Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid an official visit to Moldova, on October 17–18, after his trip had been postponed repeatedly since 2014 (Newsmaker.md, August 21). Historically, Turkey has played an important role in Moldovan politics, routinely acting as a broker between the central government and the Turkic Christian Orthodox minority—the Gagauz, who reside mainly in the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, in the country’s southeastern corner. Notably, it was Turkish President Suleyman Demirel who helped deescalate the conflict between Chisinau and Comrat soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, paving the way for the constitutional recognition of the Gagauz autonomy in 1994. Nowadays, President Erdoğan is focused not just on fostering better ties with the Turkic autonomy, but is eager to increase Turkey’s influence in Moldova as a whole, particularly as the Moldovan government finds itself increasingly isolated from all of its traditional partners. Interestingly, Moldova’s pro-Russian President Igor Dodon and its nominally pro-European government, controlled by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, had to compete for Erdoğan’s favor. Yet, just as in mediaeval times, when Turkish sultans balanced various groups vying for the throne of the Moldovan Principality, Erdoğan is investing financial and political capital in both Dodon and Plahotniuc.
President Dodon, who seeks to identify himself as a staunch defender of Moldova’s sovereignty and Christian Orthodoxy, was accompanied by President Erdoğan at the inauguration of the renovated Presidential Palace, for which Turkey paid 10 million euros ($11.5 milllion). Ankara even paid for the furniture that President Dodon will be using (Protv.md, October 19). Yet, the biggest beneficiaries of Erdoğan’s generosity are the people of the Gagauz autonomy and its governor, Irina Vlah. To ensure a grand welcome (Nokta.md, October 17), Vlah even declared the day of Erdoğan’s visit a holiday in the autonomy. Upon the Turkish leader’s arrival in Gagauzia, the two inaugurated a hospital, a kindergarten, a home for the elderly and a cultural center. Governor Vlah awarded Erdoğan the highest honor—the Order of the Autonomy. Whereas President Dodon, awarded him the highest national honor—the Order of the Republic (Agora.md, October 18). Despite the two presidents vowing to foster a strategic bilateral partnership, inter-governmental interaction was far more consequential from a policy standpoint, as Moldova is a parliamentary republic. Ironically, Erdoğan did not meet with the Moldovan speaker of the parliament, but only with Prime Minister Pavel Filip and the head of the ruling Democratic Party, Vladimir Plahotniuc, the latter of whom holds no public office (Unimedia.info, October 18).
Notably, Erdoğan was accompanied by four ministers, who signed five bilateral agreements with their Moldovan counterparts. Citizens of Moldova and Turkey will now be able to travel to the other respective country with only a domestic identification document, no longer requiring passports. This is aimed at boosting tourism and investment, but also raises security concerns, given the terrorist threats emanating from within and around Turkey. Also, freight transporters will no longer require transit authorizations, a measure aimed at encouraging trade. A defense cooperation agreement will foster bilateral military trainings, visits and joint exercises. Another document is aimed at boosting ties in the field of youth and sports. Finally, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding covering the workings of a Moldovan-Turkish high school in the village of Congaz, in the Gagauz autonomy (Gov.md, October 17). The latter was an attempt to make up for a scandal that made Erdoğan’s visit highly controversial.
On September 6, seven school teachers and managers from the Moldovan-Turkish high school “Horizon” were seized by Moldovan and Turkish security services and immediately transported to Turkey without any due process. The seven Turkish nationals were also asylum seekers, but upon a secret notice from the Moldovan Security Service, the Ministry of Interior nonetheless declared them “undesirable” (Rise.md, October 16). The seven teachers from one of the best schools in the country, attended by children of the Moldovan elite (including, until recently, the son of Parliamentary Speaker Andrian Candu), were “expelled under suspicion of ties to an Islamism group,” implying links to the so-called Hizmet movement; pro-government Moldovan media promptly labeled them as terrorists (Publika.md, September 7; Unimedia.info, September 11). The designation is highly controversial since only Turkey considers the Hizmet movement, led by Turkish preacher living in the United States Fethullah Gülen, a terrorist group. However, Erdoğan blames the Gülenists for the 2016 coup attempt against his government.
The brazen act of kidnapping and expulsion of the “Horizon” school teachers scandalized Moldovan civil society as well as the international community. Amnesty International, the United Nations Office for Human Rights, and the European Union’s Commissioner Johannes Hahn all vehemently criticized Chisinau’s decision (Amnesty.org, Moldova.org 1,2, September 6). Accusations mounted that the seven Turkish educators were merely a bargaining chip ahead of Erdoğan’s visit to Moldova.
Erdoğan ended up additionally irritating local sensitivities when he attempted to convince the Moldovan public during his press conference with Dodon that Moldova runs the risk of being infiltrated by alleged terrorists (Gagauz.md, October 17). And public opinion was further angered when it became known that Erdoğan had donated two armored water cannon vehicles designed for riot control to the Moldovan interior ministry (Cotidianul.md, October 18). The gift is rather symbolic not just in the aftermath of the teachers’ expulsion scandal, but also as the increasingly anti-democratic Moldovan government controlled by Plahotniuc prepares for a contentious election season.
Having oscillated between the European Union and Russia, Moldova now runs the risk of falling through the geopolitical cracks into a gray zone between the two, which Plahotniuc and his party are now promoting as the country’s new strategic direction (Evzmd.md, October 22). The fourth way, according to them, is a blend of nationalism and isolationism, of which Turkey is seen as a model. For Russia—the big elephant in the room—this is not just acceptable but a desirable direction for Moldova away from democratic European standards, seen as a threat to the Kremlin’s regime survival and influence in the region.