Thoughts about Moldova Tolerance Workshop

Harold F. Schiffman

University of Pennsylvania

South Asia Regional Studies

October 11, 2001




This is an informal sort of ‘report’ on my reactions to the Workshop on Education for Tolerance held in Chisinau, Moldova, October 4 to 7, 2001.  As a general kind of overall statement, I can freely state that the workshop was well-organized and the people who came to it made  useful contributions that should help to attain the goals of the organizers.  The money was well-spent, and people came away feeling that the time was also well-spent.  Moldovan hospitality helped to bring us together and to establish mutual trust and a good working relationship.


Nevertheless, it became clear to me, at least, as time went on in the three days we were there, that achieving the goals of multi-ethnic tolerance in the post-Soviet and post-Cold War Eastern European countries that emerged after 1991, much more work would need to be done.  In fact, we have barely scratched the surface.  Indeed it seemed that in each of the countries represented (Estonia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Rumania, and Russia, as well as Moldova) similar workshops would be useful, if not necessary, and it also seemed to be useful for those of us who participated to continue to work together again in the future to see how other post-1991 entities might work to construct multi-ethnic societies based on ideas of tolerance.  In other words, having established good working relationships with each other, and having learned something from the workshop that could be applied elsewhere, we felt the need to continue to work together as a group, however that could be implemented.  We left the workshop vowing to try to make this happen, whether by continuing to connect with each other via email, or even to meet again in the future.


Problems.  Ten years after the collapse of communism, some features of the Soviet system still persist, and these are realized in a number of ways.  At the workshop in general, there seemed to be a great divide between younger and older people, whether or not this was simply a matter of calendar years, or of mind-set. That is, people of the younger mind-set seemed more open and flexible, and presented their ideas in an informal and relaxed manner.  Participants of the older order, whether actually chronologically older or not, tended to make their verbal contribution in a decidedly polemical  Soviet manner--- eyes fixed on a point over the heads of the people being addressed, they shouted into the microphone and asserted their viewpoints in a way that seemed to assume that the loudest and most vociferous viewpoints would win over the minds of others.[1]  (I have recently read a description of Newt Gingrich’s speaking style, as a “hyper-vivid sloganeering” style, so this is not limited to ex-Soviet people.)


Aside from just being unpleasant, I found these contributions to be difficult to digest because the translation coming over the wireless system simply could not be heard over the din of the shouted reports.  In most cases, these contributions were delivered either in Rumanian or Russian, and I needed a translation, which I could not hear.  Eventually I found it too tiring to even try to hear them, and usually there were no handouts or other visual materials to aid with comprehension, either.  During the last day, when we tried to work during the lunch in small groups, we discovered that this element was what was missing---small groups would have facilitated discussion and sharing of opinions, rather than the format of the ‘plenary’ session.  These are differences of style, but they contribute to substance if people can actually hear each other and think about what they are hearing.


Another issue that arose in the first day was that while contributions made in Russian were being translated into Rumanian and English, the reverse wasn’t happening, so that the half-dozen participants who understood no English[2] and no Rumanian couldn'’t hear what was happening. This was quickly rectified, and things improved, even if they got more complicated by having three languages in use.  But it also changed the dynamic for me, because  when  the Russian-speaking participants were brought in on an equal basis, I too began to venture to resurrect my rusty Russian, and  to speak to those participants who now could participate on an equal basis.  Clearly Russian is still a lingua franca among the ex-Soviet countries, and will continue to be for some time; this revealed to me that the status as a lingua franca is different from the status of Russian as an official language, that is, in some countries (e.g. Moldova) there is no problem with using Russian as an auxiliary language, but officializing it is another story


Theory vs. Practice.  Another issue that became clear to me as time went on was that there was another difference between the old-style participants and the newer-style presentations. That was that the older style people spoke in a theoretical way, about how things ought to be, and how tolerance ought to mean thus and such.  Younger-style speakers talked about practical research they had carried out, such as working with children in schools to have them write about difference, about prejudice, about what they thought acceptance and tolerance meant.  As soon as these kinds of presentations began to be made, I found myself suddenly paying close and rapt attention.  Clearly we must have more work in this area, work that emerges out of the real experience of real people.  Pedagogically, it is easier for others to understand and apply to their own situation.


