This chapter focuses on two specific sub-questions. First, what role does the autonomous region of Gagauzia play, both in internal Moldovan politics and in relations with the Russian Federation? Second, to what extent does this region pose a risk to the stability of Moldova, and in what way? To answer these questions, the chapter first provides a short overview of the history of the region and its autonomy. Next, the chapter assesses the functioning of the autonomy in practice. It then describes sources of Russian influence in the region, before analysing security risks in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Gagauz are a Turkic people who were repressed under Ottoman rule for their Orthodox Christian orientation. They found a safe haven in 18th and 19th century Bessarabia, then part of the Russian empire. Originally, the Gagauz spoke Gagauzian, a Turkic language, but since being part of the Soviet Union, Russian has become the dominant language. Early in 2022, the Moldovan statistical bureau set the population of Gagauzia at 121,700. Our interviews suggest that due to emigration, actual population figures may be closer to about 75,000, and in the last Gagauz elections only just over 40,000 people voted.
As part of the Soviet Union, the relatively poor region of Gagauzia developed economically and culturally, leading to an awakening of Gagauz nationalism in the 1980s, partially in response to growing Romanian nationalism and unificationist sentiment within Moldova. Back then, Gagauz leaders explained that their longing for political self-determination originated from a fear of extinction, as the Gagauz had no co-ethnic political patron entities elsewhere in the world. The Gagauz tried repeatedly to become autonomous or even independent from Moldova, voting in a referendum in 1990 to become an independent republic of the Soviet Union and operating as a quasi-independent state for a few years. Although in March 1991 they voted overwhelmingly to stay within the Soviet Union, Gagauz deputies did not oppose Moldova’s own declaration of independence on 21 August 1991.
Wary of the threat of Gagauz secessionism in the wake of the Transnistria conflict, the central government in Chișinău and Gagauz leaders in Comrat began difficult and occasionally heated negotiations on an autonomous status. In 1994 Moldova adopted its constitution, which separated powers but also laid the basis for the Gagauz autonomy. Article 111 of that constitution read, ‘the places on the left bank of the Nistru river, as well as certain other places in the south of the Republic of Moldova may be granted special forms of autonomy according to special statutory provisions of organic law’.
Autonomy was subsequently arranged through a December 1994 law on the special legal status of Gagauzia, which created the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (Gagauz Yeri, or Gagauzia in short). The law stipulated the right to self-determination of Gagauzia should Moldova lose its sovereignty. In practice this provision was spurred by a Gagauz fear of a potential Moldovan merger with Romania. The law recognised Moldovan, Gagauz and Russian as the three official languages of the region, and established Gagauzia’s political structures: the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia as legislative, and Bashkan (governor) as executive. The borders of the region were set on the basis of ethnicity figures and for some municipalities stipulated through referenda in 1995. Only nearly a decade later, the basic principles of Gagauz autonomy were enshrined in the constitution through amendments to Article 111.
While the peaceful accommodation of Gagauzia’s desire for self-determination through a territorial autonomy arrangement can in principle be regarded a success, the autonomy law suffers from several ‘design flaws’. Experts consider the law overly ambiguous and flexible, which has led to divergent interpretations of the text. For example, a hierarchy of laws issue has remained, revolving around the question whether Gagauzia needs to bring in line its laws with those of Moldova or vice versa. Second, the competencies of Gagauz and central authorities have not been properly defined. The issue of ambiguity is exacerbated by a lack of a designated arbitrage mechanism to solve disputes between the parties.
These design flaws are aggravated by unhelpful political attitudes from both Chișinău and Comrat, a lack of capacity to implement the autonomy, and little effort by successive central governments to improve the participation and language skills of national minorities. As a result, Gagauzia and its population is insufficiently integrated into Moldova at large. Moldovan authorities and politicians in Chișinău lack a genuine interest in Gagauzia; for example, the current PAS majority in parliament did not put any Gagauz residents on its electoral list and President Sandu has visited the region only twice, and did not meet with the Bashkan on either visit. This lack of interest is partially due to the fact that the Gagauz public usually vote overwhelmingly for Communist or Socialist parties. Parties on the right of the political spectrum therefore rarely try to reach out to the Gagauz people and regard them as a pro-Russian ‘lost cause’, while the left takes their votes for granted. This also means Gagauzia is often in conflict with the central government if there are pro-European leaders in power – and sometimes even threatens separatism to obtain political concessions; for example, on 2 February 2014 Gagauzia organised a dual referendum in which 98% affirmed the region’s right to secede from Moldova should there be a change in statehood. They also voted to integrate with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, which will be discussed in more detail below.
