Moscow Trumps Its Own Ethnic Card in Moldova

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 169


Moscow’s imposition of a wine embargo against Moldova as part of the Russian effort to dissuade Chisinau from pursuing closer ties with the European Union is not working as the Russians had hoped. In fact, Moldova had been exporting only about a quarter of its wine to the Russian Federation when the embargo was imposed, down from 85 percent in 2006. But the region of Moldova hardest hit and least happy as a result of Moscow’s decision is Gagauzia, the Orthodox Christian Turkic autonomy in southeastern Moldova that the Russian government has often used together with Transnistria for leverage against the Moldovan authorities. This Russian defeat may not be the end of the story, however; indeed, it may prompt some in Moscow to try to press harder against Chisinau one way or another in the coming weeks (

Moscow’s pressure on Moldova concerning that country’s desire to link itself with the European Union rather than with Russia’s Eurasian Union—much like the pressure Russia has been exerting on Ukraine and even Belarus—is making nationalists out of many of the members of the titular nationalities in all three. But what is especially striking and perhaps much more unexpected is that the Russian government is so overplaying its hand on this occasion that Moscow is simultaneously losing support among minorities in these countries that it had long taken for granted.

One of these minorities is the Gagauz nationality of Moldova. Numbering approximately 200,000, Russian Orthodox by religion and Russian and Turkic by language, the Gagauz have been a reliable ally for Moscow in the past (see EDM, March 19, April 2). Indeed, over the past 25 years, Gagauz national activism has almost perfectly tracked Russian efforts to bring Chisinau to heel. When Moscow wanted to put pressure on Moldova, the Gagauz stepped up their demands; when Moscow sought better ties, the Gagauz remained quiet. But now, things are changing—at least judging by the new attitudes of Gagauz officials like Vitaly Kyurkchu, who heads the economic development administration there, and Mikhail Formuzal, the “bashkan” or head of the autonomy. They are angry—and at Moscow more than at Chisinau.

In the words of the former, Moscow has demonstrated by its actions that “agreements within the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] are meaningless, and consequently, the organization itself is an illusion,” sentiments much different than anything he has publicly said before. Whereas, Bashkan Formuzal remarked that anyone who now talks about “the hand of Moscow” in Moldova is simply wrong. “Russia is not interested in Moldova; Russia is interested [only] in Transnistria.” And according to the Gagauzlar website, as cited by, the pro-Russian parties in Moldova all show a customary “habit”—they like to “talk” about providing support and autonomy to the Gagauz, but in fact they “do not defend the interests” of the Gagauz or Gagauzia.

Such comments suggest that Gagauz efforts over the past ten days to set up their own “brand” for wine are not so much a stalking horse for Russian interests, as would have been assumed in the past ( Rather, it was likely the result of Gagauz anger about being lumped together by the Moscow wine ban against Moldova as a whole and a step dictated by their fear that they will continue to be ignored or even mistreated by the Russian government.

And yet another development in Gagauzia may have to be similarly re-interpreted as a result of Russia’s overbearing approach. Many among the Gagauz have been unhappy by the high failure rates in high school exams among the Gagauz, at least some of whom are more likely to know Russian rather than Moldovan in addition to their native Turkic language. According to some local educators, as many as a quarter of all those completing their studies fail to earn a certificate because of problems with Moldovan (

Such students had been transferring to schools in Transnistria, where Russian is the language of instruction in most schools. In the past, such educational ties might have been expected to contribute to the formation of a joint Transnistrian-Gagauz front against Chisinau, but apparently not now. The reason is simple: most of the students who transfer to Transnistrian schools never return. They continue their educations in either Transnistria or in the Russian Federation, secure jobs there, and never return to their native territory.

That has left many Gagauz leaders furious because this outflow of young people is not only accelerating the region’s demographic decline but also constitutes a serious brain drain, one that at least some among that nationality now apparently blame less on the Moldovans than the Transnistrian authorities. As the publication Yedinaya Gagauzia, typically a cheerleader for closer ties with Transnistria and Russia, put it last week, however grateful the Gagauz might be for these educational opportunities, if students continue to leave, “who will remain to Gagauz in Gagauzia [sic]?”