Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 7

Moldova’s Gagauz republic organizes and becomes a precedent for Europe

by Vladimir Socor

Moldova has become the first country in Europe´s formercommunist area to experiment with ethnic-territorial autonomyas a solution to ethnic problems. On May 28 and June 11, two-roundelections were held in the southern part of Moldova for the legislatureand the chief executive post of the nascent Gagauzia. The eventmarks the institutionalization in Moldova of a controversial theoreticalconcept which has divided Western expert and political opinion,and is being watched by several countries in the region whichhave co-ethnics in southern Moldova or whose interests are inone way or another affected by this development.

Ukraine’s Gagauz in the multiethnic Budzhak region, where Ukrainiancontrol is less than solid, might gravitate toward the adjacentGagauzia if it proves functional. Russia has not renounced traditionalgeopolitical interests in this region and retains some leveragethere via Transdniester. Bulgaria is keeping an eye on the situationbecause ethnic Bulgarians are the second-largest ethnic elementin southern Moldova after the Gagauz, have uneasy relations withthem and fear absorption in Gagauzia. Romania correctly regardsthe emergence of autonomous Gagauzia as a further obstacle toregaining Moldova and has opposed it for that reason, but alsoout of concern that it may set a precedent for Hungarians in Transylvania.

Most important of all, Turkey in the last few years has showna keen interest in its "fellow-Turks," the Gagauz, andplayed an important facilitating role in Moldovan-Gagauz negotiations.Turkish president Suleyman Demirel visited Ukraine and Moldova,including Crimea and the Gagauz area, in July 1994 in the contextof a policy that Turkish officials described as "containingRussia" in the Black Sea basin. To consolidate Moldova´sposition, Demirel successfully encouraged the Gagauz leaders tomoderate their demands and offered substantial economic assistanceto the Gagauz once they compromised with Chisinau. Turkey’s legationin Moldova has also been effective in promoting moderation amongthe Gagauz.

A Complicated History

The Gagauz are a Turkic-speaking population descended from abranch of Oguz tribes which settled in eastern Bulgaria aroundthe twelfth century and were converted by Byzantium to OrthodoxChristianity. The bulk of this people resettled to southern Bessarabiaas privileged colonists of the Russian tsars at the beginningof the nineteenth century. In 1944, the partition of southernBessarabia between Moldova and Ukraine by Moscow also dividedthe Gagauz settlement area. In both of these former Soviet republics,nationality policies mandated by the central authorities in Moscowdenied the Gagauz native-language education and cultural institutionsof their own and subjected this people to intense Russification.The local elites had neither the means nor the will to attemptMoldovanizing or Ukrainizing the Gagauz region through languageand settlement policies, in contrast to other union republic elitesin similar situations.

Currently there are some 165,000 Gagauz in Moldova–forming theabsolute majority of their area’s population–and approximately40,000 just across the border in Ukrainian territory. The politicalimportance of Moldova´s Gagauz far exceeds their number.They inhabit some 12 percent of the country’s territory, theirregion is so situated that it would cut off an equal-sized partof Moldova in the event of secession, it forms a wedge pointedtoward the Balkans, and it was historically used by Russian andSoviet armies as a staging area on the threshold to that peninsula.In addition, relations between Gagauz and other national groupsadjacent to or intermingled with them command the attention ofthose groups’ parent countries.

Along with other small peoples of the former USSR, the Gagauzexperienced a national awakening during the 1980s. Toward theend of the decade, the central authorities moved to support Gagauzdemands as a counter to the Moldovan national movement. Althoughthe latter agreed to the initial Gagauz program of cultural autonomy,the Moldovans were angered when the Gagauz, encouraged by Moscow,proclaimed a Gagauz Republic centered on Komrat in 1989 and in1990 declared their secession from Moldova, thus undercuttingMoldova’s own progress toward secession from the USSR. In seekingrecognition of a republican status, the Gagauz leaders pointedto a number of peoples smaller than theirs–including notablythe Abkhaz–which did have that status. They also set up a RepublicanGuard armed by Soviet military units stationed in Ukraine priorto their transfer and later by the Transdniester forces. Electionsto Gagauz republic bodies were held in 1990 under the protectionof USSR Interior Ministry troops which stopped the ephemeral Moldovanefforts to send Moldovan Popular Front volunteers into the Gagauzregion. This narrow escape from a possible interethnic conflagrationhas restrained both Chisinau and Komrat since that time.

