Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

August Books 15) The Moldovans: Romania, Russia and the Politics of Culture, by Charles King

A decade after it was published, this remains the most serious examination of the identity of the people(s) of Moldova, the little-known ex-Soviet republic wedged between Romania and Ukraine, and of its breakaway Transdniestria region, a thin strip along the Ukrainian border. Most of the territory of what is now Moldova, lying between the rivers Prut and Dniester, was in the old territory known as Bessarabia, annexed by the Russian Empire in 1812 and then by the much enlarged Kingdom of Romania in 1918, and then by the Soviet Union in 1940, reclaimed by Romania in 1941 and finally again by the Soviets in 1944. (Transdniestria's history is linked but more complicated.) The majority of the population speaks a language described as Moldovan, but now acknowledged to be identical to Romanian; the cities and town, however, have tended to be concentrations of Russians, Ukrainians, and in earlier periods Jews. In the south of the country there are large districts where the local language is either Bulgarian or Gagauz, which is related to Turkish.

The subject of King's book is the story of how and to what extent a separate Moldovan consciousness has developed, even though the attempts to produce a separate language failed. The Soviet Union attempted to establish Moldovan, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, as a literary standard, and it simply didn't work; Romanian orthography is not easily adapted to Cyrillic (a memorable example is the case of Mr Mîţă, whose six children were all given different Cyrillic surnames by the hospital officials filling out their birth certificates). But at the same time, accepting the Romanian literary standard for their language did not mean seeking Romanian unification for their territory, even before taking into consideration the views of the large percentage of non-Romanian speakers in the population.

(It's an interesting comment on the state of such debates in Eastern Europe that so many observers thought - and some still think - that unification with Romania is inevitable. In Belgium, Walloons and Flemings use the literary standard languages of our neighbours without becoming French or Dutch, and likewise in Switzerland. The Kosovars have no hesitation about describing themselves as Albanian, but like the Moldovans are more than wary of unification with their neighbours. Ireland's use of English is slightly different because of the survival of an indigenous and separate language; while the Ulster Scots boondoggle is likely to go the way of Soviet Moldavian. But it's also striking that the languages formerly known as Serbo-Croat have established themselves rather more credibly, even if Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Montenegrins remain entirely able to understand each other.)

Transdniestria, Moldova's separatist region, is a different matter. Although its sympathisers like to portray the issue as an ethnic one between the Slavic loyalties of the Transdniestrians and the supposed Romanian revanchism of Chişinău, thus fitting the same template as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, it's actually more a case of the local elite, who used to run things - none of the top brass in the Communist Party was from the Bessarabian side of the river before 1989 - refusing to accept the new state of affairs post-independence. Unlike the leaders of Katanga or Biafra, they won the war, but have yet to win the peace (and indeed the vibes from Moscow lately cannot be terribly encouraging for Tiraspol). The one serious ethnic issue in Moldova was the problem of the Gagauz, but they have settled for local autonomy; their slightly more numerous Bulgarian neighbours have accepted integration (the prime minister before last was from their ranks).

I produced three reports on Moldova in my time at ICG, and apart from them (and Tony Hawks' Playing the Moldovans at Tennis) there's not a lot out there; and King's book is still the taproot for most analysis of the country. But it is a very interesting and somewhat peculiar story in its own right, as a matter of general interest.
Tags: bookblog 2010, world: moldova

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