Rehearsing Grievances.  Another difference between old-style participants and the newer-style presentations had to do with a tendency on the part of the older style people to rehearse the grievances of the past, and to make accusations about their perceived persecution to the  representatives of the countries they were minorities of, who of course had no responsibility for what had happened to, e.g. Rumanian minorities in the Ukraine, or Ukrainian minorities in Moldova.  Again, working in small groups would probably have changed this dynamic.  At times one had the feeling of  being observers at  the proceedings of the UN General Assembly, where representatives of one country regularly castigate representatives of other countries for perceived crimes and misdeeds.


Gagauzia.  The visit to Gagauzia on the last day was interesting and instructive, and showed a number of the kinds of problems that confront the post-1991 states.  It was not until we heard their opinions on a number of subjects that certain things became clear to me.


·        One is that there are special problems of small language groups like the Gagauz, and what this means for the post-1991 states.  (Groups that have always been in the minority, but are now the minority in a different kind of situation, and in relationship to a different language.)


·        Another issue is that of the language of the former dominant group(s), such as Russians and/or Ukrainians, and their status in the post-1991 non-Russian states. (These groups are former majority groups now in the minority.)


In Moldova, at least, the issue of the status of Russian seems to not be a problem (at least not the kind of problem it represents in other countries, such as Latvia or Kazakhstan.) As one person put it, they are happy to have Russian as an auxiliary language, but not as an official language. But though I am in general sympathetic to small linguistic minorities, I found the attitude of the Gagauz quite problematical.  A group with only 170,000 speakers that thinks that it will be able to use their language in secondary schools or higher education, and that they can devise vocabulary for technical registers they currently lack, is clearly not thinking realistically.  One of our group characterized their approach as utopian; I would have called it wishful thinking, or even delusional behavior.  Here there seem to be a number of problems, and just evoking the UN Charter, or Declarations of Human Rights, is not going to get very far.


·        There is a clear need in such areas for some basic information about language policy and planning---they need to know that if they take a certain step, there will be certain consequences.  They need to know that language policy decisions entail certain costs and these are not only the cost of producing materials, training teachers, preparing dictionaries, but the social costs of making decisions that channel people irrevocably in one direction or another, from which there may be, at the end of their education, no escape.  There is a body of knowledge here that the Gagauz, and probably other groups, need to know about, and a way needs to be devised to help them acquire this knowledge.  The idea that if they need textbooks written in their language for grades 4-8, or for even higher levels, that they will simply produce them, is totally unrealistic, but this did not seem to phase them. 


·        They need to know that not only it is going to be a technical problem to devise vocabulary for registers their language does not possess, there will also be a person-power problem, in that there will not be enough people to do this for Gagauz, because the population is too small.  One could cite linguistic situations in many post-colonial societies, such as India or the Arab world, where languages with tens of millions of speakers, such as Tamil or Hindi are still not used in higher education for technical fields such as medicine or computer science.  Professionals in these fields want to be in touch with what the rest of the world is doing, and would feel cut off if they have to wait for translations of the constantly-emerging new vocabulary of each field.  All attempts to impose another language in these fields have been beaten back, and if all else fails, the professionals simply emigrate.[3]



·        Groups that talk constantly about their rights need also to be reminded of their responsibilities, especially to their young people, who need educational opportunities that will not be available through a small Turkic language with no scientific and technical registers.  Of course they indicate that they can always use Russian for this purpose, but this does not serve to integrate them into Moldovan society, nor will it any time soon.


·        The role of the government of Turkey, which seems to be funding initiatives such as the Gagauz drive for linguistic autonomy, needs to be brought into focus. Linguistic rights of various minority linguistic groups within Turkey are notoriously lacking; one only need think of Kurdish or Greek, but there are many more.  It is simply hypocritical of the government of Turkey to give money to the Gagauz, when a similar small group within Turkey would have absolutely no such rights, and never have had any.[4]


·        I asked a pointed question while we were discussing these factors, namely, where was the faculty of the Comrat State University trained, and where would new faculty be recruited from.  The hoped-for answer, that they would hire them from other Moldovan universities, was not given.  Instead they “would train their own faculty”, thus assuring that new faculty would be clones of the old, and would know nothing more than their supervising faculty knew.  This does not bode well for the graduates of the CSU, who will probably be condemned to work only within Gagauzia, since their language skills will not prepare them for jobs elsewhere in Moldova.