The autonomy law includes certain provisions to safeguard Gagauzia’s interests at the national level. Most importantly, the Bashkan of Gagauzia formally has a dual-hatted role in which he or she is also ex officio part of the government in Chișinău. While this provision is formally respected and could serve as an important channel of communication, successive Bashkans have bitterly complained that they are not given timely information about, or satisfactorily involved in, decision making. In response to their low representation at national level, after the PAS electoral victory the Gagauz People’s Assembly again voted on 25 May 2022 in support of a quotum of five Gagauz seats in the national parliament, an idea that has failed to gain traction in Chișinău. Gagauz politicians feel that the central government is ‘afraid of engaging with Gagauzia’, while Chișinău perceives the Gagauz as not very constructive. Nonetheless, there are channels and initiatives to overcome long-held disagreements. For example, a long-running dialogue between the Moldovan Parliament and the Gagauz People’s Assembly on the functioning of the autonomy is taking place facilitated by the NGO Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), with financial support from some EU member states, for example Sweden. At the same time, the dialogue has made painfully clear the extent to which parliamentarians lack insight into the basic parameters of the autonomy.
The Moldovan central authorities’ lack of motivation to engage with Gagauzia may be partly explained by the region’s many internal issues related to infighting, corruption and the low capacity of its People’s Assembly. Our conversations with Gagauz officials and experts suggest that corruption involving with EU funds, political clientelism and nepotism, as well as personal squabbles between the region’s politicians, are widespread. Some in Chișinău perceive Gagauzia largely through a security lens, seeing the region as a potential source of Russian-provoked instability.
A final problem is that Gagauzia – which has no real external territorial homeland – lacks an external guarantor of its autonomy. This is a role that the EU could potentially play, both as a mediator and as an enforcer of agreements that have been reached. The recently opened EU accession trajectory of Moldova offers the EU leverage to require that formal principles of the Gagauz autonomy are respected. The EU could also demand and foster engagement between Gagauz and central authorities to find solutions to issues such as language barriers and education.
Due to its historical, cultural and linguistic trajectory, Gagauzia has traditionally been strongly oriented towards the Russian Federation. Over the years this has translated into Russian influence over societal, political and economic developments in the region.
The identity of the Gagauz is rooted in a cultural and historical background. Their historic memory is one of being accommodated in the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union, in contrast to one of forced assimilation in the period of the Romanian kingdom. This has led to the Gagauz identifying with the ‘Russian world’, an ‘imagined transnational community of people identifying themselves with Russia through a common language, religion, conservative values (that oppose Western liberal ideas), culture, history, emotional attachment, or political, economic and security considerations and practices’. For example, when the central government controversially banned the use of St George’s Ribbon in April 2022, the Gagauz People’s Assembly overturned the ban and the symbol was used openly in Comrat during the 9th of May celebrations.
Gagauzia’s sense of belonging to the Russian world begins with language barriers that are reinforced by the education system. While in official census data the Gagauz often indicate that their ‘mother tongue’ is Gagauz, in practice they speak predominantly Russian. A 2020 study shows that in family circles the Gagauz tend to speak their mother tongue, whereas with colleagues, friends and public authorities they mainly use Russian. Unlike ethnic Moldovans, who are more often bilingual in Romanian and Russian, Gagauz will often study primarily in Russian and have limited or no knowledge of Romanian. As such, young Gagauz have little opportunity to study or work in Chișinău, where teaching is mostly in Romanian. Instead, several interviewees suggested that Gagauz remain in Comrat for their education, or emigrate to Tiraspol, Odesa or the Russian Federation. Comrat University has educational agreements with universities in Russia and with Tiraspol for that purpose. As discussed in Chapter 2, the language barrier also reinforces pro-Russian attitudes, as media consumed comprises mostly rebroadcasted Russian programmes, as well as locally produced Russian-language TV. For example, 73% of respondents who identify as ethnic Gagauz consume media from the Russian Federation, compared to 47% who identify as Moldovans. A Gagauz politician declared the recent ban as ‘painful’. Alignment with Russia is also apparent through Gagauzia’s strong resistance to normative issues – such as the social acceptance of LGBTQI+ people – that are espoused by the European Union, and which have become somewhat of a symbolic ‘flag’ for the Gagauz to rally around. This issue is abused time and time again by Gagauz politicians for electoral and mobilisational purposes. The most recent case was a Gagauz People’s Assembly vote on 25 May 2022 which banned both a potential gay pride event in Comrat and ‘propaganda of non-traditional relations’. Together with the Gagauz’ staunch opposition to unification with Romania, these socially conservative values provide local politicians as well as Russian propagandists with useful ‘buttons to press’ to mobilise the Gagauz against Chișinău and Brussels if needed.
Russia is also an active player in local politics in Gagauzia. Gagauz politicians seek Moscow’s approval as a legitimisation strategy, and traditionally the politician with the strongest or at least most ostensible support from Moscow wins the Bashkan elections. The current and previous Bashkans have been known for their Russian orientation. Ties between the Kremlin and current Bashkan Irina Vlah were considered close at the time of her election, although they have reportedly cooled since. Vlah’s originally staunchly pro-Russian discourse has made way for a more balanced approach to Gagauz and Moldovan politics, suggesting geopolitical pragmatism and possibly indicating her political ambitions in Moldova at large. It is unclear what other political figures Russia is looking to support in Gagauzia.
