BRIA 19 1 c Ethnic Minorities in Eastern Europe Today

Historians sometimes refer to Eastern Europe as "The Lands In Between." It lies between Western Europe and Russia, between the Baltic and Black seas. For thousands of years, peoples belonging to many cultures, nationalities, religions, and languages migrated across this area. Today, the peoples in Eastern Europe speak many different languages. Many Eastern Europeans speak one of a dozen Slavic languages like Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian. Romanians trace their language back to ancient Rome. Hungarians and Estonians speak languages related to Finnish. Latvian and Lithuanians speak Baltic languages.

Eastern Europe also contains a great mix of religions. Poland is heavily Roman Catholic. Hungary is part Roman Catholic and part Protestant. Bulgarians are mainly of the Orthodox Christian faith. Jews and Muslims practice their religions throughout the region today.

The Romans, Poles, Hungarians, Ottoman Turks, Russians, and others established empires in Eastern Europe at different times and imposed their cultures on those they conquered. For example, in the 14th and 15th centuries, Ottoman Turk Muslims conquered and ruled what are now Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and the former Yugoslavia.

The Ottoman Turks would have invaded further, but the Europeans defeated them at the gates of Vienna, Austria, in 1529 and again in 1683. Mostly driven from Europe by 1914, the Ottoman Turks left behind a legacy of bureaucratic government and some converts to Islam, especially in Bulgaria and Bosnia.

The sweep of migrations, wars, and empires across Eastern Europe over the centuries often prevented people from setting up their own nation, even though they shared a common history, language, and religion.

The victors of World War I attempted to create new nations from the patchwork of peoples in Eastern Europe. In some cases, however, people belonging to one nation ended up in another, cut off from their motherland. In other situations, several ethnic minorities found themselves in one nation, living next to people whom they distrusted or even hated.

After World War II, well-organized communists, aided by the Soviet Union, took over most of the nations of Eastern Europe. The communist regimes suppressed nationalism and imposed communist unity. After communism collapsed between 1989 and 1991, nationalism revived among many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The Dilemma of Ethnic Minorities

In the 1990s, many ethnic minorities within the Eastern European nations began to assert their nationalism and demand some degree of self-government. Sometimes, their nationalist feelings resulted in clashes with hated neighbors. The most violent example of this occurred in Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia consisted of a half-dozen ethnic minorities. Each one considered itself a nation. Many harbored ancient ethnic or religious hatreds against one another. When the nations of Yugoslavia tried to disband, a civil war broke out. Atrocities occurred on all sides. Serbia, led by President Slobodan Milosevic, invaded several of its neighbors to seize lands where fellow Serbians lived.

The Serbians (mostly Orthodox Christians) drove Croatians (mostly Roman Catholics), Muslims, ethnic Albanians, and other ethnic groups from the seized territories. This policy of "ethnic cleansing" included the torture, mutilation, and murder of tens of thousands of civilians.

The fighting and atrocities in Yugoslavia stopped only when NATO, the Western defense alliance led by the United States, intervened. Today, international peacekeepers patrol the bloodied land. President Milosevic is currently on trial for war crimes before an international court.

In other Eastern European nations, minorities struggle to preserve their ethnic identities. Ukrainians in Poland, Hungarians in Romania, Muslim Turks in Bulgaria, Roma (Gypsies) in several countries, and many others continue to face prejudice, discrimination, and sometimes violence.

The dilemma of ethnic minorities in Eastern Europe involves their desire to hold on to their separate ways, while those in the majority usually pressure them to adopt the national culture and language. In extreme cases, conflict between ethnic minorities and majorities have resulted in "ethnic cleansing" or civil war.

Moldova and the Language Law

Moldova emerged as an independent nation following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is a small, landlocked country, surrounded by Romania and Ukraine. Originally populated by Romanian peasants, Moldova has a long history of foreign domination. Turkey, Russia, Austria, and Romania have all invaded it, controlled it, lost it, and reconquered it. During World War II, the Romanians helped Nazi Germany invade the Soviet Union. Romania ended up occupying Moldova until Soviet troops recaptured it in 1944. Since World War II, Moldova was part of the Soviet Union.