Summing Up. As mentioned in the introduction to this report, it is clear to me and to some of the other participants that the workshop in Moldova opened the door and raised many questions, but that many unsolved problems, both in Moldova and the other post-1991 countries, that a number of us think need to be followed up on.  Let me summarize these briefly:


·        The notion of tolerance is a slippery one, and I’m not at all sure we succeeded in defining it or finding a focus for it that can continue to be useful.  In my own presentation I revisited the work of H. Kloss[5], and now find the kind of tolerance he praised  in American society to be at best a kind of indifference to, rather than appreciation for the cultural and linguistic differences of others.[6]


·        Further work in this area needs to be done, and we see a need to address these needs in all of the post-1991 societies, but the areas that need to be addressed need more focus.  In particular, an emphasis on practical studies of ways in which inter-ethnic tolerance has been arrived at, is needed.


·        One of these areas is definitely in the field of language policy and planning, and could take the form of training programs, workshops, seminars, summer institutes, or whatever.


o       Small linguistic minorities (such as the Gagauz in Moldova, the Livonians in Latvia, the Abkhaz in Georgia) need to know what the implications and costs of various decisions  might be, and what is possible and what is not possible.


o       Majority-language groups need to know how to deal with the linguistic minorities amongst them, and what kinds of successful programs exist elsewhere in the world.



o       Both groups need to work out agreements about what is fair, especially cost-wise and how long-term commitments need to be institutionalized.


·        As Director of the Consortium for Language Policy and Planning, I will undertake to explore the possibility of funding for some of these initiatives.  I will approach the Soros Foundation, and perhaps also the Volkswagenstiftung, or any other foundations that are appropriate, but it is quite clear that this will have to be a ‘joint venture’ between the CLPP and groups in eastern Europe/former Soviet Union rather than an American initiative.



[1] My own experience with the Soviet system dates from a number of experiences: a month in the USSR in 1963 where a group of foreigners and Soviet citizens worked and discussed the problems of the world together; another month with a similar program in 1967 in California; a summer in 1964 spent in East Germany; a six-week experience in Yugoslavia in 1961. 

[2] I realize that these people didn’t warn the organizers that they didn’t know English, but it did make a difference in that those who couldn’t understand began to talk among themselves and the murmur then contributed to the auditory difficulties.

[3] In Sri Lanka after 1983, many Tamil doctors left the country rather than be subjected to ethnic harassment or language regulations; in the aftermath, the medical and health system has been severely and adversely affected, and some Sinhalese are still wondering why.

[4] This issue of rights and responsibilities reminded me of what is like to raise children, especially when they are teenagers and want to have unlimited rights to drive the car and stay out all night. We remind them that rights are linked to responsibilities and I would remind the Gagauz, or any other linguistic minority anywhere else in the world, that they cannot expect the Moldovan state, or the Turkish state, or any other state to provide them with unlimited resources for the promotion of their language, if they do not also participate in the larger societal context as good citizens.  All our questions about these issues were met in Gagauzia with vague, slippery,  and evasive answers,   or with assurances that of course Rumanian was also a language taught in Gagauzia.  No evidence existed, however, that any of the people we met were familiar with the Rumanian language. The visit to Gagauzia was for many of us like stepping back into pre-1991 Soviet Union--—the statue of Lenin in front of the town hall, the large portrait of Karl Marx in the reception room, the lock-step unanimous agreement of the faculty of the Comrat University on all issues.  Instead of leading to cultural efflorescence, as they believe, this kind of isolation can only lead to cultural stagnation, and even cultural suicide.  In some parts of the world where linguistic groups have tried to ‘go it alone’, the young people simply abandon the language and go elsewhere, or even emigrate, leaving a hard-core of cultural isolationists who can'’t seem to see what is happening.


[5] Heinz Kloss, The American Bilingual Tradition.  1977.  Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.  Reprinted 1997, Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.  ISBN: 1-887744-02-9.

[6] In some of the literature on Belgium, the term “langue de résignation” is used---a language people “resign themselves to” or “put up with” instead of actively try to appreciate.