The orientation of the region towards Russia also has an economic component. In a 2014 referendum, an overwhelming majority of Gagauz citizens voted for integration with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union rather than with the EU, while also rejecting further EU integration in general. The region, and some of its politicians, indeed benefit from certain exemptions to Russian import levies on Moldova, and Gagauz citizens emigrating for labour opportunities traditionally mainly leave for the Russian Federation. However, as Russia’s economy contracts and travel to Moscow becomes harder, more Gagauz are shifting their labour migration patterns towards other regions or countries, such as the EU and Turkey.
Despite their ideological disposition towards Russia, when it comes to trade and business opportunities, the Gagauz are remarkably pragmatic and similar to the business elite in Transnistria. They make full use of export opportunities to the EU facilitated by the 2014 agreed Association Agreement (AA)/Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), as well as to Turkey, with which the region has had a free trade agreement since 2016. Gagauz representatives nominally support cooperation with the EU for such pragmatic reasons, but to date EU-sponsored investments in the region have failed to decisively alter the pro-Russian orientation of the region.
Despite heated rhetoric and high levels of distrust, the real security risks stemming from Gagauzia in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are low. As noted above, spurred by Russian-language media consumption and political rhetoric, the Gagauz generally hold a positive view of Russia. Experts argue that a majority of Gagauz citizens subscribe to the Russian narrative that Ukraine may have called the war upon itself. Ukrainian refugees are being accommodated in Gagauzia but this has not significantly altered their perceptions of the war.
Moldovan experts and officials estimate the actual security threat emanating from Gagauzia itself as low. The region neither borders Russia nor Transnistria and has limited potential to engage in kinetic conflict. There may still be some small Soviet-era caches of small arms and light weapons, and some local law enforcement officials might be persuaded to defect if there was an escalating conflict, but the number of Gagauz who are trained and willing to take up arms and fight the central government is not militarily significant.
Instead, Gagauzia should largely be perceived as one of the regional security risks to Moldova posed by Russia’s war in Ukraine, in terms of both conventional and hybrid warfare. This particularly concerns the Budzhak district of Ukraine, the southern part of the historical region of Bessarabia. It is populated by a mix of ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians and Gagauz and is only linked to the rest of Ukraine by two bridges and a narrow strip of land. Back in 2015 a short-lived attempt took place to form a ‘Bessarabian National Council’, and the then-Bashkan of Gagauzia, Mihail Formuzal, participated in one of its meetings in Odesa. The Moldovan Security and Intelligence Service, SIS, effectively cooperated with its Ukrainian counterpart, the SBU (Ukrainian intelligence agency), to quickly crack down on separatist attempts to establish a ‘People’s Republic’ in the Budzhak region. Russian officials and state media made considerable efforts to portray these developments as Ukraine and Moldova undermining the human rights of minorities. Speculation arose that Russia could use the region as part of a hybrid warfare campaign against Moldova and Ukraine.
In 2022, new reports emerged of protests in Gagauzia in favour of closer cooperation with the Russian Federation. A citizens movement called the ‘People's Union of Gagauzia’, said to be led by Viktor Petrov, a deputy in the Gagauz People’s Assembly, organised itself in July 2022 to ‘protect the rights and freedoms of Gagauzia and its inhabitants’ and to ‘develop good relations with the historical friends of the Gagauz people – Russia and other countries from the Eurasian Economic Union’. On 17 July, they protested against rising (fuel) prices. According to the group, its founding congress on 23 June 2022 was attended by over 700 people. It remains unclear to what extent links with the Russian Federation will appear, but these developments reaffirm that Gagauz citizens can still be easily mobilised against the central authorities. They also reflect the growing popularity of Viktor Petrov, who may aim to become the new Bashkan in 2023.
In 2022 the war in Ukraine came closest to Moldova when Russian missiles hit one of the bridges connecting Budzhak to the rest of Ukraine. Some interviewees noted the possibility that Russia could use Budzhak as an amphibious landing area for an invasion of Ukraine’s southern coast. Even though a Russian operation in Budzhak appears highly unlikely at present, Gagauzia’s security situation could well change quickly if Russian troops were to invade the Odesa oblast. Some interviewees argue that 80% of Gagauz believe this may well happen in the medium to long term; one also noted that a potential Transnistrian integration with Russia might be used by Gagauz authorities to organise a new referendum on the future status of Gagauzia. Ultimately, as with Transnistria, much will depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine.
All in all, through cultural, historic, economic, political and other ties, Russia retains a clear influence over Gagauzia. The lack of adequate engagement from and engagement with Moldova at large exacerbates this. While economic cooperation with and investments from the EU have been embraced for pragmatic reasons by Gagauz leaders, such efforts have so far not significantly curtailed Russia’s influence nor shifted Gagauzia’s general orientation towards the ‘Russian world’.