Moldova: Attack on Journalist Causes Online Debate on “Language Issue”

An incident of violence against a Moldovan journalist has brought about active online discussions regarding the long-protracted animosities between the Moldovan majority and the small Russian minority in the country.

The discord goes deep into history, as Moldova was once an integral part of the Romanian nation and later, during the Second World War, was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union for almost 50 years. On August 27, 2011, Moldova will mark its 20th year of independence, but disagreements between the ethnic Moldovan population and the Russian-speaking minority flare up from time to time regarding the use of the Russian language.

On many occasions, representatives of the Russian-speaking minority have refused to speak the official language of the country [the official language in Moldova is Romanian (called Moldovan in the Constitution)] and commanded the local population to speak Russian. Russian is not an official language in Moldova, but is widely spoken by ethnic minorities, in particular in the unrecognized separatist region of Transnistria and in the autonomous entity of Gagauz Yeri. The political elite, busy with the ongoing domestic disputes, has not made attempts of bridging the inter-ethnic gap over the years and so far has not reacted to this case.

Journalist Oleg Brega from Curaj TV was attacked on July 29 at the Slavonic University of Moldova, where he was investigating the case of a student encountering problems with her request to transfer to another university. At the journalist’s insistence to obtain some answers from the university's administration, the executive director of the university, Andrei Babenco, demanded that the journalist speak Russian. The journalist said he understood Russian, but asked if Babenco could speak Romanian, and the latter replied that he couldn't and wouldn't speak Romanian, and then, all of a sudden, hit the journalist and his camera when Brega asked why he didn’t speak Romanian.

Brega was recording everything, and the attack on him continued, as the executive director and several of his colleagues continued to hit and insult him while also trying to take away his documents and make him stop videotaping (attack scenes at 1:36; 2:30). The journalist was also continuously threatened and prevented from leaving the premises of the university. He called the police, who then took control over the situation.

Before the case was mentioned by the mainstream media, the online community had organised a flashmob at the university. On August 1, equipped with video-recording devices and extracts from the Constitution, youth activists came to the Slavonic University and started filming the university, to show solidarity with the harassed journalist. The young people were also attacked by the university employees, who appeared irritated by the fact that they were being filmed. As a result, one of the participants was taken away his camera by a university representative. It was again necessary for the police to intervene.

Oleg Brega, the attacked journalist, drew attention to the fact that the inter-ethnic divide should not be the sole focus of this case, which is, according to him, also a severe case of basic human rights violations. However, online debates have focused mainly on the use of the Russian language in the country.

Vitalie Cojocari felt humiliation. He wrote [ro]:

I felt once again the secular whip of the secular Russian whistling in the air and hitting me painfully across my cheek. Because that director did not only hit Oleg Brega. That individual, for whom prison is crying, has hit all Romanian-speakers from Moldova, regardless of whether they call it Moldovan or not.

He went on:

It is damn complicated to ask a Russian from Moldova to speak your language. Any such attempt is harshly sanctioned. Russians need to be respected, after all we are a multi-ethnic nation, so they have rights. But will no one speak about obligations? No. Why? Because if you ask Russians to learn Romanian you are called a “fascist pig.”

In another blog post, the same author ascertains [ro], as he comments on another issue (the autonomous entity Gagauz Yeri has demanded the Moldovan Government to issues their correspondence to the region in Russian):

[…] the Romanian language is again subject to a terrible pressure. It is like we are going back to before ’89 [on August 31, 1989, Moldova switched from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin script]. Damn situation! What the hell is happening with our little country, where no minority group, Russian, Gagauz, Jewish, Ukrainian, Armenian, speaks our language? We have ended up being a minority in our country. Where did we go wrong, brothers, that no one loves our language?

Tudor Cojocariu opines [ro] that the “ethnic conflict is still to be found at the roots of many aggressions and violence that are happening around us”:

And who knows how many such USSR-type situations of sad reminiscence and of [“thieves in law”] are taking place right in front of us and we just look down and lie to ourselves that tomorrow everything will be alright, while knowing at the same time that neither the Romanian Moldovan majority, nor the Russian minority will go anywhere. It all has to do with adaptation and it is clear that never the majority will adapt to the minority, even if the latter is imperial, frustrated and full of complexes, because they have ended up being a minority where once there was a false “big Soviet motherland.”

Another blogger, Denis Cenusa, wrote this [ro]:

Any hesitation or delay in discussing the status of the Russian language, the methods to integrate Russian-speakers into the society and the measures to efficiently and permanently interconnect the linguistic communities will, in the future, result in serious problems for national security, including the European path of the Republic of Moldova.

“20 years have passed. MOLDOVA, WAKE UP!”, concluded [ro] a blog entry of Andrei Fornea.