Since 1989, the situation in southern Moldova was generally oneof dual power, with administrative bodies loyal to either Komrator Chisinau competing for authority and influence. This politicalcompetition was occasionally punctuated by armed raids of theGagauz guard against Moldovan police stations and also againstnon-Gagauz–primarily Bulgarian–villages in the region. The Gagauzleaders claimed, probably accurately, that they were losing controlof some Guard units to criminal elements; but the leaders failedto condemn the raids. Chisinau responded with a policy of unabashedappeasement which in this case eventually paid off. Moldovan policewere under strict orders to yield rather than fire back in orderto avoid clashes that might have been construed as, or indeedlead to, ethnic conflict. From 1992 on, Moldova´s PresidentMircea Snegur, Prime Minister Andrei Sangheli, parliament ChairmanPetru Lucinschi, and relevant parliamentary commission chairmentraveled repeatedly to rebel Komrat for talks with the unrecognizedGagauz leadership, headed by the would-be republic’s presidentStepan Topal and Supreme Soviet Chairman Mikhail Kendigelyan.Despite its refusal to recognize the Gagauz Supreme Soviet, theMoldovan parliament initiated in early 1993 the formation of ajoint commission of the two bodies to work out a mutually acceptablelegal status for what is now taking shape as Gagauzia.

That status was not simply a grant from Chisinau; it has beenarduously negotiated by the two sides, even if it has not takenthe form of a contract between them. The Moldovan parliament votedoverwhelmingly on 23 December 1994 to adopt the law on the powersof Gagauzia, call a referendum in February 1995 to determine Gagauzia’sterritory, and authorize regional elections no later than Junefor Gagauzia´s political bodies. The existing, unrecognizedGagauz structures took parallel decisions, so that the referendumand elections were organized jointly by Chisinau and Komrat. Itis noteworthy that the decision to proceed with Gagauz territorialautonomy and the terms of that autonomy have met with a politicalconsensus in Moldova; the government has not faced any politicalor societal backlash on this or other concessions to Moldova´sethnic communities.

A New Legal Status

The law on Gagauzia´s powers specifies in its preamble thatthe autonomous region is being established for the purposes ofensuring the preservation of Gagauz ethnic identity and meetingthe needs of the Gagauz as a people. These stipulations clearlyconfer an ethnic character on this autonomy, as does inevitablythe territory’s ethnic composition. The preamble treats the Gagauzas a collectivity, thereby implicitly consecrating collectiverights to ethnic identity and representation. It also reconfirmsthe individual civil and political rights of all residents ofGagauzia as guaranteed by Moldova´s constitution. In deferenceto one side to the international controversy over the concepts,the document avoids explicit references to "collective rights"and "ethnic-territorial autonomy," notwithstanding thatit establishes just that in practice.

Stipulating that Gagauzia forms a part of Moldova and that Moldova´sconstitution applies in its entirety to Gagauzia, the law goeson to devolve a wide range of powers on Gagauzia and delimit themfrom those of the central government. The latter retains fulljurisdiction over matters of citizenship, foreign policy, defense,currency, finance, and customs. Gagauzia´s governing bodieswill independently administer the region’s economy, educationsystem, cultural life, labor relations, social welfare, ecology,land use, town planning. They are empowered to determine and changethe region’s administrative-territorial organization, establishlocal subordinate structures, call regional and local electionsand referenda, and independently form the region’s budget bycollecting taxes and spending the tax and other revenues in theregion. Gagauzia´s official flag and coat of arms are authorizedto be flown or displayed alongside those of Moldova. Gagauzia"will participate in the formation and execution of Moldova´sforeign policy on matters involving Gagauzia´s interests."This provision reflects the Gagauz wish to maintain direct, althoughnot independent, contacts with Turkey and other Turkic countriesand will probably mean in practice the inclusion of Gagauz representativesin Moldovan delegations and diplomatic missions dealing with thosecountries.

The autonomous region will be governed by a legislative PopularAssembly and a chief executive official named Bashkhan(a Turkic term with a range of possible English translations connotingchief executive). The legislature and the Bashkhan areelected by popular vote for concurrent four-year terms. The PopularAssembly creates executive branch directorates and, with the Bashkhan,appoints the directorates’ heads, who make up the region’s executivecommittee. Gagauzia will have its own police, internal securityservice, courts of first instance and a court of appeals, anddistrict procurators headed by a chief procurator. The appealjustices, chief procurator, and police and security heads areto be appointed by Moldova´s president, chief procurator,and interior and security ministers, respectively, from candidatesnominated by Gagauzia´s legislature and Bashkhan. The latter will be an ex-officio deputy prime ministerof Moldova; and Gagauzia will also participate in Moldova´sparliamentary elections in addition to electing its regional legislature.Moldova´s penal and civil codes are to be fully applicablein Gagauzia.

The autonomous region will have three official languages: Moldovan,Gagauz, and Russian–as listed in the law. This decision reflectsthe country’s and the autonomous region’s ethnic, linguistic,and cultural complexity, the underdeveloped state of the TurkicGagauz language, and the legacy of Russification. The adoptionof three languages aims to provide latitude of linguistic choiceto as many citizens as possible, including the Gagauz themselveswho will make up the overwhelming majority of the autonomous territory’spopulation. These provisions are also meant to dispel Gagauz fearsof unwanted "romanization" after the earlier Russification–aconcern which had contributed significantly to Gagauz demandsto secede from Moldova a few years ago.

The law also provides a mechanism of adjudication of possibledisputes regarding its application. It empowers Moldova´ssupreme court to be the final arbiter in such disputes. As thelaw is an organic one, any changes in its text require a parliamentarymajority of at least 60 percent in Chisinau and consent in Komrat.

