Transnistria has almost always attracted more attention as a tool for Moscow in limiting Moldova’s freedom of action than Gagauzia, a Turkic but Orthodox Christian autonomy in the country’s southeast that the Russian authorities have also used to influence Chisinau’s decision-making (see EDM, June 23, 2022, January 26, February 24). Yet, in recent months, the Gagauz autonomy has become more important in Russian calculations precisely because of developments in Transnistria and Chisinau’s clever diplomacy there (see EDM, May 9). Now, after spring elections in Gagauzia, which brought another pro-Russian politician to power in Komrat, the Moldovan government has adopted an ever-harsher line against the Gagauz regime, which has led the population there to take to the streets in protest and the Komrat authorities to announce plans to open a representation office in Moscow (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 25).
The officials in Komrat insist that they are taking this step to promote Gagauz products in the Russian marketplace given Chisinau’s cutbacks in assistance to the region, one whose population and leaders have consistently opposed rapprochement with the European Union and Romania as well as sought to maintain Soviet-era ties with Moscow. However, many in the Moldovan capital see the Gagauz plans as a clear sign that the newly installed government in Komrat, backed by Moscow, is pursuing plans for secession and thus have concluded that Chisinau has no choice but to adopt an even tougher line against Gagauzia. And this would include at least potentially moving to strip the current head of the autonomy, Yevgenia Gutsul, of her position and reducing Chisinau’s subsidies so as to bring the region to heel. These contrasting readings are leading both sides to dig in and have thus made the kind of compromises the two have adopted in the past less likely. Indeed, they are even raising the possibility that these back-and-forth actions could result in an “explosion,” and the answer may come in the next several weeks (Cenzura.md, July 19; Md.tsargrad.tv; Ritmeurasia.org, July 27; Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 30).
In May 2023, after two rounds of voting, Gagauzia elected Gutsul as the autonomy’s head, yet another unapologetic advocate of rapprochement with Russia and opposition to Chisinau’s efforts to integrate with Europe. While observers declared the vote relatively free and fair and pointed out that the outcome reflected what public opinion polls had shown, there was a problem: Gutsul is a member of the pro-Moscow Shor Party, which the Moldovan courts have declared in violation of the country’s constitution (see EDM, June 21, 22). Had she run as an individual rather than as a member of that party, she likely could have served without difficulty; nevertheless, she proudly identified herself as part of the pro-Moscow and anti-Chisinau Shor faction. As a result, no Moldovan government attended her inauguration on July 19, something she and other Gagauz saw as an affront. Moldovan President Maia Sandu even failed to issue what had been a pro forma order to include Gutsul in the Moldovan government as required by the autonomy arrangement, a lapse that infuriated the Gagauz leaders and prompted some to conclude that Sandu plans to do away with the autonomy altogether. That move in turn led to protests in the Gagauz parliament and massive demonstrations in Komrat as well as other Gagauz centers on July 25 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 25; Md.Tsargrad.tv, July 27).
But neither Chisinau nor Komrat have left matters there. The Moldovan parliament is considering legislation that would require the removal of Gutsul by declaring that no one can be elected in Moldova except according to Moldovan law. Chisinau is also considering significant cuts to its subsidies to Komrat, so much so that the autonomy’s budget will be reduced by 25 percent, a figure that Gagauzia would find almost impossible to make up on its own. In response, the Gagauz government has announced plans to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (RIA Novosti, July 24) and, as mentioned, to announce plans to open a representation office in Moscow ostensibly to promote trade between Gagauzia and the Russian Federation. Such an office might not be a problem in normal times, but these are not normal times: Chisinau has just expelled Russian diplomats for espionage activities, and the issue of Moscow’s relations with Gagauzia has become wrapped up in that dispute. As a result, more politicians in Chisinau read Komrat’s latest plans as a step toward secession or at least the threat of that, rather than as a purely economic move (Ritmeurasia.org, July 27).
The situation could deteriorate or ease depending on three factors in particular: Moscow’s willingness to allow such a representation office to open and its definition of the role such an institution may play; the Moldovan parliament’s decision to approve, this week or next, measures that would require a new election in Gagauzia and finally cut subsidies to the autonomy; and the success the Gagauz may have in the European Union and elsewhere in pressing the case that Moldova is in violation of its own laws and democratic principles in its actions against Gutsul. Unfortunately, all three of these appear set to exacerbate the crisis. Indeed, Moscow can play the Gagauz card at a low cost to itself, something its declining ability to use Transnistria makes especially likely. Furthermore, the Moldovan parliamentarians appear to feel that the West is on their side and that taking anti-Russian steps now will win them support rather than criticism. It is also entirely possible that Turkey, which has always seen itself as a patron of the Gagauz, may back them as well, something that would further complicate the situation as Moscow has oscillated between viewing Ankara as an ally and a competitor on this issue. (On Turkey’s longstanding but complicated role with regard to the Gagauz, whom it considers to be close relatives of the Anatolian Turks, see EDM, March 16, 2021; August 5, 2021).
Given that the numerous Gagauz crises since the mid-1990s have typically appeared about to blow up but then calmed down, many are likely to view the current situation as a repetition of the past and conclude that the same outcome will happen again. Yet, emotions are higher in both Komrat and Chisinau than in the past, Moscow’s resources in Moldova have diminished and Chisinau’s calculations about Western support against Russia are quite different. As a result, the outcome this time around may be more explosive—sending shockwaves from a place that has seldom received much attention through not just Moldova but Russia, the EU and the West more generally.