Alternative names: Romanians, Bessarabians
Location: Moldavia (south-west USSR), other parts of USSR, Romania
Population: 3 million (USSR census 1979) 3.3 million (est. 1989)
% of population: 1.1% (1979 and est. 1989)
Religion: Orthodox Christianity
Language: Moldavian (a dialect of Romanian), Russian

The Moldavians have no recent history as an independent nation and many consider themselves to be Romanian to whom they certainly are closely related ethnically, culturally and linguistically. They represent something of an anomaly among Soviet republics, belonging to neither the Slav, Baltic, Central Asian nor Caucasian geographical groupings. The only major Latin minority within the USSR, the Moldavians are especially sensitive to Russification policies as recent events in the Republic have demonstrated.

History and background

Since losing its independence in the sixteenth century, Moldavia has been dominated in turn by the Ottoman Turks, the Russian Empire, Romania and the USSR. Its strategic position on the Dniester and Prut rivers along the Black Sea coast made it the centuries-long object of struggle between the Turks and the Russians, until the latter won control in 1812. Although Soviet power was declared throughout Moldavia after the October Revolution in 1917, Bessarabia was lost to Romania during the Civil War. In 1924 the remaining part of Moldavia was proclaimed an autonomous republic within the Ukrainian SSR. On the seizure of Bessarabia in 1940, the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was formed. Overrun by Axis troops in World War II, Moldavia was liberated by the Red Army in 1944. Since the war there has been substantial Russian and Ukrainian immigration into the Republic. Although it has the highest population density of any Union Republic in the USSR, its population is the most rural (59% in 1981) in European Russia.

Constitution and law

In theory the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (population 4.3 million in 1989) is a sovereign state that has freely acceded to the USSR federation. In reality Moldavia has hitherto been merely a constituent part of the USSR, which controls its foreign affairs, military formations, economic and commercial relations in a highly centralized fashion. Although the Soviet Constitution of 1977 provides for Moldavia to elect its own legislative (Supreme Soviet), executive (Council of Ministers) and judiciary (Supreme Court), control is effected by the centralized and Russian-dominated Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) through its Republican branch in Moldavia. As part of the USSR federation, Moldavia elects 11 deputies to the Council of Nationalities and four to the Council of the Union in the 542-member Supreme Soviet of the USSR (at five-yearly intervals).

The Constitution also allows each Union Republic to secede from the USSR, but the primacy of All-Union legislation effectively invalidates this right. Similarly, the constitutional provision that all citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities have equal rights has been severely compromised by the domination in the USSR of Slavic (essentially Russian) political, cultural and economic norms.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

With 95% of Soviet Moldavians living in the Moldavian SSR and neighbouring regions of the Ukraine and 96.5% using Moldavian as their native tongue (1979), the language issue has figured prominently in Moldavian movements for self-determination. The two main points at issue are the status of Moldavian as the official language of the Republic (in which Moldavians represent 64% of the population, 1979) and the replacement of the Cyrillic script (introduced in 1940 to distinguish it from Romanian) with the Latin alphabet (which is used in the Baltic republics). In the summer of 1988 a Moldavian Democratic Movement for Peres-troika held demonstrations on this issue in spite of resistance from local Party authorities (led by Semyon Grossu, one of the few survivors from the Brezhnev era). Early in 1989 the Moldavian authorities conceded that these issues should be addressed in a forthcoming language law and mass demonstrations in March and August 1989 reflected impatience with what was perceived as foot-dragging by the authorities. The publication of the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 (under which the USSR occupied Bessarabia) has fuelled further nationalist sentiments. The forthcoming elections to the Moldavian Supreme Soviet are likely to bring these conflicts to a head.

Minorities in Moldavia

Even by Soviet standards Moldavia represents quite a hotch-potch of nationalities. It is the only Union Republic in which Ukrainian immigrants (561,000 or 14.2%, 1979) outnumber Russians (506,000 or 12.8%); it has the largest Turkic nation in the USSR – the 138,000 Orthodox Christian Gagauzi — not to have its own territorial formation; and has the highest percentage of Soviet Jews (80,000 or 2%) in its population (from 1815 to 1917 Moldavia formed part of the Jewish Pale of Settlement and its capital — Kishinev — had a thriving Yiddish-speaking Jewish community). Lacking educational and cultural facilities in their own language, Ukrainians are subject to Russification in Moldavia so both Slavic groups are set to fight hard on the language issue.