Stealing words: life behind Europe’s last Iron Curtain


The file is huge. It consists of 170 petitioners and has reached the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2004. Proceedings were slow in the last eight years and after a while the suppliants lost hope for a positive verdict. But waiting was not in vain: a recent ECHR ruling found Russia guilty of violating the right to education of Romanian ethnics living in Moldova’s Trans-Dniester separatist region. The verdict is just the tip of the iceberg, as it points to a two-decade long conflict between the Republic of Moldova and Trans-Dniester, whose regime is indirectly supported by Moscow in its attempt to break free and gain international recognition. Officially, after sending in tanks in 1992 during the armed phase of the conflict, Russia assumed the mediator role – a stance it still takes despite clear evidence that it has actually been an active player. The lives of thousands of families were caught in this web of historic circumstances. The outcome is not just a politically troubled region, but a story about the personal dramas of those trying to speak their mother tongue in a region where assuming anything else other than a Russian identity is considered a crime.

November 2012. The dim autumn night takes over the streets in Eastern Europe. “You made history happen over there”, says the reporter from Bucharest, the capital of Romania, one of EU’s newest members and a country that sets the Union’s eastern border. Alexei Catan lives in Tiraspol, the proclaimed capital of Trans-Dniester, an autonomous region within Romania’s neighbouring Moldova and which has no legal status on the international stage. As it travels the phone line connecting Bucharest and Tiraspol, his voice takes on a rough but sad note. “You know”, Catan says, “indifference is the hardest thing to master. My biggest fear is that people will be talking about us and our problems for a week or two and then everybody will forget us.”

Alexei Catan’s name stands at the top of the petitioners’ list. He is the first of 170 people who decided eight years ago to sue authorities in Tiraspol for a decision they saw as being highly abusive. The Trans-Dniester regime had just forbidden the use of the Latin alphabet in the last eight Romanian schools that were still functioning in the separatist region. The file reached the Strasbourg based European Court of Human Rights. Eight years passed and when everybody had given up hope, early in the morning of October 19, 2012, a historic verdict reignited the whole debate.

Not only that the ECHR ruled in favor of the petitioners, but it also found Russia guilty of supporting the regime in Tiraspol in its actions of violating human rights by forcing Romanian ethnics to study their mother tongue using the Cyrillic alphabet.

Alexei Catan’s family name became synonym to the struggle of other 169 Romanians from the towns of Ribnita, Grigoriopol and Tighina who stood up for their basic rights facing pressure, abuse, illegal arrest and threats. The Strasbourg court ruled that Russia is to pay over one million euro damages to the petitioners. ECHR also noted that Russia is accountable because over the past 20 years it had provided continuous military, economic and political support to the separatist regime in Tiraspol.

The ECHR verdict resumes an argument that was first used in the summer of 2004 in another famous case, that of Russia versus the Ilascu group. That ruling said, for the first time, that Moscow had effective control over the Trans-Dniester self-proclaimed republic and was responsible for any human rights abuses. Eight years later, Russia’s “mediator role” in the region is still a mask that hides its true face as an active and deeply interested player.

The Moldovan Dniester Republic or MDR, also known as Trans-Dniester, is a separatist entity unrecognized on the international stage that broke away from the Republic of Moldova in the fall of 1990. Two years later, the self-proclaimed government in Tiraspol, the capital city, passed a law regarding the use of languages. It introduced the use of the Cyrillic alphabet instead of the Latin one. Two more years passed and the authorities in Tiraspol forbade the use of the Latin alphabet in schools, demanding that all headmasters use the education curricula approved the by the Education Ministry in Tiraspol which only allowed the Cyrillic writing.

The decision put a heavy burden on the shoulders of the last Romanian schools in the region. Their teachers refused to follow it and kept teaching using the Latin alphabet, just as the statutory curricula designed in Chisinau – the capital of the Republic of Moldova – said.

But the fact that thousands of families refused to accept such a decision was the spark of an open conflict with the separatist regime in Tiraspol.

Napoleon once said that history is nothing but a set of lies that people have agreed upon. If this is true, then Romanians in Trans-Dniester have a long way to go before authorities in Tiraspol, Chisinau and Moscow find a common ground to start from.