Defining Borders and Holding Elections

In the second stage of Gagauzia´s formation, a referendumwas held in southern Moldova on February 5, 1995 to determinethe configuration of the autonomous region’s territory. The residentswere asked to decide whether their particular town or villageshould be a part of Gagauzia or not; the votes were counted separatelyfor each locality. As could be expected, almost all localitieswith a Gagauz majority opted in, while almost all those with non-Gagauzmajorities opted out. Observers from the CSCE, Council of Europe,and foreign embassies in Chisinau pronounced the voting free andfair and the counting correct, despite some of the familiar proceduralirregularities of post-Soviet elections. The referendum has shapeda Gagauzia fairly homogenous ethnically and consisting of onelarger and one smaller portion of territory, separated by a fewmixed and non-Gagauz villages. This configuration is not necessarilyfinal in its details, since the referendum law provides that villageshave an opportunity to change their mind and vote again withinone year.

The residents of localities which joined Gagauzia elected onMay 28 and June 11 the Bashkhan and the Popular Assemblycomprised of 35 deputies. Forecasts had indicated that the formerGagauz republic’s leaders would fare poorly; but the voting revealedthat their loss of popularity after six years of continuous controlwas even more serious than anticipated. The post of Bashkhanwent to the Chisinau-domiciled Gagauz Georgii Tabunshchik,a former chief of the Moldovan Communist Party’s Komratrayon organization and later a ranking Central Committee official,now a private businessman running as an independent and positioninghimself as a moderate. In the runoff to a four-candidate race,Tabunshchik defeated Kendigelyan by a two-to-one margin afterTopal had failed in the first round. Candidates of four politicalparties and several independents obtained seats in the PopularAssembly, with the Communist Party emerging as the single strongest,according to preliminary results. These also indicate that Topal,Kendigelyan, and other former Gagauz republic leaders, all considered"radical," failed to obtain any seats in the chamber.

The turnout of some two-thirds of the registered voters at theseelections–high by post-Soviet standards–and an even higher percentageat the February referendum demonstrate the Gagauz population’sinterest in establishing its autonomy. At the same time, the rejectionof candidates perceived as radical seems to reflect the voters’wish to distance themselves from those associated with the confrontationsof recent years and to place Gagauzia and its relations with Chisinauon a stable, legal, and mutually advantageous basis. The electionresults will undoubtedly also color Gagauzia´s ExecutiveCommittee soon to be designated. Beyond the political compositionof the region’s first governing bodies, however, the enduringresult of these elections is that of institutionalizing the Gagauzautonomy and conferring democratic legitimacy on it.

A Precedent or an Exception?

Many who have watched Moldova´s experiment fear thatit could encourage separatist or autonomist movements in othercountries, primarily their own. Such concerns surfaced for exampleduring discussions at the Council of Europe and OSCE, which wereasked by Chisinau to review the successive drafts of the Gagauzautonomy. Other international experts and parliamentarians urgedan approach to the Gagauz problem based on individual politicaland human rights, as opposed to territorially-based solutionsand group rights. Chisinau however chose to draw on the otherbody of West European experience, stemming from the emergenceof autonomous regional formations specifically designed withinexisting states to meet the needs of given peoples or minoritygroups: Spain´s Catalonia, Italy´s Tirol, Finland´sAaland islands, Belgium´s ethnolinguistic regions. MostOSCE and Council of Europe representatives, as well as other internationalexperts and parliamentarians who were consulted, eventually endorsedChisinau´s approach as the most realistic and perhaps soleway to secure durable ethnic peace in the region and to reconcileGagauz demands with the international principles of territorialintegrity of the state and inviolability of borders.

Chisinau believes that its grant of autonomy to the Gagauz willnot become an international precedent because this situation involvesa set of circumstances without equivalent elsewhere. It is almosta truism that situations involving ethnic minorities, or peopleswithout statehood living within existing states, have their owncharacteristics which make almost every such case unique in itsway. But there also exist some common, overarching dimensionsto those situations, and it is these common features that havegenerated the broad model of ethnic-territorial autonomy or regionalizationswhich may be applied with considerable variations in various specificcases, as in Moldova. While drawing in part on the existing WestEuropean models, Moldova has introduced that approach to Europe´sformer communist space. No one has yet called this a precedent,but the Hungarian minorities for example are watching it withkeen interest while the states in which they live are watchingwith displeasure.

Even assuming that the Gagauz autonomy functions successfully,it is entirely possible that it will not be emulated elsewherein that part of Europe. At a minimum, however, Moldova´sruling groups and public may have made an important conceptualinnovation. They have proved instinctively ready to avoid thefixation on the "national-unitary state," to officiallydefine their country as multicultural, and to realize that anadvanced measure of devolution to meet ethnic aspirations withinan existing state does not threaten its territorial integritybut may in some cases be the way to secure it.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Analyst with the Jamestown Foundation