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School choice divides families in Transnistria

Vitalie Calugareanu
October 3, 2020

Parents consider more than class size when they decide what school their kids will attend in the self-proclaimed separatist state of Transnistria. The "wrong choice" could attract the local security service's attention.

A poster in a school with the words "The Patriot" and a red star in a school in Transnistria
Image: DW

Gabriel was 5 years old when his parents separated. He stayed with his mother in Transnistria. His father, Maxim, quit his job as a police officer and went to Italy to find work. Maxim's brother, who is also Gabriel's godfather, told DW that he had pushed for Gabriel to attend a Romanian-language school in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau in order to receive an internationally recognized high school certificate. To no avail: Gabriel attended a Russian-language school in Transnistria instead.

"Maxim wanted Gabriel to become a real man and thought that Transnistria and the army would toughen him up and turn him into a real man just as the Soviet army had turned him into a real man," explained Maxim's brother, who would not reveal his name since he is an official who works for the Moldovan state in Chisinau.

He added that Maxim's wish was fulfilled when Gabriel joined the Transnistria army. In addition to landing in the hospital as a recruit — the result of an old Soviet tradition of hazing — he also swore allegiance to a state that is not recognized by international law. Officially a part of the Republic of Moldova, not even Russia recognizes the self-proclaimed separatist state.

Gabriel now works for Transnistria's security services and has cut himself off from his family. His uncle, who gave his nephew a motorbike for his 18th birthday, said Gabriel did not even look at him when he attended his grandmother's funeral. Accompanied by a superior to ensure he did not betray Transnistrian state secrets, Gabriel left the ceremony without an embrace — or even a word — for the rest of his family.

Language divides in education system

These are the types of family disputes that can grow from the choice of school.

In the 1990s, Soviet laws regarding public schools and universities were abolished and a new education system modeled on the West was introduced into the new Republic of Moldova. The country made Romanian its official language as much of what had been the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic belonged to Romania before World War II.

Map showing Moldova and another zooms in on Transnistria

But those changes were not accepted in the breakaway region of Transnistria. The education system there more closely resembles that of Russia. In 1994, the self-appointed government in Tiraspol banned the use of the Latin alphabet in schools as part of its Russification policy and required children to use the Cyrillic alphabet, even if they are writing in Romanian.

Some 90% of children in kindergartens are taught in Russian, 9% in Romanian and less than 1% in Ukrainian. Yet, 34.2% of children hail from families that speak mainly Romanian and 28% from families where Ukrainian is the main language. Over 90% of courses at schools and universities are in Russian.

Eight schools resist pressure

Today, eight schools in Transnistria answer to the Moldovan Education Ministry in Chisinau and where Romanian remains the main teaching language and the Latin alphabet is used. The Transnistrian government has been trying to gain control of these schools since 2000. In 2004, the police surrounded the schools for weeks, effectively turning the students into temporary hostages of the conflict.

Chairs and table in a corner of a classroom of a school in Transnistria
Few schools in Transnistria answer to the Moldovan Education MinistryImage: DW

Representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who act as mediators between Tiraspol and Chisinau, provided emergency food supplies. Later on, parents, teachers and school children in the Transnistrian region of Moldova appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the rights of their children to an education were being violated. In 2012, the court ruled that the children's right to education had been violated and order Russia, which supported Transnistrian separatists, to pay damages.

But the pressure did not let up after the ruling. The Transnistrian Ministry of State Security, which was named after the Soviet KGB, often summons the schools' teachers for interrogation. Ahead of the first day of school, principals are warned not to fly Moldovan flags. Police attend the first day of school in an effort to get the institution to follow the self-proclaimed state's "laws."

And the intimidation seems to be working. According to Ion Manole from Promo Lex, a Moldovan human rights NGO, the number of children in Romanian-language schools has fallen from 6,000 to 1,600 since 2004.

Life is particularly dangerous for parents. Olesea's father not only insists his daughter travel 50 kilometers back and forth to a Romanian-language school, he has also been detained three times by police officers in Transnistria. He does it so that, unlike Gabriel, his daughter will receive a degree that will allow her to study at a university in the EU state of Romania.

Moldova: The exodus continues