“I shouldn’t be afraid to speak Romanian. I haven’t stolen words from anybody,” writes on her blog Elena Padurean, former student of the only Romanian high school in the city of Tiraspol. There are only eight such schools all over the Trans-Dniester region where teachers stubbornly use Romanian and the Latin alphabet. De jure, the schools are managed by the Education Ministry in Chisinau. But the realities of a troubled past and the complicated relationship between Moldova and the MDR mean that these schools are forced to abide by the decisions of the Tiraspol-based separatist authorities who demand that all classes are held in Cyrillic alphabet.

Ten years ago about 5,000 students were attending these eight schools. Nowadays, numbers are dramatically lower as pressures on parents to transfer their kids to other schools grew bigger and bigger. Roughly 2,000 students still attend classes at the eight Romanian schools.

A photo of Mihai Eminescu who is considered the national poet in Romania, along with the Romanian and European flags decorate one of the classrooms at the “Lucian Blaga” high school in Tiraspol Photo: Facebook/Raisa Padurean

In 2004 after a series of administrative pressures followed by repressive measures, Romanian schools were occupied by MDR’s police forces who seized textbooks, destroyed classrooms and arrested teachers and students. That year alone four complaints reached the European Court of Human Rights. Three of them were later included in a bigger case against Trans-Dniester and Russia: it’s the “Catan and others” file. Justice experts working with the Promo Lex non-government organization in Chisinau took the case to Strasbourg. The fourth file on the situation of those studying in Romanian at an orphanage in the town of Tighina is still pending at the ECHR.

The case of Lucian Blaga high school in Tiraspol is particularly interesting. It has never reached the ECHR, despite the fact the file was put together by justice experts working for the Helsinki Committee in Chisinau. Apparently strange things happened to it and the file got lost along the way, in an administrative swamp which led to the discharging of the main lawyer who was held accountable for the loss of some important papers.

Raisa Padurean, deputy headmaster of the Tiraspol-based high school, says that those at Lucian Blaga were led on from the beginning. “They fooled us and lost some of the original papers we included in the file. I now think this was on purpose, they just couldn’t find someone to represent us in court.”

Padurean was among the teachers taken into custody by the police forces that invaded the school building in the summer of 2004. She was arrested, threatened by authorities and asked to give up any form of protest. Padurean teaches Russian language and Russian literature but uses the Latin alphabet.

„Parents were threatened. Police representatives would show up at our houses in the middle of the night and ask that our children be transferred to other schools which used the Cyrillic alphabet. They even threatened to deprive us of the rights as parents if we didn’t abide. And in some cases that is what they did”


„I know parents who withdrew children from schools teaching in Romanian after pressures and threats they would be laid off from work. If I, for example, am fired I will never find another job after teaching at a Romanian high school”
Raisa Padurean

In the summer of 2004 the police also arrested Raisa Padurean’s son, Andrei, who was taken into custody for no reason at all. He was outside the house with some friends when a militia car stopped. Two men got out, grabbed his hands and forced him into the car. It was 10 p.m. That night, looking for answers at the police headquarters, Raisa Padurean was told the officers just wanted “to teach her boy a lesson”. “What does that mean? What kind of lesson do they want to teach him?” she asked herself.

One year later she got the answer. Unable to bear the pain anymore, Andrei confessed to his mother about the beating he got after refusing to sign a blank piece of paper. His mother took him to see a doctor. He had some form of kidney failure.

“I emember taking him from the police headquarters after three days of jail time. When we got home he refused to eat, drink water and talk. He then had to complete his military service and after that he opened up about the violence he had to put up with while under arrest. They threatened to beat me and my daughter if he ever spoke a word about the beatings,” Padurean recalls.

About 200 students currently attend classes at the Lucian Blaga high school. Not much has changed here for the better since the summer of 2004. On the contrary, things have gotten worse. In 2011, the school campus was surrounded by wired fence. Later that year the media in Chisinau reported that a student was being accused of terrorism in a case set up against him by MDR authorities.

