Gagavuzia: Is the West opening a new front against Russia?

Gagavuzia: Is the West opening a new front against Russia?

By Gökalp Erbaş

Ever since Gagauzia declared itself an independent republic in 1990 and gained the status of an autonomous regional administration through an article added to the Moldovan constitution in 1994, it has not experienced risk-free, danger-free, stable times. The region has always been turbulent, but in these times when regional crises have again come to the fore of world public opinion, when international alignments have also heated up, our eyes have now turned to Gagauzia. In order to reflect the current tensions in the region, let us recall two important statements made recently by the leaders of Transnistria, the “unrecognized state” stretching along the Ukrainian-Moldovan border, and the “Autonomous Regional Administration of Gagauz Yeri”, which consists of 4 unconnected but close regions, officially affiliated to Moldova:

“The escalation of tensions in Transnistria is something that will eventually lead to war, possibly world war. Many people understand this. Many also claim that this is something impossible. No, everything is possible”, said Transnistrian President Vadim Krasnoselsky (1).

Gagauzia leader Evgeniy Gutul added: “If Gagauzia declares independence and the Moldovan army sends its troops in response, we will turn to everyone, including Russia, for help.” (2)

Existential threats

There are two current events that have prompted these two leaders to make statements at this level. One is the large-scale exercises of the Moldovan army, led by the American General Patrick Alice, on the Transnistrian border. (3) The other is the acceleration of the unification of Moldova and Romania, which will abolish the independence of Gagauzia.

However, we must also analyze the recent history and other contemporary issues that have brought these two regions to this position. In this respect, the story of Transnistria must be assessed separately from that of Gagauzia. Transnistria differs from Gagauzia in its cadre formation from the USSR period, management skills, industrial complexes and a public with a much clearer sense of identity, a local army armed with Soviet-era equipment and the presence of Russian military peacekeepers on permanent duty in the region, and of course a relatively more established economy.

Gagauzia is the poorest region in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. The economy is almost entirely based on agriculture. It is vital for the population to be able to market agricultural products, especially wine, outside the region. Economic problems have been on the regional government’s agenda since 1990. Economic problems are one of the factors that strongly influence both the strategy of the regional administration in domestic and foreign policy and the Gagauz people’s sense of identity.

As is the case with other borderland minorities around the world, the Gagauz identity can change the way it manifests itself depending on geopolitical conditions. The lack of an agreed theory of Gagauz ethnic origin facilitates this situation. As can be seen and acknowledged by most researchers, the main cultural elements in Gagauzia are based on Russia. (4)

However, the region is mainly influenced by five states: Moldova, Russia, Türkiye, Bulgaria and Romania. There is no other country in the world where the statues of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Russian writer Pushkin, the 9th president of Türkiye, Suleyman Demirel, the famous Romanian writer Eminescu and Kazakhstan’s first President Nazarbayev are so close together. (5)

There are also a number of Gagauzians who hold two or more passports. This is one of the details that reflects the instability of the region and people’s search for security. On the other hand, it is alleged that propaganda activities are also being carried out in the region, with funds provided by the American Embassy, which emphasize Moldovan citizenship rather than Gagauz identity. “Identity? We are all Moldovans!” (6) The US government, which promotes ethnic and religious segregation in most parts of the world and is keenly interested in the “sufferings” of the world’s minorities, pursues the opposite policy in Moldova. Pro-Western studies complain of the separatist manners in Gagauzia and stress the importance of national identity. (7)

Main conflicts

The conflict between the central government and Gagauzia focuses on two main issues. One is the political, economic and cultural limits of Gagauzia’s autonomy and the political representation of the Gagauz people in the central government, and the other is Moldova’s foreign policy orientation.

Starting with the Moldovan government, although Moldova has experienced transitions between Western and regionally oriented administrations in the past, the last government and President Sandu have pursued a very uncompromising foreign policy oriented towards the West. This is reflected domestically in policies to replace Moldovan identity with Romanian identity, to erase Moldova’s experience of the USSR from cultural memory, and to eliminate the Moldovan language. The government sees the solution to all of Moldova’s problems, especially the economy, in the Western alliance and does not want to create a rift. So much so that Grosu, leader of the ruling PAS party and speaker of parliament, exclaimed (8):

“We are Romanians, it is written in our constitution. Our language is Romanian. If we want to be accepted into the great family of the European Union, we have to shout it proudly and show who we are”.

