Putin Lights a Gagauz Fuse Under Moldova (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 44

(Source: TVN.md)

(Part One)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia can use the Gagauz autonomy more effectively than Transnistria to destabilize Moldova.
  • The Kremlin is interested in Gagauzia remaining part of Moldova rather than seceding to maintain influence over Moldovan politics.
  • Encouraging Gagauzia to demand upgrades in its autonomy is a likely path to further destabilization.

Russia’s immediate objectives in Moldova are to destabilize the country and remove its pro-Western leadership in upcoming elections. To these ends, Moscow works through local proxies clustered around Kremlin-connected tycoon Ilan Shor, including the Gagauz autonomy’s chief executive (bashkan) Yevgenia Gutsul and her team. The elaborate reception and media coverage of Gutsul’s recent visit to Russia, including an informal meeting with President Vladimir Putin, indicates the Kremlin’s intention to manipulate the Gagauz autonomy as a destabilization tool in Moldova in the months ahead (see Part One).

Under its current leadership, the Gagauz autonomy can serve Russia’s destabilization agenda in ways that Transnistria could not and would not be interested in serving at this time. Transnistria’s leadership—largely emanating from the Sheriff business conglomerate—is interested in political stability and vested in the status quo. Transnistria’s business and economic survival depends on trading with the European Union via Moldova within the framework of Moldova-EU trade agreements. Western diplomatic personnel stationed in Chisinau regularly communicate with the Transnistrian authorities. Furthermore, Russian troops stationed in Transnistria are too weak to threaten the Moldovan government-controlled territory. Transnistria’s political leadership pointedly refrains from endorsing Russia’s war against Ukraine. In contrast to the Gagauz autonomy, Transnistria has effectively seceded from Moldova, does not enter into alliances with Moldovan political parties, and has no claim to influence Moldova’s domestic and foreign policies. A mere trickle of Transnistrian voters cast ballots in Moldovan elections.

By contrast, the Gagauz autonomy remains an integral and active part of Moldova’s political system. All Gagauz leaderships through the years have formed alliances with Moldova’s pro-Russian parties. Gagauz voters turn out heavily in Moldova’s parliamentary and presidential elections, usually forming their own voting bloc. Gagauzia has no serious incentives to draw closer to Chisinau unless pro-Russian politicians hold power in Moldova. Some of Gutsul’s predecessors implied that Gagauzia would exercise the “right of external self-determination” (i.e., declare secession) in the event that Moldova “loses its sovereignty” (i.e., joins Romania or a Western bloc).  Years ago, Russia used the threat of Transnistrian secession to keep Moldova in line; but Moscow lost that leverage once Transnistria had consummated its de-facto secession. In the Gagauz case, however, secession threats in hybrid forms (e.g., open disobedience, contested jurisdiction, or demands to upgrade the autonomy status) are still available for leverage against Chisinau.

Given its current objectives in Moldova, Russia is keenly interested in maximizing Gagauz participation in Moldova’s political processes, general elections, and coalition-building with Russian-friendly parties. This is the basis for Gutsul’s scripted remarks during her Russia visit: “Moldova is our country, Moldovans are our brothers.” Any 1990s-style Gagauz secession or 2014-style secession threats (see Part One) are ruled out (RIA Novosti, March 6; Izvestiya, March 8, 19). Yet, in the same statements, Gutsul attacked Moldova’s leadership for turning away from Russia and toward the West.

Turkey has for many years exercised a constructive, moderating influence on Gagauz politicians through advice and some aid projects. Gutsul has visited Türkiyeseveral times since her inauguration and met with Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. Whether Ankara would continue cooperating with Chisinau to stabilize Gagauzia seems less than certain at this point. The Daily Sabah, associated with the presidential palace, published several articles in 2023, casting Ilan Shor in a favorable light.

Shor’s organization plucked Gutsul from utter obscurity in March 2023 and catapulted her to the bashkan’s post in the May 2023 elections (she took office in July). Gutsul had never participated in politics until then and had no stated occupation. Shor campaigned for her remotely through video messages displayed on giant screens in Gagauzia, while the Shor Party campaigned on the ground. They promised to invest hundreds of millions of dollars from Shor’s personal funds on improving the roads, building an airport, raising salaries of public sector employees and pensions by 30 percent, building an amusements park, and generally turning the autonomy into a “Gagauz Dreamland,” provided that Gutsul won the election. She did win the runoff, 52 percent to 48 percent, against an equally pro-Russian candidate from the Socialist Party of former president Igor Dodon.

This outcome marked Gagauzia’s transfer from the Socialist Party’s sphere of influence to that of the Shor Party and confirmed the ascendancy of Shor over Dodon in the Kremlin’s order of preferences. As Chisinau banned the Shor Party soon thereafter, Gutsul identified with the “Shor Team” rather than the party and appointed several Shor staffers to her own staff. Those election campaign promises, meanwhile, show no sign of materializing.

The Moldovan leadership regards Gutsul’s election on Shor’s coattails as unacceptable but has no means to reverse it. President Maia Sandu, Prime Minister Dorin Recean, and other senior figures addressed this issue once more following Gutsul’s Russia visit. They characterized her as an extension of Shor’s network of organized crime and corruption as well as a conduit for Russian interference in Moldova’s domestic politics.

Chisinau rules out any political dialogue with Gutsul. Although the Gagauz bashkan is an ex-officio member of the Moldovan government, Sandu is blocking that appointment. Western diplomatic missions in Chisinau have also suspended any contacts with the new Gagauz leadership. With Shor sanctioned by the European Union, the United States, and other countries, Shor’s creature in Gagauzia can only be ostracized. Western embassies in Chisinau and the Moldovan parliament would bypass Gutsul, instead reaching out to Gagauz local mayors, teachers, and students at local colleges and schools, as well as some members of the autonomy’s legislative assembly (Infotag, February 26).

Moldova’s next presidential and parliamentary elections (scheduled for late 2024 and mid-2025) are already shaping up as existential contests in which every voter counts. The Gagauz, estimated to make up 5 percent of Moldova’s population in the government-controlled territory, usually vote as a bloc for one or another Russophile party. For example, Dodon received 95 percent of Gagauz votes in the 2020 presidential election but only 42 percent of the overall vote, losing that election to Sandu. The Shor organization will undoubtedly seek to maximize the Gagauz voter turnout through political incentives after the economic ones proved hollow. The pro-Russian bloc and the Kremlin behind it could promise to upgrade the level of Gagauz autonomy and expand its prerogatives in those elections, a potential recipe for destabilizing Moldova.