“All these are measures the MDR takes to discourage local residents from signing up their children to Romanian schools. They discriminate and harass people to determine them to give up the fundamental right of choosing the school they want for their children. I know about several types of pressures and I know who was laid off from work after refusing to follow the authorities’ directive,” says Ion Manole who works as a lawyer for the Promo Lex non-government organization in Chisinau. Manole pleaded, together with Alexandru Posirca, the case of the 170 petitioners in the “Catan” file.

Teachers from Evrika high school in the town of Ribnita, Alexandru cel Bun high school in Tighina and Stefan cel Mare high school in the city of Grigoriopol told reporters about their two-decade long fight to preserve their identity and mother tongue.

These schools suffered the same abuses as the Lucian Blaga high school in Tiraspol. In 2004, books were seized and teachers forced to get credentials from MDR’s Education Ministry, which overruled any decisions taken by the statutory ministry in Chisinau. But the Romanian schools refused to recognize Tiraspol’s authority and they resisted pressures to register as “foreign entities”.

Ion Manole argues that these institutions are “subordinated to the constitutional structures which seek to provide education according to the constitutional program”. He says that “if these institutions are forced to abide by the Tiraspol law, they would have to use the Cyrillic alphabet as the separatist authorities forbid the Moldovan-Romanian language in Latin alphabet.”


Textbooks students from Romanian schools in Trans-Dniester would have to use if their schools register with the Education Ministry in Tiraspol Photo: Facebook/Raisa Padurean

The ECHR ruling in October 2012 mentions the contradiction between “constitutional articles” and the “so-called law”: though the separatist region is “acknowledged according to international law as being part of the Republic of Moldova”, Chisinau-based authorities don’t have “any effective control over the actions taken by Trans-Dniester authorities.”

Ion Manole adds that the separatist laws cannot be fought as the region does not exist. “When we refer to human rights here, authorities do not really care as impunity is something that cannot be applied to them. We are not acknowledged internationally, this is what they say, and no one can stop us or hold us accountable for our attempts. They have been playing this role for more than 20 years now and at the same time have ruthlessly violated human rights”, the lawyer says.

Moreover, Manole gives the example of Tighina, a town placed on the fictional border that separates Trans-Dniester from Moldova. “According to the agreement signed by the Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1992 control over the town is divided between the local forces and Chisinau authorities. There are a police station and a prosecutor’s office reporting to Chisinau, but these two institutions are powerless. In the past 20 years the two units were silenced and at the moment neither one can take a stand in defending constitutional rights while the town is controlled by Tiraspol-based authorities,” Manole says.

“Who could clearly the boundaries between the Russian forces and the Trans-Dniester ones? A person can have at home three uniforms, that of the constitutional police, that of the separatist militia and that of the Russian army. I never exclude such hypothesis and I have information that leads me to believe such a scenario is possible. I don’t even need going too far in describing how blurry the situation can become: for example, the deputy director of the Tiraspol counterintelligence service is a former Russian army officer,”

Ion Manole

The words come out with the speed of bullets released by an automatic gun. “People on the left of the Dniester river are forgotten by the Republic of Moldova,” says Alexei Mocreac, the deputy headmaster of the Stefan cel Mare school in Grigoriopol. One can understand from the tone of his voice that being a Romanian in the separatist region is much more than a genetic heritage. It’s an act of courage.

Mocreac participated in the armed conflict that followed Tiraspol’s separation and saw its peak in 1992. He says that he spent days in custody in an underground cell. He remembers that when he was released his hands were the color of eggplants and he had fleas all over him. But nothing, adds Mocreac, hurt him most than the indifference he feels today.

Chisinau’s hands are tied, he thinks, because of the Russian military support given to the MDR. “The army on the left side of the Dniester river is more powerful than that on the right side and this is what keeps us awake at night. We all fear the war. Just think the army here can launch an attack against Chisinau anytime”, thinks Mocreac.

He has been to war before. He was taken prisoner in 1990 and on a March day almost got shot to death. He was forced to face a wall and wait to be executed. That’s how he learned that nothing happens by chance in Trans-Dniester.

Historian Aurelian Lavric confirms the supposition by asking a few questions. “Why is the Dniester region called the Moldovan Republic and not the Russian Republic? Why? No Moldovan resident is part of the Tiraspol-based government, the troops from the Russian army provide protection here and Russian is the only language used. Don’t you think the region is called the Trans-Dniester Moldovan Republic just because Tiraspol-based authorities want to take over the whole Moldovan territory?”, he rhetorically told us.

