Gagauzia Takes Center Stage in Moscow’s Efforts to Rein In Moldova
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 75
Since Moldova became independent in 1991, Russia has repeatedly employed two major levers inside the country to try to prevent it from turning to the West, as the current Moldovan government has consistently signaled it wants to do. These are the breakaway and Slavic-dominated Republic of Transnistria in the north and the 200,000-strong Christian Turkic region of Gagauzia in the southeast. Transnistria invariably attracts more attention both because ethnic Russians, or at least Slavs, form a plurality of its population and because of a Russian-backed “peacekeeping” contingent there. And that disproportionate attention continues despite the fact that Moscow is losing influence among Transnistria’s elites, who are calculating that they may be better off being linked to Europe than Russia, and despite the fact that Chisinau appears to have outplayed Moscow in talks about the breakaway region. Even so, some are still calling for an increase in the size of the Russian contingent there or to use it in Moscow’s war against Ukraine (see EDM, February 24, 27; Iarex.ru, May 8).
Meanwhile, the Gagauz, long ignored as an ethnographic curiosity, have been growing in importance, not only in terms of Moscow’s calculations but also with regard to their impact on Chisinau and its pro-Western and anti-Moscow policies. This is largely due to both the traditional pro-Russian orientation of the Gagauz who see Moldova’s rapprochement with Romania as a threat to their language and culture and the European Union’s concern about the treatment of ethnic minorities, a concern that limits Chisinau’s freedom of action against them even if the Gagauz are acting largely as Russian agents (see EDM June 5, 2018; January 27, 2022; April 28, 2022; March 23). This increase in the importance of the Gagauz in this role has only grown still further in recent weeks because the region is now in the midst of a contested election campaign that experience suggests will not end well either for Chisinau or for its plans to join the EU. Indeed, according to some observers, this election could lead to efforts by the Gagauz to secede from Moldova and possibly to some form of Russian intervention there (Kommersant, April 20; Haqqin.az, May 7).
In every past regional vote among the Gagauz—and such elections have occurred there every four years—Moscow has played an active role, helping to ensure that the Gagauz remain close allies of the Kremlin (see EDM, July 29, 2013; May 31, 2015). This time around, Gagauz figures indicated in advance that the Russians would be even more active, setting the stage for a conflict that Chisinau may not be able to avoid or prevent from descending into violence. This will especially be the case if the central Moldovan government reacts harshly when the final round of voting takes place on May 14 and when a radically pro-Moscow and anti-Chisinau candidate wins out as the first round of voting on April 30 eliminated all of the six other, more moderate Gagauz politicians Chisinau had hoped would triumph (see EDM, August 4, 2022; Rubaltic.ru, March 20; Eurasia.expert, April 28).
All eight candidates for bashkan (head of the Gagauz autonomy) in the first round were pro-Russian, but many were not interested in challenging Chisinau directly. The two who did win and will face each other on May 14, however, were the most radical. Both Grigory Uzun, who is supported by Moldova’s oppositionist Socialist Party, and Yevgenia Gutsul of the Shor Party, who has been accused of taking money from Moscow to organize anti-government demonstrations in Chisinau, are committed not only to opposing Chisinau’s pro-European policies as far as the Gagauz are concerned but even to seeking to mobilize others in Moldova in the same direction (Haqqin.az, May 7). Not surprisingly, the pro-Western president of Moldova, Maia Sandu, opposes both. On May 3, after the first round, she described Gagauzia as a “fifth column” working for Russia within Moldova—words that outraged and likely radicalized many Gagauz (Rubaltic.ru, May 6)
Moreover, Sandu’s government blocked the head of Tatarstan from visiting Gagauzia and Russian observers from coming in to monitor the Gagauz vote, further infuriating both Russia and the Gagauz (Eurasia.expert, April 30). Then, on May 7, the Moldovan police raided the offices of Gutsul’s campaign staff, detaining some of them. These actions were described by Gutsul as an effort to cancel the elections and allow Chisinau to rule Gagauzia without any democratic legitimacy (TASS, May 2; Rubaltic.ru; TASS, May 7).
As a result, some in Gagauzia are now talking about the possibility of secession—a move that could threaten the survival of Moldovan statehood (Haqqin.az, May 7). Things are unlikely to go that far, but such talk has consequences even if it does not lead to that end. While some Gagauz politicians are prepared to raise this possibility, most Gagauz see such threats as a means of forcing Chisinau to compromise with them on language and autonomy issues. Indeed, most Gagauz leaders say that they are not so much opposed to the EU as to union with Romania. If the former brings economic progress to the impoverished region, they will support joining. But they remain completely opposed to union with Romania, something they are convinced would lead to the destruction of their autonomy and put their nation at risk (Haqqin.az, May 7). But if the May 14 election does not go well, either because of overwhelming support for the radicals or a boycott by a large number of Gagauz, and if protests break out, that could change overnight, with more Gagauz willing to consider more radical actions. At the very least, such a scenario would work against Chisinau, which would have to explain itself to the Europeans who are far more concerned about the treatment of minorities than many seem aware. Thus, it would work in Moscow’s favor by slowing Chisinau’s moves away from Russia to the West, thereby giving the Russian authorities more time and more opportunity to rein in Moldova lest it completely exit the Russian orbit.
At the very least, these possibilities would appear to justify the conclusion of some Moscow commentators that “Russia has already won a victory in Gagauzia”—a victory that could cost Chisinau and Moldova far more than many now may think (Politnavigator.net, May 1).