A political scientist in a leading Russian daily declared that the language-naming law presaged the “liquidation” of Transnistria, an illegal, Russian-occupied enclave on Moldovan territory. The move was part of a broader plot by the United States to divide the world, according to an op-ed in Russia’s top tabloid.
Proponents’ appraisals were no less muted. “We, along with more than 27 million people around the world, speak Romanian, one of the official languages of the European Union,” Sandu declared. According to the Romanian foreign ministry: “The law’s adoption demonstrates the maturity of the Republic of Moldova’s society and its adherence to the space of values on which the European Union is founded.”
But the law won’t change the language (spoken by about 75% of Moldovans.). No new textbooks are required, no new translators, and no republication of documents. The law only changes the label applied to the majority language. Can changing how we define reality without actually changing reality have the impact the Romanians claim and Russians fear?
Since independence, Moldova has embarked on a process (common to countries once occupied by Russia) of de-Russification, renaming Pushkin streets to Stephan cel Mare streets, and replacing monuments to Russian and Soviet leaders with shrines to Romanian Orthodox saints. Officials have discouraged instruction in Russian, and the number of Russian speakers in the country plunged by 30% between 2004 and 2014.
All this occurred against a backdrop of Romanian economic and military ascendance. In 2021, the Romanian GDP per person stood at $15,000. Moldova, before the most recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, was Europe’s poorest country with a GDP per person of $5,000. Romania joined NATO in 2004, spurring a total revamp of the military and hedging against possible foreign intervention. A French-led NATO battlegroup is now stationed there. Moldova remains partially occupied by the Russian army.
The European model in Romania has provided a stark contrast to the Eurasian model preferred by Russia: some 285,000 Moldovans live in Romania, equivalent to a tenth of Moldova’s population, and approaching a third have Romanian passports.
But the majority of Moldova’s industrialization was undertaken by czars and Soviets, so for example Moldovan energy infrastructure is plugged into Russia. Changing that is a long and painful process. Between Russian energy blackmail and the Transnistrian pistol pointed at Chisinau’s head, the Kremlin has managed to have its clients in Moldova’s Bloc of Communists and Socialists in power for much of the past three decades.
The relabeling of the language as Romanian, while perhaps ultimately guided by material aspirations to reach Romanian levels of wealth, speaks much more to the immaterial. Moldova does have a Russian history — through military might and diplomatic acuity, the czar liberated Christian Moldova from Turkish oppression in the 19th century. While proto-fascist Romania grabbed the land in the anarchy of the Russian Revolution, it was just two decades before the Soviets returned in 1940.
The threat to Moldovan sovereignty and identity always originates in the West, and only the strength and power emanating from Moscow can arrest it. Moldova’s language places the country in a narrative of Russian liberation, with the current Western inclination an aberration, while a return to Russia is an inevitable reversion to the mean. Or so says Russia.
Romanian identity posits a radically different narrative: a history stretching back to the Romans and uniting Moldova with Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal. Moldovans’ separation from their ethnic brethren is a historical accident, the unfortunate result of existence on the borderlands between Russia and the Ottoman Sublime Porte. The threat to Romanian unity has always come from far-flung empires seeking to expand their grip. The Romanian language fits the country into the western European story, with Russian bullying and subjugation a temporary aberration.
The renaming of a language may not change reality by itself. But the narratives people accept can radically change their behavior, as this author argued in his last piece. The results of this process can alter material reality, far more than all of Gazprom and RT’s threats put together.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis on how states manipulate the web.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.