Alexei Mocreac hopes, though, that a new war will be avoided. “I don’t want to criticize Russia, but it just tore us apart. That is why I feel the ECHR verdict is one of biggest possible victories. A whole world learned about us,” he says.

Analyst Leonid Litra, who works for an institute that promotes the development of social initiative in Chisinau, indirectly confirms the petitioners’ biggest fear. He says the verdict is important for Moldova, but that it’s not going to bring about any deep changes for the Romanian ethnics in the separatist region.

“The issue is difficult to tackle especially because these eight schools are used as a political instrument in the relationship between Tiraspol and Moscow on one hand and Tiraspol and Chisinau on the other,” Litra says. The Court’s decision is hard to grasp even for the Moldovan authorities. “It’s hard to put pressure on Tiraspol and, at the same time, take measures to boost confidence (in the relationship with MDR authorities, editor’s note). Moldova is pretty happy with this verdict, but it will not exploit it as long as it tries to consolidate the relationship with Tiraspol,” the expert adds.

The circle of pessimism closes where it started from: in Ribnita, with Alexei Catan. His family name is, for many people, similar to the struggle of Romanians in Trans-Dniester to have their right to education and language respected. Catan himself speaks in a sour voice. “I doubt Russia will ever pay this money and I don’t think the situation will ever improve. And even if Russia pays the money, the issue does not go away.”

In 2004, when the battle started, the Evrika high school in Ribnita counted 800 students. That number dropped four times and most students left for schools teaching in Russian, following pressures on their families.

“What they couldn’t do by force when they seized textbooks and destroyed school buildings they will do now using other methods. Authorities in Chisinau started providing school vans to transport students, but we have fewer and fewer students,” explains Mocreac. He can’t help asking himself what was truly achieved in 2004, when he was held in custody for six days together with seven other people and accused of defending the school building in Ribnita.

It was such a small victory: they saved some textbooks and now they are given some money, but what about the continual loss of identity suffered by Romanian speakers in this no man’s land called MDR?

Mocreac who is 50 and has a Romanian passport and a daughter living in the United States sounds very determined. “I don’t want to leave this place. I hope something will happen and Trans-Dniester never gets green light on the international stage.”

However, historian Sergiu Musteata is skeptical when it comes to the future of the Romanian community here. “Those in Tiraspol have no ears for the Romanian community. Their history textbooks contain predominantly aggressive and violent messages against Chisinau and Romania. For example, the textbook for students in the eighth and ninth grades includes a photograph from 1992 which shows a vehicle where someone wrote death to cannibal Romanians.

“I am afraid Russia will fight the ECHR verdict and prove that it had no direct involvement in this case which will leave families and students in Trans-Dniester to carry on their own fight with the separatist regime,” Musteata says.

His assessment is tough, but the truth is that Romanians here seem determined to keep fighting the regime in Tiraspol no matter if it’s a battle they are likely to lose. “We had no choice but to suffer history’s results here on the left side of the Dniester”, Mocreac says. “We never did it for the money, we weren’t even expecting it”, adds Alexei Catan.

However, Raisa Padurean in Tiraspol admits that she could have made good use of the money. Only if lawyers in Chisinau hadn’t made a mess out of the documents submitted by the Lucian Blaga high school. “Incomes here are very low and if we could have been a part of the trial I would have gotten money to do some medical investigations. I had to spend a few days in a hospital back then, in 2004…,”admits Padurean.

“The standard of living is very low, it’s extremely hard to earn the money you deserve”, says Svetlana Jitariuc, who is a teacher at the Stefan cel Mare high school in Grigoriopol. For the past 10 years the school was forced to hold classes in another town called Dorotcaia, which is situated 17 kilometers away and is controlled by the constitutional authorities in Chisinau. Each day, four vans transport students and teachers to school and back to Grigoriopol.

