then we can expect endless statements and arguments about language politics going forward.
Fundamentally, this issue is about identity. There is no credible argument that the language spoken by the majority of Moldovans is different than Romanian. Linguistically this is as true as the fact that Americans speak “English” while not being English (and while doing funny things like leaving off the “s” in Maths). But as a question of identity, the choice of what to call the language is bundled up in a lot of history and political arguments decades long.
Author’s Note: Hey everyone! So we’re going to be doing more Quick-Hits in this form going forward. Originally the format was designed to take a single issue and break it down in a concise way. The main focus will be issues that are complicated but important and on their own threaten to overwhelm the Weekly Roundup. During the last year the format has become more of an emergency response to breaking news. Going forward it will be a bit of both - let us know what you think!
We love what you are doing and we especially love this article on language.
David, as a language teacher I am saddened to see language used as a political football in this day and age. There may be more linguistic differences between the residents of Texas and Minnesota than between those of Moldova's capital and rural residents. But yet we don't say they speak Texan or Minnesotan (well, I guess there are a few Texans who would dispute that!) It seems that the official name is just being used as a way to score points for one side or the other. People are still going to speak the same way they always have. Thank you for this interesting article and historical perspective.