Steps taken by the Moldovan government

An intolerant policy is being pursued for anything that contradicts the stance mentioned by Grosu. More than 60 online portals and 13 television channels have been banned. (9) The letters V and Z, symbols of the victory of the Russian army, and the St George’s ribbon, a symbol of victory in the Second World War, have been banned. During the last Victory Day celebrations on May 9, the Moldovan police caused great difficulties for the participants. The state language was changed from Moldovan to Romanian. The abolition of the main opposition party has been proposed. The policy on culture and language is so repressive that Zaharova has likened it to that of Nazi Germany.

The Western bloc has also intensified its work on Moldova. Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, has been appointed ambassador to Moldova. This poorest country in Europe, where people are struggling to pay their bills, has been allocated $750,000 from NATO’s military budget. Last March, France and Moldova signed a major security agreement. A similar security pact between Moldova and the EU will be signed in the coming weeks.

Measures taken against Gagauzia

Of course, the biggest steps in this direction for the central Moldovan governments have been taken against Gagauzia. Although the two launching points of these practices are 2014 and 2023, when Gutul was elected president of Gagauzia, there are actions going back much further.

In 1990, the declaration of the Gagauz Soviet Socialist Republic was met with a harsh reaction in Moldova, and Moldovan troops came to the Gagauz border. Had it not been for the deterrence of the Soviet army in Transnistria, a bloodbath could have taken place. After four years of independence and negotiations with the Moldovan government, the agreement signed in 1994 and the corresponding Article 111 of the Constitution contained an important condition regarding the status of the region: Gagauzia is part of Moldova. However, Gagauzia has the right to declare its independence in a situation where Moldova’s status as an independent state disappears. This seemed to be maintained in the law updated in 1998. However, the 2003 constitutional update introduced provisions to the contrary. This naturally caused great concern in Gagauzia. The law on political parties was also changed. It was forbidden to form parties on an ethnic basis. Very specific requirements were imposed on the parties to be formed, such as the number of members to be provided in each province, which Gagauz politicians would never be able to meet. In this way, the Gagauz people were prevented from exercising their right to political representation. The right of the Gagauzia People’s Assembly to propose judges for the region was abolished. Many students studying in Gagauzia were prevented from receiving their diplomas, even though they had graduated, because of the Romanian language test requirement. The regional government issued its own diplomas, which were not recognized by the central government.

The budget for a referendum in Gagauzia on the country’s foreign policy and the region’s declaration of independence was seized. Nevertheless, a referendum was held in 2014 with the financial support of Yakubov, a Russian businessman of Gagauz origin, and with a turnout of 70%, 98% of the population voted in favor of joining the Customs Union with Russia rather than the EU, and in favor of declaring independence if Moldova merged with Romania. It should be noted, however, that citizens in the rest of the country are not entirely in favour of the government. (10)

The current government has organized an economic blockade against the Gagauzia region, just as it did against Transnistria. The government encourages companies and foreign countries not to buy products from the region. At international fairs, producers from Gagauzia are not included in delegations and have separate stands. A quarter of the region’s central budget has been cut. The newly elected President Gutul has not been given a seat in the parliament, even though this is unconstitutional. Ambulances and emergency services in the region have been withdrawn. Legal proceedings were brought against the Gagauz leaders, accusing them of espionage. Finally, official accusations were made against Gagauz youths attending the World Youth Forum in Sochi. Money coming into the Gagauz government’s bank accounts from abroad was seized. The government sent letters to all foreign missions in the country asking them not to contact the newly elected president and his team and to cancel cooperation projects. On the night of Gutul’s election, Moldovan special forces were sent to the Central Election Office in the region. Prime Minister Recean held talks with MPs from the region to block the newly elected executive committee. In the end, however, these efforts to suppress the election failed.

Gagauzia’s response

The main policies of the government program of President Gutul of Gagauzia can be summarized as follows: To increase the prosperity of the region in such a way as to avoid war, to attract foreign investors to the region, to create new business sectors and expand employment, to develop relations with Türkiye and Russia without coming into conflict with Chisinau – the capital of Moldova.

Of course, all these steps have not been welcomed in Chisinau. For the Moldovan government, a strong Gagauzia with its own relations was one of the biggest obstacles to unification with Romania. To bypass the economic embargo, the Gagauzia regional government began to develop projects with Russia. Russia’s Promsvyazbank (PSB) opened branches in the region, and the MIR payment system was activated for citizens. A piece of the eternal flame symbolizing victory in the Second World War in Moscow was brought to Gagauzia to revive the cultural and political memory that had been erased. Gutul argued that the European Union makes propaganda about sexual minorities and children, that there are “gay parades” in the center of the capital and that these are the conditions for joining Europe. She recalled that the family is a union between a man and a woman and that this is written in the Moldovan constitution. Gutul was in Red Square with the Belarusian leader for the Victory Day celebrations on 9 May and declared that “the victory over fascism is a common history, just like 79 years ago, Russians and Gagauz are together again”. (11)

What do these tensions mean overall?

