For more than two decades, Moscow has exploited the tensions between Transnistria and Chisinau to try to bring Moldova to heel. More recently, it has sought to use Moldova’s Gagauz minority to do the same thing. And over the past ten days, it appears to have put that country’s ethnic Bulgarian minority into play toward the same end. This may be an indication that the Russian leadership believes the time is right to make a final move to force Chisinau to turn from Europe to Eurasia. Or, alternatively, Moscow is concerned that Chisinau is now in danger of moving beyond the Kremlin’s ability to further control it.
What makes this latest development so striking is that the Bulgarians of Moldova—or Bessarabian Bulgarians as they are sometimes called—number only 65,000 and have been relatively inactive up to now. The ethnic Bulgarian community contrasts sharply with the breakaway province of Transnistria, which has more than 500,000 residents and has been locked in a military standoff with Chisinau since 1991, or with Gagauzia with about 200,000 people, which pursued independence in the early 1990s but which was relatively cooperative since reaching an agreement with the Moldovan state in the mid-1990s until last year.
On Friday (April 12), the Taraclia district council, the governing body of the region where a large fraction of Moldova’s Bulgarians live, unanimously voted to demand that Chisinau accord that ethnic community national cultural autonomy. According to Taraclia Mayor Sergey Filipov, such an official status “will become the brand of the district and its ideology and will help the district and city” become “more competitive among the remaining districts of Moldova” (regnum.ru/news/fd-abroad/moldova/1648322.html; gagauzinfo.md/index.php?newsid=7486).
That Bulgarian action came less than 24 hours after the legislature of the Gagauz Republic raised the stakes in its own standoff with Chisinau. Gagauzia’s parliament had declared that any change in Moldova’s language policy reducing the standing of Russian would constitute a violation of the Moldovan central government’s 1994 accord with the autonomous region and force the Gagauz to consider making use of their right under that agreement to declare independence (regnum.ru/news/fd-abroad/moldova/1647683.html).
The language of this latest Gagauz declaration is disturbing. It suggests, in the words of Russia’s Regnum news agency, that Chisinau politicians seek the elimination of “the Moldovan state from the map of the world” and that the Gagauz popular assembly is thus “forced to recognize that all the pro-Romanian and unionist parties in the Republic of Moldova are radically anti-Russian and anti-Gagauz since it is precisely the Russian and Gagauz elements that are the main obstacles to the liquidation of the independence of the Republic of Moldova and its unification with Romania (regnum.ru/news/fd-abroad/moldova/1647683.html).
The Gagauz declaration continues with the claim that “such irresponsible nationalistic initiatives of the Liberal Party of Moldova not only return us to the 1990s and divide the civil society of the country into hostile camps but force the people of Gagauzia to review its agreement on self-determination within the Republic of Moldova as ‘an autonomous territorial formation with a special legal status.’” And the declaration continues with a demand that Moldovan officials follow instead “the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Framework Agreement on National Minorities and national and international law” and take measures to block those “who are leading to the destruction of the independent state of Moldova.”
Not only does the Bulgarian declaration echo these same themes, but there is growing evidence that the Gagauz and the Bulgarians are coordinating their activities with the leadership of the breakaway Transnistria republic. A few days ago, leaders of the Union of the Gagauz of Transnistria, a group that was set up in 2010 ostensibly to recognize the interests of the 16,000 ethnic Gagauz there, met in Tiraspol and issued a call for closer unity between the Gagauz Republic and Transnistria given threats to the language and culture of each emanating from Chisinau (gagauzinfo.md/index.php?newsid=7395).
Such actions both raise the political temperature and the political stakes in Moldova. On the one hand, such concerted actions by three minorities are certain to disturb leaders in Chisinau who will view them as directed against the sovereignty of their country. This, in turn, may push the central government authorities to make statements or take steps that could provoke a full-blown political crisis in Moldova, one in which each side will see its interests best served by taking an ever harder line rather than by finding areas of cooperation.
And on the other hand, the Bulgarian and Gagauz actions open the way for Moscow to argue that only it can guarantee the territorial integrity of Moldova—something all the countries in the region and beyond very much want. However, Russia’s actions will undoubtedly be prefaced by the requirement that Chisinau turn away from Europe and toward Eurasia, with all the potentially tragic consequences that would have for Moldova, Ukraine and the international system.