Since 1991, Moscow has viewed the 125,000-strong Christian Turkic Gagauz minority in Moldova as a useful tool to limit rapprochement between Chisinau and Bucharest as well as derail any Moldovan moves toward the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). More recently, it has employed the Gagauz as allies in its fight against the Ukrainian law on indigenous peoples and has even viewed Gagauzia as a model for its policies in Ukraine. Namely, the Gagauz case shows how Moscow can use a Russian-controlled region within a neighboring country to constrain that country’s independence more effectively than actually transferring control of land from that country to Russia (see EDM, November 11, 2014, March 31, 2015, June 5, 2018, March 16, 2021).
But over the last year, the Russian government has become increasingly concerned about its ability to use the Gagauz for those purposes. Not only is it being hampered by Turkey’s rapidly growing influence among that nation, but also other components of the “Turkic World”—including Azerbaijan, the Turkic-majority countries of Central Asia, and the Russian Federation’s Republic of Tatarstan—are amplifying their links with the Gagauz (see EDM, December 10, 2020). Now, that concern has grown into alarm given just how strong a position Turkey and the Turkic World have among the Gagauz. Consequently, Moscow is playing up the complicated history of the Gagauz and the Ottoman Empire and suggesting that the Gagauz should be looking to Moscow rather than Ankara as an ally and supporter. Russia argues it can provide the Gagauz with superior help, and it is actively dredging up examples of all the repressions the Ottomans inflicted on the Gagauz during their 300-year-long rule in the Balkans.
Even when Russia and Turkey were cooperating more closely in the past, Moscow worked hard to ensure that Ankara would not take any steps in Gagauzia that could undermine Russian aims. Indeed, Moscow-based commentators saw Russian-Turkish cooperation on this point as critical to maintaining Russia’s influence inside Moldova (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 24, 2019). But now the situation has changed. On the one hand, Moldova has elected a pro-Western president who is calling for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Transnistria and the reintegration of that breakaway region into Moldova’s legal space—precisely the kind of political situation that, in the past, Moscow responded to by exploiting Gagauz demands for autonomy or even independence to restrain Chisinau. But on the other hand, Turkey and Russia are now in a far less cooperative relationship (beyond continued surface-level niceties), with Turkey having successfully asserted itself in the South Caucasus. Therefore, at least in principle, Ankara seems that much more willing to act on its own rather than in concert with Moscow in Moldova.
And that constitutes a real threat to Russian interests, Vasily Alekseyev, a Moscow specialist on Turkey, argues in a new article. He points to all of the infrastructure Ankara has put in place for the Gagauz as well as the educational and other assistance it has provided to the small Turkic people, who are linguistically perhaps the closest to the Anatolian Turks. Indeed, based on this, Alekseyev suggests that for Ankara, “Task Number One” is “to take control of the political and social processes” in the Gagauz autonomy, thereby threatening Russia’s position there (Materik.ru, July 30, 2021).
In Komrat, the capital of the Gagauz autonomy, Turkey has established both a consulate general and a cultural center. And according to Alekseyev, Ankara organizes annual economic forums to promote Turkish investment there and educational exchanges with Turkey and Turkish countries. Komrat University has ties with five higher educational institutions in Turkey and sends about 60 students to study there annually on Turkish scholarships. Moreover, there is talk of dispatching larger numbers of Gagauz students to Baku State University and to universities in the Turkic republics of Central Asia, which would give real content to Ankara’s push for the growth of a Turkic World involving both countries and nations across Eurasia. As the Russian Turkey expert contends, that initiative would undermine the inclusion of the Gagauz, most of whom are bilingual in Russian, within Vladimir Putin’s “Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”) (Novaya Gazeta, December 19, 2020). Furthermore, Alekseyev adds, there are now some 50,000 Moldovan citizens working in Turkey, and a large share of them are of Gagauz rather than Moldovan ethnicity (Materik.ru, July 30, 2021).
Moscow currently seeks to counter Turkish influence among the Gagauz in three ways (Materik.ru, July 30). First, as Alekseyev asserts, Russia is playing up the complicated history of the Gagauz under Ottoman rule, a history that has many dark pages regarding Istanbul’s treatment of this Turkic group. The Russian specialist on Turkey even suggests that what Ankara is doing for the Gagauz now is compensation for the guilt the Turks feel over what their ancestors did earlier. (He specifically points to articles about this published on a website directed at the Gagauz, Gagauzlar.md.) Second, Moscow is playing up problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic among the Gagauz, suggesting that only Russia can provide the kind of help that will prevent further loss of life, just as it has helped promote the survival of the Gagauz as a separate nation in the past (Gagauzinfo.md, July 30, August 5). And third, it has promoted a visit by the pro-Moscow bashkan (leader) of the Gagauz to the Russian Federation and given new prominence to Gagauz developments not only in Moldova but also in Ukraine, where Moscow sees the Gagauz population there as still in its pocket and a useful tool against Kyiv (Volga.news, July 29; Odnarodyna.org, July 7).
Turkey’s moves, of course, do not mean that Moscow has completely lost out among the Gagauz or that it will not be able to deploy that small nation against Chisinau in the future. But the alarm Alekseyev expresses and the moves the Russian government has taken signify that Moscow’s position there is no longer as strong as it once was and that the Gagauz may not be nearly as useful to Russia as they once were. Because of that change, it may be easier for Chisinau to deal with Russian-occupied Transnistria or even to move closer to the West in the future.