ECMI Minorities Blog. Gagauzia’s Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
*** This entry is part of the special section of the ECMI Minorities Blog on National Minorities and the War in Ukraine. ***
Author: Keith Harrington | https://doi.org/10.53779/QPLM4423
* Dr. Keith Harrington is a lecturer in modern European history and nationalism studies at the School of History and Geography at Dublin City University. In January 2023, Keith successfully defended his PhD thesis, which focused on the role that local elites played in the Transnistrian conflict between 1989 and 1992. He has been also awarded several prestigious scholarships, including the National University of Ireland’s Travelling Studentship. Besides having published several peer-reviewed articles on Moldovan history, he also regularly contributes to Balkan Insight, with texts on Moldovan politics.
Gagauzia’s Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Moldova’s pro-Western government has faced multiple crises. Moldova’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its bid for European Union (EU) membership has enraged Russian President Vladimir Putin, who believes the country belongs firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence.
The Kremlin has attempted to destabilise Moldova by hiking gas prices, sponsoring mass demonstrations, and even allegedly plotting a coup. Moscow has also used the presence of a Russian-backed separatist state, Transnistria, and some 1,000 Russian troops in the east of the country, to exert pressure on Moldova.
Nevertheless, the country and its leadership have remained firm, pledging their unequivocal support for Ukraine and welcoming over 750,000 Ukrainian refugees into the country, despite an ever-worsening cost of living crisis. The herculean effort of the Moldovan people and their government has been rewarded. In June 2022, Moldova was made an EU candidate, and the country’s leaders, particularly President Maia Sandu, frequently visit Western capitals.
Most of the problems facing Moldova are well known. International media outlets have intensely covered the ongoing protests, the supposed coup, and the tense situation in Transnistria. At the same time, world leaders regularly praise Moldova and sharply condemn Russian attempts to destabilise the country.
A topic that has received little to no attention from the international media is the brewing tensions between the central authorities and the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (hereinafter Gagauzia). Gagauzia is an autonomous region in southern Moldova, home to the Gagauz, a Christian Orthodox Turkic people.
Despite their ethnic origins, most Gagauz are heavily Russified. Since gaining independence, Moldovan governments have oscillated between pro-Russian and pro-Western positions. The Gagauz, on the other hand, have remained unequivocally pro-Russian. Unsurprisingly, the Moldovan government’s sharp condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its move toward the EU has caused tensions with the Gagauz minority.
Relations between the Moldovan government and the Gagauz minority in the country’s south have been tense since the late 1980s. In 1988, when Moldova was still part of the Soviet Union, local Gagauz intellectuals complained that their language and culture had stagnated.[i] These complaints were not misplaced. Until then, Gagauz language schools could not be opened, and there were virtually no Gagauz language publications.
To rectify this, local intellectuals began calling for the formation of a Gagauz Autonomous Republic in the south of Moldova. These calls intensified in 1989 when Moldova passed a series of language laws that made Moldovan the country’s sole official language.
It quickly became apparent that Chișinău was unwilling to grant the Gagauz autonomy, so in November 1989, they unilaterally declared the creation of the Gagauz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The central government immediately annulled the declaration, and tensions between the Gagauz and Chișinău continued to brew in the following months.
In 1990 it became increasingly clear that the Moldovan government would declare independence from the Soviet Union. This prospect did not sit well with the Gagauz, the majority of whom were intensely pro-Soviet. Moreover, in August 1990, the Moldovan government declared that the Gagauz were not entitled to autonomy as they were “not an indigenous minority”.[ii]
In August 1990, the Gagauz declared their own republic, which they claimed was separate from Moldova, and would join a renewed Soviet Federation. The declaration greatly exacerbated tensions. In October 1990, members of the Moldovan Popular Front, a pan-Romanian organisation, attempted to march on Comrat, Gagauzia’s regional capital, to prevent elections to the Gagauz parliament. Violence was only narrowly avoided after Soviet troops intervened. After seeing the horrors of the Transnistrian War, local elites in Gagauzia and Chișinău decided to negotiate to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.