About 65 percent of the people are ethnic Moldovans, speaking a native language nearly identical to Romanian. Many Moldovans also speak Russian, which the schools teach as a second language. There are two major ethnic minorities: Ukrainians (14 percent) and Russians (13 percent). They are Russian speakers; few of them speak Moldovan.

Moldovan nationalists deeply resented the Russia speakers because of the long history of Russian domination. Even before Moldova declared its independence in 1991, nationalists demanded a law that would make Moldovan the official language of the country. Some nationalists even wanted to unite Moldova with Romania. Alarmed, the Russian-speaking minorities argued for making both Moldovan and Russian the official languages of the nation. The nationalists rejected this proposal.

In the late 1980s, Moldovan nationalists began a bitter campaign against the Russian minority. The nationalists blamed all the country's problems on the Russians and resented their dominant status in Moldova's communist government and economy. The nationalists called them "occupiers" and "migrants" who should have no role in deciding the future of Moldova.

In August 1989, the Moldovan communist parliament approved an official language law over the objections of the Russian-speaking minority members. Under the law, all political leaders, government workers, and many others had to pass a Moldovan language test within five years in order to hold their jobs. Although the law exempted some people (such as factory workers), the Russian and Ukrainian minorities still viewed it as an insulting attempt to make them second-class citizens.

Moldovan nationalists in parliament continued to pass laws and take steps that discriminated against those who spoke only Russian. An attempt to form a union with Romania failed, but the nationalist parliament did vote to replace the Soviet-style Moldovan flag. It chose a tricolor flag identical to that of Romania. (Later, a crest was added to this flag.)

Rebellion in Transnistria

Transnistria is a small region in Moldova between the Dniester River and the border with Ukraine. In this region, Russian speakers are in the majority.

In April 1990, several cities in Transnistria refused to raise the new Moldovan flag. This provoked Moldovan nationalists to stage a march to raise the flag themselves. With the support of Soviet troops stationed in the area, however, Transnistrian armed volunteers stopped the march.

The leaders of the Russian-speaking Transnistrians, along with the local media, emotionally played on the fears of their people. In numerous speeches and newspaper articles, the leaders claimed that the Moldovans wanted to force the Russian and Ukrainian minorities to abandon their language and ethnic identity. The leaders also spread the rumor that Moldova would soon be a part of Romania, even though the Moldovan parliament had rejected unification.

The Transnistrian leaders proved to be as single-minded as the Moldovan nationalists. Both sides believed compromise to be a weakness and force a virtue.

In September 1990, a Transnistrian provisional parliament declared independence and proclaimed the "Dniester Republic." But neither the United Nations nor any nation in the world recognized it. Moldova (still technically part of the Soviet Union) then declared a state of emergency to suppress the separatist rebellion.

The separatists in Transnistria formed armed volunteer militias to take control of the region. They succeeded in winning a series of clashes, mainly against police units loyal to Moldova. Soviet troops plus military and financial aid from Moscow made the rebel takeover of Transnistria possible. After the death of about 1,000 fighters, a cease-fire agreement ended the short civil war in June 1992. By this time, Moldova had become an independent nation.

Both sides signed a peace agreement to normalize relations in 1997. The separatists are now demanding a confederation of two equal nations, consisting of Moldova and the Dniester Republic. The Moldovans have rejected this arrangement. European mediators have recently proposed a federal system (like that of the United States), with Transnistria having some self-government and the right to use the Russian language alongside Moldovan in government business.

Russian troops remain in Transnistria. An agreement in 2003 to let them remain through 2020 was rejected at the last minute by the Moldovan president. Closer cooperation between Russia and the Moldovan government has angered both Transnistrian separatists and Moldovan nationalists.

The Moldovan parliament has postponed indefinitely the language test for elected leaders and others. Parents may also choose the language of instruction for their children in the public schools. The communist party, elected to a majority of parliament seats in 2001, has also proposed making Russian a second official language.