Moldovan media NGOs have issued a statement, expressing their concern regarding the incident at the Slavonic University and qualifying it as unacceptable for a democratic society.


  • The sad irony is that it sounds like there’s plenty of room for compromise and accommodation on everyone’s part. They only need to show the necessary will, maturity and courage. The lack of official status for Russian is honestly bewildering, as that seems like a natural first concession to any talks with Transnistria. Even west of the Dniester, it will be decades before Russian has a small demographic footprint. It’s only natural for Romanian-Moldovans to remember the indignities they suffered before ’89, but that will never happen again, and frankly the greatest danger to the survival of their language is not resident minorities but rather their own mass-exodus abroad. If anything, their memories of Soviet times should help them empathize with the position of minorities today, now that Moldova has its independence.

    On a more case-specific level, this Babenco is clearly a thug and a disgrace to any community unlucky enough to count him among its ranks. It doesn’t matter whether the issue being discussed is Romanian vs. Russian or whether Connery or Craig is the better James Bond… You just don’t attack someone–journalist or otherwise–in response to a question.

  • Jake,

    the problem with giving Russian official status is that it would be the death knell for the Romanian language on its native soil. The Russian language is so pervasive and Russian cultural influence so aggressive that Romanian simply couldn’t survive without the advantage of being the single state language.

    You should note also that Russian does have official status in Moldova, as the “language of inter-ethic communication”, and that Russian speakers are able to study, watch TV & interact with Government in their native language. They have no legitimate complaint.

    The native Moldovan majority, on the other hand, is frequently forced to use the minority’s language (because of the minority’s refusal to learn the majority’s language). and this is an intolerable situation. It is the Russophone position which needs to move, not that of the native population.

  • Mitch

    Guys, learn the history, please or be honest about the facts.

    Please try to do some research and answer a very simple question: at the time when Moldova got “annexed” by USSR – for how many years before that was Moldova a part of Romania. The answer may shock you. Or it may well be that you already know the answer and choose to ignore the history in writing of your article. The simple facts about Moldova’s history tend to be ignored, when it gets repeated by anyone from the west who doesn’t want to do any real digging. It does provide other benefits as well – makes the story so much more dramatic and, apparently, black and white.

    What complicated the situation, is the fact that Russians, Ukranians and ethnic Jews have always been a part of its population, including the majority of its population in the cities. This has been the case long before the USSR “annexation”. To this day, the capital of moldova, excluding the small towns that got annexed to it, is majority russian speakers.

    I am against any violence, including the violence against journalists. But it doesn’t seem that the journalist got exactly what he wanted – a sensational article that the world is going to see.

    Again, please try to do your own research on Moldova’s history that goes beyone 20th century – that’s all I ask.


  • Mitch,

    Here are the facts:

    From 1812 to 1917 present day Moldova was part of the Russian empire, and it was during this time that the initial wave of Russian immigration began. The empire also facilitated the immigration of other ethnic groups (Bulgarians, Jews, Gagauz etc.).

    Russians and Jews have not, therefore, “always been a part of Moldova’s population”. Furthermore, the Capital Chisinau is no longer populated by a majority of Russian speakers, although I concede that this was the case at the last Soviet census in 1989.

    Up until the 1812 annexation Moldova’s population was by and large of Moldovan / Romanian origin, with the only significant minority being Ukrainians.

    You should also note that the 1812 annexation by Russia was illegal, as the Ottoman empire did not have the right to cede the territory of a suzerain state (the Prinicipality of Moldova).

  • Mitch,

    This is not an article about the history of Moldova (the brief reference to history is meant to give a general understanding to a global reader), however if you refer to facts and honesty, you should avoid writing annexed in quotes as you did [“annexed”], because there is no historical debate over the fact that Moldova, the Baltic states, etc. have been occupied by the Soviet Union and were subjected to a policy of denationalization, unless of course you refer to one-sided “historical” perspective taken from Soviet style propaganda books.

    Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, is not a prevalent Russian speaking city, as you claim. The official language in the country is Romanian/Moldovan and all minorities should learn it, because their own languages are respected and all conditions (schools, universities, TV programmes, etc.) are created for the ethnic minorities living in Moldova to preserve their ethnic traditions and culture.


  • Vitaky

    The article and the subsequent discussion demonstrate how drastically the picture changes depending upon how much history (and geography) one takes into account. The author conveniently chose to disregard the fact that present-day Republic Moldova was part of Romania for only 22 years (1918-1940). When they are confronted with this fact the advocates of the Romanian cause in Moldova and Transnistria speak about tsarist “denationalization” policies, but fail to take geography into consideration: at no point prior to Soviet 1940 “annexation” did Transnistria make part of the principality of Moldova. After Russian annexation of Bessarabia (the 19th century name for present day Republic Moldova) in 1812, Russian, Ukrainian, German, Bulgarian and Jewish “colonizers” were moved in to replace the Tatars, not the Moldavians/Romanians. The latter were never predominant in the south of the country prior to 1812 and did not make the majority of the urban population (to the extent it is possible to speak of cities at all prior to the 19th century) .