Because of its geopolitical position, Gagauzia has an importance that will affect the five countries we have mentioned as influential in the region far more than their influence in the region in the event of a hot conflict. The Moldovan government’s political and cultural attitude towards Gagauzia over the past 10 years is similar to the Ukrainian government’s attitude towards the people of Donbass. Again, the similarity of the Crimea – Ukraine – Donbass equation to the Transnistria – Moldova – Gagauzia equation identified by some experts raises concerns that the results will be similar. For the Gagauzian people and the Gagauzian administration, the last thing they want is a war. However, if Russia increases its momentum in achieving the objectives of the special military operation, the West will not hesitate to open a second front against Russia. The recent announcement of NATO support, the large-scale exercises, the small-scale attacks by Ukrainian drones on Transnistria and the presence of American generals in the region suggest that this possibility is more than wishful thinking. Moreover, this equation would put Türkiye, which has been able to pursue a policy of balance, in an even more difficult situation. In the event of a possible war, the Gutul government will certainly turn to Türkiye.

However, it is hard to imagine that the Turkish government, which has already begun to make concessions to the West on extraterritorial operations, island claims and military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, will take a radical decision in favor of Gagauzia. Moreover, given that Romania is a NATO member, a possible Moldovan-Romanian unification without resolving the Gagauzia crisis could bring Russia and NATO forces into direct confrontation. Many see Russia as the main reason why Moldova has not intervened militarily in Gagauzia and Transnistria. The Moldovan army is of course too weak for such an undertaking, but NATO’s involvement through Romania could change things. Moreover, President Sandu is up for re-election next October and is keen to secure Western support. This worst-case scenario is more likely to lead to a new world war than the operation in Ukraine. The process ahead is likely to become more difficult and could lead to armed conflict, in accordance with the determination of the Gagauz leadership, the courage of the West and the increasing sacrifices of the Moldovan government for the sake of the “great European family”.

1) “В Гагаузии Попросили Молдавию Вернуть РусскомуСтатус Языка Межнационального Общения.” TASS, tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/20594457?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fdzen.ru%2Fnews%2Fsearch%3Ftext%3D.

2) Плугий, Дмитрий. “Молдавский Гамбит.” КрымскоеЭхо, 4 Oct. 2024, c-eho.info/moldavskij-gambit.

3) “Россия Молчать Не Будет. У НАТО Есть СвоиПланы На Приднестровье И Гагаузию (Печат, Сербия).” ИноСМИ, 19 Apr. 2024, inosmi.ru/20240419/gagauziya-268648337.html?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fdzen.ru%2Fnews%2Fsearch%3Ftext%3D.

4) Cantir, Cristian. “Russian-Backed Paradiplomacy in the‘Near Abroad’: Gagauzia, Moldova and the Rift OverEuropean Integration.” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, vol. 10, no. 3, July 2015, pp. 261–84. https://doi.org/10.1163/1871191x-12341315.

5) Christiana Holsapple (2020): Bordering and Strategic Belonging in Gagauzia, Journal of Borderlands Studies, DOI: 10.1080/08865655.2020.1828142

6) ibid.

7) Cornea, Sergiu. (2014). Realities and Consequences of the Territorial Autonomy based on Ethnic Criteria: theCase of Gagauzia, the Republic of Moldova. Studii şicercetări din domeniul ştiinţelor socio-umane. Vol.27. p.34-49..

8) Плугий, Дмитрий. “Лапа НАТО: При Чем ТутМолдавия?” Крымское Эхо, 5 July 2024, c-eho.info/lapa-nato-pri-chem-tut-moldaviya.

9) Плугий (“Лапа НАТО: При Чем Тут Молдавия?”)

10) Prina, F. (2016) Shrinking autonomy for Tatarstan andGagauzia: the perils of flexible institutional design. In: Nicolini, M., Palermo, F. and Milano, E. (eds.) Law, Territory, and Conflict Resolution: Law as a Problem andLaw as a Solution. Series: Studies in territorial andcultural diversity governance (6). Brill: Leiden, pp. 244-269. ISBN 9789004311282

11) IZ.RU. “Молдавии Передали Частицу Вечного ОгняС Могилы Неизвестного Солдата.” Известия, 9 May 2024, iz.ru/1694158/2024-05-09/moldavii-peredali-chastitcu-vechnogo-ognia-s-mogily-neizvestnogo-soldata?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop.

United World International

Independent analytical center where political scientists and experts in international relations from various countries exchange their opinions and views.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


June 2024