The stalemate between the Moldovan government and the Transnistrian separatists has slowed progress on democratic and economic reforms. Moldova is one of the poorest nations in Europe. Beggars roam the streets of the Moldovan capital. In addition, serious human-rights violations continue to take place, especially in separatist Transnistria.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What is a nation? How would you define it? Who should be eligible for citizenship in a nation?

  2. What do you think is the best solution to the dispute over language in Moldova? Why?

  3. Do you think compromise is important in a democracy? Explain.

For Further Information


Columbia Encyclopedia: Moldova

Encarta: Moldova

Wikipedia: Moldova

AllRefer: Moldova

Government Sites

U.S. Department of State

Background Note: Moldova.

Transdniestrian Conflict (PDF)

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (2003): Moldova

CIA Factbook: Moldova

Library of Congress

Moldova: A Country Study

Moldova: Portals to the World

USAID: Moldova

United Nations

Human Development Reports: Moldova

Country at a Glance

Moldovan Mission to the U.N.

World Bank: Moldova

Political Resources on the Net: Moldova

Web Directories

Yahoo Directory: Moldova

Open Directory: Moldova

Google Directory: Moldova

WWW-VL History: Moldova

Moldova Web Directory

Country Profiles

World Statesmen: Moldova

Travel Guide: Moldova

Kiosk: Journal of Geo-politics: Moldova

Country Watch: Russia and the Newly Independent States


Perry Castañeda Map Library: Moldova

Embassy World: Moldova

Academic Sites

Russian and Eastern European Network Information Center From University of Texas.

CEESource Central and East European legal, political, business, and economics resources. From Gonzaga University School of Law.

Leeds University Centre for Russian, Eurasian and Central European Studies

REES Web From University of Pittsburgh

News Sources


Moldova AZI

Interlic News Agency

Basa News Agency

Washington Post: Moldova Full Coverage: Moldova

Transitions Online: Moldova News and articles.

Reuters AlertNet: Moldova

BBC News: Country Profile: Moldova


Modern Hatreds, The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War by Stuart Kaufman.

The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture by Charles King.

The EU & Moldova: On a Fault-line of Europe by Ann Lewis.


English Only?

Some states in the United States have enacted "English Only" laws, which place restrictions on the use of languages other than English. About 10 million U.S. residents (4.5 percent of the population) are not fluent in English. Below is a mock "English Only" law for the United States. Form groups to discuss this law. Groups may accept or reject it as is or may make changes in it. Each group will report and justify its final recommendation.

Title: Official Language of the United States

The official language of the United States is English. The following must be in English only:

1. All daily business at all government offices.

2. All tests for government employment.

3. All ballots and government-produced voter information.

4. All public proceedings in courts.

5. All income tax and other government forms.

6. All public school instruction except in foreign language classes.

7. All police and 911 telephone services.

8. All driver's license exams.

9. All signs in any government building, including hospitals, schools, police stations, and post offices.

10. All communications between government and U.S. residents.

11. All billboards and private business signs.

12. All speaking among private business employees during business hours when required by the employer.


Brown, J. F. Eastern Europe and Communist Rule. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988. • Grooves of Change, Eastern Europe at the Turn of the Millennium. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. • "Defining the Borders of the New Europe." World Affairs. 1 April 2002. • "English Only." ACLU Briefing Paper. N/D. American Civil Liberties Union. • Kaufman, Stuart. Modern Hatreds, The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. • "Official English." U.S. English, Inc. 2002. U.S. English, Inc. • Purvis, Andrew. "The Empire Strikes Back." Time International. 25 Feb. 2002. • RFE/RL Newsline. 10 July 2002. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. • Taras, Ray. National Identities and Ethnic Minorities in Eastern Europe. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. • U.S. Department of State. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Moldova. 4 Mar. 2002. • Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Background Note: Moldova. Oct. 2002. • "Voronin: Talks with Separatists to Resume." United Press International. 17 Mar. 2002. • White, Stephen, et al., eds. Developments in Central and East European Politics 2. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. • The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2002. New York: World Almanac Books, 2002.




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