    Lungu’s and “Zimbru’s” historical arguments can be easily contested. The Ottoman Empire did not become part of the European concert until 1856 and thus in 1812 it was not subject to anything comparable to present-day international law. On the other hand, before surrendering Bessarabia (19th century name for present day Republic Moldova) to Russia in 1812, it similarly disposed of the territory of the Romanian territories on at least two occasions. In 1718 and 1774, it gave, respectively, Western Oltenia and Bucovina to the Habsburg Monarchy. The argument that the Ottoman Empire had no “right” to surrender Bessarabia simply does not hold water.

    As to the Soviet policy of “denationalization,” there were enough “schools, universities, TV programmes” in Romanian/Moldavian prior to 1989 to produce tens of thousands native intellectuals who hardly existed before 1940. In fact back in the 1930s, Diana Lungu would have hard time to find job in Chisinau as a journalist since the most of the newspapers there were published in Russian even though Moldova at that time made part of the Romanian nation-state. In this respect, the author of the article and countless other champions of the Romanian language in Moldova since 1989 are living illustrations of how much the Soviet regime did not actually promote the national intelligentsias. They are typical Soviet products, however much they may be loath to recognize this fact.

    One final note about present day situation: it is difficult to say whether Romanian or Russian language currently predominates in the city of Chisinau. It is absolutely clear though that the current “pro-Romanian” mayor, Dorin Chirtoaca, wound not have gotten re-elected last June had it not been for the overwhelmingly Romanian/Moldavian villages that for some reason make part of the Chisinau’s municipality.
    Best regards,

  • Vitaky,

    One needs to stop breathing through a narrow strip of history and the respective one-sided narrow arguments.

    Borders and territories have been shifted and changed throughout history. For the record, Transnistria was created exactly after Basarabia’s unification with Romania with the single goal of claiming Basarabia back into the Russian and Soviet empire, which, as the history teaches us, has succeeded and continued with even stronger denationalization policies.

    I wish there was no artificially created Transnistria and present day Moldova would have access to the sea, but, borders are changed, reality is like we inherited it from the past. However, the future is happening now when Republic of Moldova is an independent state with a Moldovan/Romanian population, where ethnic minorities, including Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians and others need to integrate into the society, including through learning the Romanian language.

    One-sided positions on things, especially as sensitive as identity and nation, can only lead to narrow and limited solutions.

    Thank you for your understanding,

  • Vitaky

    Dear Diana,

    Indeed, Transnistria was created in 1924 in order to bring Bessarabia back into the Soviet fold, but such a design was hardly criminal in itself. Let us not forget that the USSR never recognized the Romanian border on the Dniester in and did not sign any treaty with the Romanian government to that effect, in contrast to the treaties that is signed with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in 1920-1921. By the way, the Western powers had their qualms about the legality of the 1918 unification and pressed the Ion I. C. Bratianu government to organize referendum in Bessarabia. The Romanian government refused because they were far from sure that the population of Bessarabia will confirm the decision forced upon the members of Sfatul Tarii (Council of the Country) in April 1918 by the presence of Romanian troops and a bomber flying over the present day department of Philology of Moldova State University, where the voting took place. All of it makes the notorious pact of Molotov-Ribbentrop, less notorious with respect to Romania than it was with respect to other countries, who found their territory occupied by the Soviets in 1939-1940. As to the redrawing of the administrative boundaries that followed, one thing is clear: Moldova without Transnistria, but with an access to the Black Sea would not be ethnically more homogeneous than it presently is because Moldavians/Romanians did not predominate among the population of Ismail, Bolgrad and Belgorod-Dnestrovsk either before or after 1812.

    “One-sided positions on things” result from uncritically accepted national historical narratives. However, in the case of Moldova at the beginning of the 21st century, belated nation-building, is a “narrow and limited” solution for at least two reasons: 1) an aspiring nation-state has to be able to constitute a life-horizon for its citizens in economic terms. Unless there are prospects of economic betterment, citizens will vote massively with their feet and emigrate (temporarily or permanently) in search of such prospects elsewhere, which precisely what Moldavian citizens do (regardless of ethnicity); 2) an aspiring nation state should, well, aspire to become a nation-state, i. e. Moldova’s current rulers should not be of two minds as to whether their country should continue to exist independently or unite with its Western neighbour. Little wonder that the minorities and sizable parts of the ethnic majority fail to respond to the policies of integration promoted by someone who prefers Romanian citizenship to the membership in Moldavian parliament!

    Best regards,


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