Putin Lights a Gagauz Fuse Under Moldova (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 43

(Source: Kremlin.ru)

Executive Summary:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with the Gagauz autonomy leader, Yevgenia Gutsul, shows Moscow advancing from covert to overt interference in Moldova’s politics.
  • Emboldening Gagauz leaders to confront Chisinau reflects the Kremlin’s new strategy of territorial fragmentation in Moldova.
  • Moscow is encouraging Russophile parties in Moldova to form a bloc for the upcoming elections.

In 1990, Soviet media commented that “the Gagauz people have Russia in the marrow of their bones” after Moscow inspired the Gagauz to secede from Soviet Moldova in response to Moldova’s own aspirations to break free from Soviet Union. Four years later, the newly independent Republic of Moldova stabilized the situation by granting the Gagauz people—Turkic Russophone Orthodox Christians residing compactly in the south of the country—the status of an Autonomous Territorial Unit. Adjacent to both Romania and Ukraine’s Odesa and a one-hour drive from Russia’s Transnistrian outpost, the Gagauz territory remains a bedrock of support for Moldova’s Russophile parties, which may unite in the run-up to the upcoming elections.

Russia generally neglects Gagauzia except when it considers expanding into Ukraine’s Odesa province or toppling a Moldovan government. In February 2014, as Moscow prepared to launch its “Novorossiya” project (with Odesa as a focal point), local Russian agents orchestrated a Gagauz plebiscite in favor of joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union. With Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine potentially targeting Odesa and Moldovan elections due this year and next, Russia is turning the Gagauz territory into a political-strategic spearhead. Last year, Moldova’s Kremlin-connected opposition leader Ilan Shor helped his nominee, Yevgenia Gutsul, become elected as the chief executive (bashkan) of the Gagauz autonomy. Shor operates mostly from Israel but has recently been shuttling between that country and Russia.

On March 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin granted Gutsul a face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of a global youth forum in Sochi. The Kremlin’s press release pointedly neglected to mention that the Gagauz territory is a part of Moldova (Kremlin.ru, March 6). Gutsul is the first politician from Moldova to meet with Putin since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. Putin’s choice to bestow this favor on the Shor-affiliated Gutsul reflects the preeminence of Shor’s organization over other Russophile parties in the Kremlin’s political plans for Moldova.

Gutsul spent a whole week in Russia, also meeting with First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Kirienko, Federation Council Chair Valentina Matvienko, and the governors of several Russian regions. Her account of the meeting with Putin is far more expansive than the Kremlin’s terse press release. According to Gutsul, “Putin and I discussed the complex geopolitical situation at the center of which Gagauzia finds itself.” Putin appeared receptive to Gutsul’s allegations about Chisinau curtailing the autonomy’s prerogatives. “He [Putin] promised to support Gagauzia and the Gagauz people, our legitimate rights, and our standing in the international arena” (TASS, March 6; Gagauzia.md, March 13).

Russian state media interviewed Gutsul abundantly during her visit and following her return to Moldova. In her telling, she requested and was promised an “opportunity to bring the issue of Moldova’s infringements of the Gagauz people’s rights to the attention of the United Nations” (Putin and Kirienko agreed, according to Gutsul). The Kremlin’s “carrots” also include preferential access to the Russian market for Gagauzia’s agricultural products (even as Russia restricts such access for Moldova as a whole); natural gas deliveries at discounted prices to the Gagauz territory; the opening of special accounts in Russian banks and the “Mir” payment system for economic and social programs in Gagauzia; support for Russian-language schools in the Gagauz autonomy; and developing direct relations between Gagauzia and certain regions of the Russian Federation, including its “new regions” (allusion to the occupied territories in Ukraine) (TASS, March 1; RIA Novosti, March 7; Rossiya 24 TV, March 12; Newsmaker, March 13; Gagauzia.md, accessed March 20). 

Gutsul replayed the leitmotifs common to of Moldova’s Russophile parties. She, however, added a heavy emphasis on foreign policy, which exceeds her lawful remit by far. She accused President Maia Sandu’s government of breaking Moldova’s historic ties with Russia, dragging the country into war on Ukraine’s side and, prospectively, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Gagauz people, as the story goes, will help preserve Moldova’s neutrality period. In the same telling country’s candidacy for EU membership is only a “fairytale.” Gagauz politicians play up that Moldova’s and the Gagauz autonomy’s economic development is only possible in partnership with Russia. The Gagauz do not intend to secede from Moldova, but rather to protect the autonomy’s rights and prerogatives vis-à-vis Chisinau and count on Moscow’s backing to that end. Gutsul’s team will work together with the Russian-friendly parties preparing for Moldova’s presidential and parliamentary elections (Rossiya 24 TV, March 6; RIA Novosti, March 7; Izvestiya, March 19; Gagauzia.md, accessed March 20).

The leaders of those parties, including the former president and current Socialist leader Igor Dodon, Ilan Shor and his offshoot “Vozrozhdenie” (“Revival”) party, as well as Gutsul, each congratulated Putin on his “reelection” as Russian president on March 18.  Gutsul’s own message spoke of “Russia’s increasingly strong positions in the international arena,” “gratitude for [Putin’s] attention to the Gagauz autonomy” and “welfare of our fraternal peoples.” She pointedly neglected to mention that the Gagauz territory is a part of Moldova (TASS, March 18; Gagauzia.md, accessed March 20).

According to Shor, Putin’s meeting with Gutsul shows that “Russia is prepared to support Gagauzia and other parts of Moldova where local people believe in Russia and desire strong, durable relations” (RIA Novosti, March 7). On March 16, Shor announced his ambition to lead Moldova’s Russophile parties in a common campaign against Moldova’s candidacy for EU membership. Shor would spearhead efforts to promote close Moldovan-Russian relations, Moldova’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, and turning the country into a federation of several component territories—all in the context of the upcoming elections (RTVi, March 16; TASS, March 16).

Gutsul herself intends to hold coordination meetings with former president and current Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin, Dodon, Vozrozhdenie leaders, and Shor ahead of the elections (TASS, March 13). The Russophile opposition is currently divided into two rival camps: Voronin and Dodon, on one side, and Shor and his offshoot-parties, on the other. Shor’s umbrella organization has steadily gained ground in Moscow’s graces and at the grassroots level. The Kremlin apparently intends to combine those parties into one electoral bloc or cartel in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections to elevate their chances for victory.