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

An incident of violence against a Moldovan journalist 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, 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 a 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 min 1:36; 2:30). The journalist was also continuously threatened and prevented from leaving the premises of the university. He called the police, which 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] his blog entry Andrei Fornea.

The 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.

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