In 1994, the Moldovan parliament passed a law that granted Gagauzia a significant amount of local autonomy. The region was to have its own legislative body, the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia (Halk Topluşu) and governor (Başkan), Gagauz symbols were allowed to be publicly displayed, and Gagauz would function as an official language alongside Moldovan and Russian. The region was peacefully reintegrated into Moldova, but several problems remained. The exact details of Gagauzia’s autonomy remain vague. Additionally, the region remained staunchly pro-Russian and vehemently opposed to any form of integration with the EU.
In 2014, the local authorities in Gagauzia organised an illegal referendum in protest against Moldova signing an Association Agreement with the EU. Participants were asked whether they supported Moldova’s integration with the EU or the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union (now the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)). Additionally, voters were asked if they supported Gagauz independence if Moldova “lost its independence”. Despite vigorous protests from Chișinău, the referendum went ahead, with the majority voting in favour of closer relations with the Eurasian Customs Union and independence. The result of the vote caused many to question whether Gagauzia could even be the next Crimea. Unsurprisingly, Moldova’s response to the war in Ukraine has exacerbated tensions with the autonomous region.
Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and Its Impact on Relations Between Chișinău and Gagauzia
As soon as Russia’s invasion started, Ukrainian citizen’s fleeing the violence poured across the border into Moldova. People from across the country, including Gagauzia, mobilised to assist those who arrived. International media outlets, such as Al Jazeera, marvelled at how the people from this traditionally pro-Russian region ‘opened their arms’ to the incoming refugees.
While there was (and is) certainly a high degree of sympathy for Ukrainian refugees, it did not take long for the war to strain relations between Chișinău and Gagauzia. Almost as soon as the war in Ukraine started, it became apparent that Russia was attempting to destabilise Moldova. Moreover, multiple reports stated that if Russian troops could take the Ukrainian districts of Odesa and Mykolaiv, they would advance into Moldova.
To maintain stability, the Moldovan government quickly began to take measures to limit Russian influence in the country, resulting in a sharp rise in tensions with Gagauzia.
Tensions began to rise in mid-April 2022 when the Moldovan government passed a law that banned symbols associated with Russian aggression. While the law outlined symbols associated explicitly with the war, such as the now infamous Z, it also outlawed other symbols, such as the Ribbon of Saint George, traditionally worn on 9 May to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
Outlawing these symbols, particularly the Ribbon of Saint George, caused outrage in Gagauzia. After the bill was signed, a protest was organised in Comrat. Participants displayed the Ribbon of Saint George and flew Russian and Gagauz flags. In addition, graffiti supporting Russia’s war effort began to appear across the region.
As 9 May drew closer, the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia attempted to pass a law allowing the Ribbon of Saint George to be displayed in Gagauzia during the celebrations. On two separate occasions, the assembly attempted to pass a bill to facilitate this. However, the law was struck down by the Comrat Appellate Court.
This sparked an intense debate, with members of the people’s assembly arguing that they were entitled to pass such a law. However, the appellate court, the central government, and local law enforcement argued that the Gagauz People’s Assembly could not pass a law violating Moldova’s constitution. However, this did not stop several members of the People’s Assembly from wearing the ribbon during the Victory Day celebrations.
Further efforts by the Moldovan government to limit Russia’s influence in the country have also been resisted by the Gagauz. In June 2022, Moldovan President Maia Sandu promulgated the Informational Security Law, which banned several Russian television stations accused of spreading disinformation from broadcasting in Moldova. Nevertheless, these stations are still broadcast in Comrat and Gagauzia’s third-largest city, Vulcănești.
The Law on Separatism, adopted by the Moldovan government on 2 February 2023, was also sharply criticised by the local authorities in Gagauzia. Many in Gagauzia feel like the law, which prohibits separatist actions, is directed against them. Several notable figures in Gagauzia, including Ivan Burgudzhi, one of the separatist movement leaders in the 1990s, have publicly stated that the law is the latest in a series of measures aimed at “dissolving the Gagauz state”.
Immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it became apparent that Moldova’s army was in a dire state, filled with underpaid and demoralised soldiers that utilised outdated weapons. In the wake of the attack, Moldova’s pro-Western government publicly called for the military to be modernised and asked for assistance from several Western nations.
However, local leaders in Gagauzia have remained categorically opposed to any form of military reform. At a recent meeting of the Moldovan government, the current Governor of Gagauzia, Irina Vlah, argued that money allocated for defence spending should instead be spent on improving the country’s infrastructure.