“We have to pass customs at the Trans-Dniester border on a daily basis and we sometimes get into trouble. Last year they put pressure on us for 30 days in a row. There were days when they kept us at the border for a whole hour under the pretext they needed to do more checking of the papers,” Jitariuc says. She teaches civic education, is 52 and has a daughter in the final year of high school and a son who got a BA in Medicine at a Romanian university. Maybe that explains why Jitariuc looks down on people who moved their kids from the Romanian schools as a result of pressures. She says this shows a lack of “spinal cord”.

Each day, students at the Romanian school in Grigoriopol pass through customs at this control point on the Trans-Dniester border in order to have access to education in their mother tongue. Photo: Flickr

„I spent my whole life fighting for this goal: to teach in Romanian using the Latin alphabet. I had a lot of problems, I was arrested several times and had curses yelled at me. When they closed down our school in 2002 we had no place to hold the classes. However, we managed to find a building to host us, 17 kilometers away. Eleven years passed by and we are still feeling like refugees here,” says Svetlana Jitariuc.

There is some hope, though. In the town of Tighina, for example, where an orphanage which is home to 100 children who learn the Latin alphabet is still waiting a verdict at the court in Strasbourg. The case is supported by experts from Amnesty International in Chisinau. “The decision cannot differ from the recent one,” says lawyer Ion Manole who is convinced the October 2012 ECHR ruling sets a legislative framework that will be used to give rapid verdicts to similar cases.

“It was an awful experience, we spent a month trapped here without electricity and food,” says Maria Ungureanu remembering the fatidic year 2004. She runs the orphanage in Tighina and complains authorities provide no support. “Only persecutions and threats. It’s all we get.”

“I doubt that these people will face more risks following the ECHR decision. Tiraspol is now trying to spruce up its image and look like a more democratic and civilized regime,” believes Ion Manole. “This victory gave people hope and faith in the international justice system. A year ago all I could see in their eyes was desperation,” he adds.

The numbers, however, are ruthless.

Evrika high school in Ribnita had 683 students a decade ago. In 2009 the number dropped to 345. 

Alexandru cel Bun high school in Tighina had at the beginning of the school year 2002-2003 1.751 students. Six years later it only registered 901. 

Stefan cel Mare high school in Grigoriopol numbered 709 students in 2002-2003. Eight years later only 169 attended classes there.

Numbers from 2012 are close to those of 2009. In most cases the number of students dropped significantly in all Romanian schools across Trans-Dniester.

Today, authorities in Tiraspol stopped using force to exile the Romanian language and its speakers. “History punishes those who wait too long,” used to say Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who once ran the Russian empire whose demise made it possible for the separatist Moldovan region to exist. Today another potent leader, Vladimir Putin, takes all the fundamental decisions regarding the separatist region. At least according to the ECHR ruling.

Consensus is far from becoming a reality on both sides of the Dniester River. And even today history continues to punish those who wait too long. In Chisinau, the falling numbers of those attending Romanian schools in the MDR should signal that, perhaps, the constitutional authorities’ support has arrived a little too late. In Tiraspol the same numbers teach a lesson on the positive effects of patience. While in Moscow they show that one million in European currency is not that big of a price to pay in order to make possible the slow death of a community who speaks Romanian on the left side of the Dniester river. As you cross it Europe’s last Iron Curtain falls recklessly of human drama. No matter what, Trans-Dniester has to maintain its value as Russia’s hard currency.

„One thing people should know is that on the left side of Dniester a part of Romania is continuously robbed of its identity. Romanian churches and schools are closed down. It’s a disaster. It looks like us, Moldovans, are murderers in our own country”

Alexei Mocreac, Grigoriopol

„All I feel today is indifference towards us, it’s like we are not even here. Students in Russian schools get a free meal at school, while our children in Romanian schools get nothing. It’s like we are not here”

Alexei Catan, Ribnita

„The young generation leaves Tiraspol. Diplomas earned in Chisinau universities are not acknowledged here. There are no jobs here. Everything is closed down. What’s happening here is extremely painful”

Raisa Padurean, Tiraspol

„There were times when Romanian schools counted 5,000 students. However, in the past years the number dropped a lot as parents sent kids to Russian schools which teach using Russian curricula. We have to teach using very old textbooks”

Svetlana Jitariuc, Grigoriopol


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