Putin Puts Gagauz in Play Against Moldova and the West

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 201

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) with Igor Dodon, leader of the Moldovan Party of Socialists (R) and former Prime Minister of Moldova Zinaida Grechany. (Source: Kremlin.ru)

By meeting with the leaders of the pro-Moscow Moldovan Socialist Party last week (November 4) (kremlin.ru, November 5), Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent the kind of signal to the Gagauz that they have been waiting for. And therefore, according to Dmitry Konstantinov, Moldova’s Gagauz minority will vote in the November 30 national parliamentary elections against any candidates who want closer ties with the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Konstantinov is the speaker of the Popular Assembly (local legislature) of Gagauzia, the 200,000-strong Turkic-speaking autonomy in southeastern Moldova (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 11).

Both Putin’s signal and the response of the Gagauz underscore that Moscow is more than willing to continue its efforts to destabilize Moldova and to challenge the West there, something that Chisinau fully understands as shown in its critical reaction to both over the last several days (regnum.ru, November 7, 10). But the tough policy the Moldovan central government has adopted toward the Gagauz may prove counterproductive. In particular, Chisinau’s unbending stance could prompt even more members of the Gagauz minority to vote for pro-Moscow and anti-Western parties. Moreover, it could set the stage not only for a possible declaration of Gagauz independence from Chisinau, but also invite Russian intervention—covert or even overt—on their behalf if, as appears likely, pro-Moscow parties do not win in the upcoming Moldovan elections.

Konstantinov said that the Gagauz leadership “has explained to Chisinau that we cannot go against the will of the people, and the population wants to be with Russia and to enter the Customs Union.” That is what the Socialist Party stands for, and that is how the Gagauz will vote, “especially after Vladimir Putin” received its leaders. The Gagauz “view that action as a signal” and one that they “have accepted,” the local parliament speaker told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. To make sure all Gagauz received this message, the Popular Assembly has adopted and distributed a special declaration making that point, Konstantinov noted (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 11).

Moscow has long sought to exploit anti-Moldovan and especially anti-Romanian attitudes, first in Transnistria and more recently in Gagauzia—the first a breakaway republic within the internationally recognized borders of Moldova and the latter a potential one. Gagauzia, from the Kremlin’s point of view, is especially useful now because unlike the residents of Transnistria, the Gagauz vote in Moldovan elections. And the Gagauz have been reliable supporters of Moscow’s positions.

A February 2014 referendum conducted among the Gagauz found that 98 percent of those who voted were against Moldova’s further integration in the European Union, and 92 percent backed the country’s joining the Moscow-led and dominated Customs Union.

That poll prompted Chisinau to increase its pressure on the Gagauz, according to Gagauz Bashkan (head of the autonomy) Mikhail Formuzal. The authorities even lodged criminal charges against him. But according to the bashkan, the upcoming elections, like the past referendum, demonstrate that the Moldovan government cannot afford to ignore the position of the Gagauz and must turn its face from the West to the East.

Moscow analysts say that it is no surprise Putin sent this message or that it was received. Anatol Tsaranu of the Russian Center for Strategic Research and Political Consulting said that “Moscow uses [the Gagauz’s] pro-Russian attitudes and especially those among the rural population… Thus, Putin’s demarche fell on fertile soil” and is likely to grow as the Kremlin leader intends.

Only six of the 26 parties competing in the upcoming elections are likely to gain seats, and three—the Democratic, the Liberal-Democratic and the Liberal (former coalition member until 2013) parties, who form the ruling pro-European coalition—are likely to be returned. Thus, even if the Gagauz vote as Putin and their leaders want, they are likely to be frozen out, and Chisinau’s position is unlikely to shift. But that is certainly something both Moscow and the Gagauz are in fact counting on.

If the 200,000 Gagauz feel even more excluded from the Moldovan political system than some of them do now, that could lead to the kinds of demonstrations Moscow almost certainly would seek to exploit, possibly by turning up the heat in Transnistria and also by insisting on the “federalization” of Moldova—much as it has done in Ukraine. And such a course of events, in turn, might set the stage for the kinds of actions that the Russian authorities have undertaken in southeastern Ukraine, with the arrival of “polite,” “little green men” opening the way for an even larger intervention.

From Moscow’s perspective, such developments would help it with its campaign in Ukraine and could pose challenges to the EU and NATO—the types of challenges that neither Western organization currently appears ready to accept. Moreover, by supporting the Gagauz, Moscow would win points with Turkey, which backs that Turkic-speaking, but Orthodox Christian nationality, and which has been moving away from Moscow over the treatment of the Crimean Tatars by the Russian occupation authorities.

In this respect, Putin’s “signal” should be ringing alarm bells not only in Chisinau but in Brussels, Strasbourg and Washington as well.