In a later statement, Vlah also linked the increase in military spending to the resumption of hostilities in Moldova. In a television interview, Vlah stated that when it comes to President Sandu’s policy on Transnistria, “one gets the impression that they [the government] will try to resolve the issue through force”. Pro-Russian Gagauz telegram channels have gone even further, claiming several times that NATO troops were amassing on Moldova’s border and that Romanian troops in disguise had been spotted in Gagauzia.
It is not just Moldova’s increased military spending that the Gagauz are opposed to, with local elites making it clear that they are also opposed to the government’s promotion of ‘Western values’ or the country’s integration with the EU.
In late May 2022, the People’s Assembly passed an anti-LGBT law that prohibited the promotion of ‘non-traditional relations’, banned local media from publishing any positive materials about same-sex couples, and established the ‘traditional family’ as the basis of Gagauz society. The move was criticised by members of Moldova’s government, who were awaiting news on their bid for EU candidacy.
Immediately after Moldova was awarded EU candidate status in June 2022, the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia published a statement criticising the government for excluding the Gagauz people from the negotiating process. Additionally, they claimed that the government ignored the wishes of the Gagauz people, referring to the illegal referendum from 2014.
The difference in opinions between the Moldovan leadership and the local authorities in Gagauzia was best highlighted during President Sandu’s trip to Comrat on 2 September 2022. After addressing students at Comrat State University (in Russian, no less), the president then met with members of the Gagauz People’s Assembly.
What transpired was a farcical affair, with deputies informing the president that neutrality is the country’s “best weapon” and shouting at her for “ignoring” the hardships the people of the Donbas suffered at the hands of the Ukrainian leadership following the Maidan Revolution. The meeting only served to heighten tensions. In the days after the meeting, the rhetoric emanating from the People’s Assembly towards Chișinău became more hostile, with deputies accusing the government of attempting to destroy Gagauz statehood. Vlah, who until that point had attempted to present herself as a more moderate figure, also became more critical of the president after Sandu allegedly snubbed the Governor by not giving her advance notice of her arrival.
Economic Hardships in Gagauzia
When the war began, Moldova completely relied on Russia for its gas imports. In response to Moldova’s pro-Ukrainian position, the Kremlin began to use gas as a means to exert influence over Moldova. Throughout the latter half of 2022, gas prices in Moldova rose exponentially as the country was forced to hike tariffs by twenty-seven percent at one point. Simultaneously, inflation skyrocketed, with the price of food increasing by up to forty percent.
The consequences of the rapidly rising gas prices and inflation were acutely felt in Gagauzia, which is considered one of the poorest regions in Moldova, which itself bears the unsavoury title of ‘Europe’s poorest country’. Rising inflation forced several local businesses to close, further damaging the local economy of the already impoverished region.
The ever-increasing energy prices made it almost impossible for pensioners, who comprise a considerable portion of Gagauzia’s population, to cover their bills and put food on the table. To help the region’s population, Gagauzia’s Executive Committee announced that it would increase the heating allowance for pensioners born before 1958 (roughly 27,000 people) by sixty percent.
Amidst rising inflation and gas prices, the Gagauz also faced an ecological disaster throughout the spring and summer of 2022. The region was hit with a severe drought that saw little to no rain for over six months. Rivers and wells dried up, leading to water rationing in many areas and an increase in prices.
It was so hot that in August 2022, it was discovered that some of the railway tracks that ran through the region were damaged. This, in turn, meant that oil had to be transported to the region via trucks, which further increased prices.
Unsurprisingly, the drought devastated agriculture, which comprises a considerable amount of Gagauzia’s local economy. In July 2022, it was reported that roughly fifty percent of all sunflowers in Gagauzia, a staple crop of the region, had been destroyed. In Vulcănești, Gagauzia’s southernmost city, local farmers claimed they lost all their crops.
At the end of August 2022, it was estimated that 35,000 hectares of crops were affected by the drought, which resulted in losses of up to twenty-six million euro. Farmers complained that due to rising inflation, they could not take out loans to help offset the negative consequences of the poor harvest.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot be blamed for the drought in Moldova, the Kremlin did little to alleviate the suffering of the region’s pro-Russian population. In addition to increasing gas prices, in August 2022, Russia imposed import restrictions on agricultural products from particular regions in Moldova, including Gagauzia. While the ban was later lifted, its implementation caused much concern within the region.
