But now that Putin has thrown the dice in Crimea and signaled that he has no intention of respecting the sovereignty and integrity of any of the former Soviet republics or then-occupied Baltic states, there are three reasons why the Gagauz should receive more attention. First, because they can be so easily put in play, Moscow may use them to overload the capacity of Chisinau to respond in a crisis. Second, because they are a Turkic people, the Russian authorities may use declarations of support for them to cover a new wave of repression against the Crimean Tatars. And third, because Turkey thus far has not been able to do very much for the Crimean Tatars, Ankara may want to do even more for the Gagauz, a group with which it has close ties. That sets the stage for the kind of conflict that could easily get out of hand.
By Paul Goble
A group of pro-Moscow Gagauz activists have raised the Russian flag in their capital city of Komrat, on March 15, in support of the Crimean “referendum” Moscow organized and are insisting that Gagauzia—an autonomous region of Moldova populated by the Gagauz, an Orthodox Christian Turkic people—should have the same right as Crimea or Kosovo to hold a referendum on independence, especially given that the Moldovan government is pursuing a pro-Western and anti-Russian policy that closely resembles the Ukrainian Maidan and against which the Gagauz like the people of Crimea have protested.
One Gagauz leader, Ilya Uzun, a deputy in that nationality’s Popular Assembly, told the group that he was “glad that such an enormous country [as Russia] has a president like Vladimir Putin. Everything that there is in our land was built by the Russian people and by our people,” not the Moldovans. And consequently the Gagauz have every right not only to speak in defense of the Crimean people and their choice but to demand a referendum on their own future status (regnum.ru/news/polit/1778586.html).
That is all the more so, he and other speakers at the weekend meeting said, because Chisinau has repeatedly declared that it “does not recognize” the Crimean vote, that it considers it “illegal,” and that it supports “the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
When analysts focus on separatist challenges to Moldova, they not surprisingly devote almost all of their attention to the breakaway republic of Transnistria, an enclave with a Slavic majority, even though Moldovans outnumber either ethnic Russians or ethnic Ukrainians there, and one that has by its alliance with Moscow and its selling off of Soviet-era arms dumps to various groups around the world sustained itself since 1991. The Gagauz are mentioned, if at all, only in passing.
In addition to the political resources of Tiraspol, there are three reasons for this. First, the Gagauz are far smaller in number, with a total population estimates at around 200,000. Second, they live not in a single compact area but are dispersed among other ethnic groups, including Moldovans, in a region about 130 kilometers southeast of Chisinau. And third, their political activism has almost perfectly tracked that of Trans-Dniestria, simultaneously highlighting the extent to which the Gagauz are very much a Moscow project directed against the Moldovan state and justifying in the minds of many ignoring this group.