Political Polarisation in Gagauzia
The war, the conflict with Chișinău, and the economic and ecological crises have caused sharp divisions within Gagauzia and led to new political entrepreneurs seeking to take advantage of the growing unrest. Before Sandu’s visit to Comrat, Vlah attempted to portray herself as more of a moderate force in Gagauz politics. This attracted the criticism of the more hard-line pro-Russian members of the people’s assembly. After Vlah refused to sign off on the local budget, the deputies attempted to pass a law limiting the executive branch’s powers and essentially making it subordinate to the assembly.
The most notable figure to emerge in recent months is Viktor Petrov. While Petrov has been active in Gagauzia for some time, he has used the growing unrest to increase his popularity by forming the People’s Union of Gagauzia, a pro-Russian populist group.
The group was founded in the spring of 2022 and held its founding congress in Comrat that July. The group employs Soviet-era populist rhetoric to win support from the local population. In an interview with the Russian media outlet TASS, Petrov alleged that the Moldovan government systematically violated the rights of the country’s Russian-speaking population without providing any evidence to support these claims.
In another interview, Petrov went as far as to criticise the Moldovan government for blaming Russia for the massacre in the Ukrainian city of Bucha before “a single expert gave their opinion on what actually happened”.
The group had a strong start. Its founding congress attracted significant attention, and the group was able to open up regional branches across Gagauzia. Additionally, Petrov enjoyed an increased media presence, conducting interviews with local and Russian media outlets regularly.
On 10 March 2023, Petrov announced his intention to run in the upcoming governor elections, scheduled for April. It is clear that Petrov hopes that he can use the popularity of his pro-Russian populist group and manipulate the grievances of the Gagauz to have himself elected to the highest office in the autonomous region. Should Petrov’s campaign be successful, it is likely that tensions between Chișinău and Gagauzia will increase dramatically.
Another group that has had considerable success mobilising the people of Gagauzia are the so-called ‘NGO activists’. These activists insist that their protests are ‘non-political’. Rather than condemning the ruling government, these activists have instead attempted to highlight Gagauzia’s specific concerns.
While speakers are allowed to vent their frustrations about rising prices, these so-called ‘NGO activists’ generally do not allow speakers to directly criticise President Sandu or the pro-Western government. When members of the opposition parties have attempted to use these protests as a platform to promote their own agenda, activists have prevented them from talking, which on some occasions has almost resulted in violence.
These activists distanced themselves from the Russian-sponsored protests organised by the Shor Party in Chișinău. Throughout the summer and fall of 2022, they brought hundreds of people onto the streets of Comrat, Vulcănești, and Ceadîr-Lunga, Gagauzia’s second-largest city.
However, these activists did organise a petition appealing to President Putin to lower gas prices in the region and called on the People’s Assembly to send a delegation to Moscow to negotiate a new deal for the region with Gazprom.
23 February 2023 marked one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During that year, Moldova’s pro-Western government has been forced to stave off several crises. Russia has continuously attempted to destabilise the county by sponsoring protests in the capital, hiking gas prices, exploiting Transnistria, and launching an intense propaganda campaign.
Russia’s attempts to destabilise Moldova have greatly impacted relations between Chișinău and Gagauzia. The fact the government has aligned itself with the West does not sit well with the majority of the inhabitants in this predominantly pro-Russian region. The economic consequences of the war, such as rising gas prices and inflation, are acutely felt in this underdeveloped region whose local economy was devastated by a drought. Pro-Russian populists have sought to exploit these rising tensions and unprecedented hardships, further polarising the political landscape in the autonomous region.
While it is impossible to predict exactly what the future holds, one thing is for certain; as long as Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, relations between Chișinău and Gagauzia will remain tense.
This blog post was prepared by the author in their personal capacity. The views expressed in this blog post are the sole responsibility of the author concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues.
[i] “Razmyshlenii͡a o diskussionnom klube Gagauz Khalky», neobkhodimy obosnovannye vyvody i ikh osmyslenie,” Leninskoe slovo, 9 mai͡a 1988 g., 4 (“Reflections on the Gagauz Halky Discussion Club,” Lenin's Word, May 9, 1988, 4).
[ii] All quotations that appear in this text have been translated from Russian or Romanian by the author.