If you ask a newcomer about the most pro-Russian region of Moldova, you will probably hear that it is Transnistria.
But that’s not true.
The Russian-occupied left bank of the Dniester, where life only thrives thanks to Russian military and “gas injections,” has long relinquished its first place in terms of love and trust for Putin to another region of Moldova.
We are talking about Gagauzia. It is an autonomous region that has the right to secede from Moldova and consistently votes for pro-Russian parties (Dodon, for instance, received 99% of the votes here). However, this spring, the Gagauz people surprised themselves, it seems. In the nationwide elections for the region’s leader, a candidate (woman) won whom the voters knew absolutely nothing about. It turned out that her affiliation with a pro-Russian party was enough for her victory.
And now experts are seriously concerned that by gaining official control over this loyal region, the Kremlin will proceed with destabilizing the republic.
To understand what is happening and how far it can go, it is important to first understand who the Gagauz people are and what Gagauzia is. We had a conversation in Chisinau with the author of European Pravda, an expert on Gagauzia, Vyacheslav Krachun, about this “hidden Eurointegration,” and the connection between the Gagauz people and the Crimean Tatars.
Who are the Gagauz people?
The Gagauz people are one of the few Turkic Orthodox nations. Among the speakers of Turkic languages, the closest to the Gagauz language are Azerbaijanis, Turks, and Crimean Tatars — they can understand each other without an interpreter.
There is another detail that unites the Gagauz and Crimean Tatar peoples: in the 1940s, both became targets of Stalinist repressions, but the Gagauz people later managed to “forget” this tragedy of their nation. We will return to this topic later.
The Gagauz people originated in the Balkans, in the Varna region in southern Bulgaria. There are different versions, but according to the most reliable ones, the Gagauz people are descendants of the Cumans, Pechenegs, and Balkan ethnic groups.
In the late 18th century, after yet another Russo-Turkish war, the Russian government invited them to settle in the southern part of Bessarabia to cultivate the local steppes. The settlers were exempted from paying certain taxes and military service for several decades, which became a sufficient incentive for several waves of their emigration to the territory of present-day Gagauzia, as well as slightly further south to the present-day Odesa region (south Ukraine).
Historically, those Gagauz people who remained in Bulgaria were largely assimilated (there are practically no people left who understand the Gagauz language). Moldova, where they have autonomy, became the only homeland for the Gagauz people. This created among the Gagauz the belief that resettlement to Moldova “saved them from assimilation.”
Although in reality, the Gagauz language is gradually fading away in Moldova.
Protecting and developing the language of a small nation in the modern world is very challenging.
The Gagauz language doesn’t even have a fully developed Wikipedia. The younger generation consumes information, reads news, and scientific literature in Russian, Romanian, and English, while Gagauz remains a language for everyday communication, spoken with elders in the family. And even this is mostly true in villages, as in cities, this is not the case.
Efforts to preserve and support the Gagauz language exist, but they are very modest.
However, this is a shared responsibility between the Gagauz autonomy (which was created precisely for this purpose) and Chisinau. After all, the Gagauz people are full-fledged citizens of Moldova, and it is the responsibility of no one else but Moldova to protect their rights. While Moldovan Bulgarians have their external homeland, Bulgaria, which helps them develop culturally, and Ukrainians have Ukraine, and so on, Gagauz people have no alternative to Moldova.
About how the Gagauz people forgave Russians for their crimes
Years after World War II, life was very difficult for the Gagauz people. They were labeled as “enemies of the people” and faced persecution and destruction at the hands of the Soviet authorities.
In 1946-47, a terrible famine struck the south of Moldova, coinciding with the Gagauz inhabited areas.
By the most modest estimates, the lower estimate of victims was around 100,000 people. The famine was not only directed against the Gagauz people but also affected the southern part of the republic the most. There were instances of cannibalism, and horrifying things took place. The famine also affected the south of the Odesa region, where Gagauz people also lived.
And two years after that famine, in 1949, the Soviet authorities carried out mass deportations — several tens of thousands of people, including Gagauz and inhabitants of Bulgarian villages, were transported to Siberia.
During that period, according to estimates by contemporary Gagauz scholars, up to a third of the Gagauz population perished.
It would seem that this would be enough to forever curse Russians, the Soviet regime, and everything associated with Russia!
But it turned out that this, so to speak, was recorded in a different section of memory. People in Gagauzia do not remember that, but they only remember the positive aspects that occurred in the USSR simultaneously with the extermination of the nation’s gene pool — such as likbez (a campaign of eradication of illiteracy in Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s), construction of enterprises, cultural buildings, and so on.
The collective memory has erased the persecution of the Gagauz people, even though there were things that, seemingly, would be impossible to forget.
Now, among the Gagauz people, the attitude towards Russia is positive. Furthermore, there is a significant number of individuals in Gagauzia who still support Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and there is also a portion of Gagauz people who remain undecided. Although it seems obvious that a person in their right mind cannot condone aggressive warfare, Gagauz people, immersed in consuming Russian news, may have a distorted perspective.
And in Gagauzia, Russian propaganda is very strong. However, it should be noted that the Gagauz people are self-organized to provide assistance to refugees from Ukraine, resettling people and warmly welcoming them, based on their modest capabilities.
Interestingly, in Ukraine (where tens of thousands of Gagauz people live in the Odesa region), there has been a forced shift in the consciousness of the Gagauz community in the past year and a half. Ukrainian Gagauz people no longer look towards Russia. Among the Gagauz people, the first Hero of Ukraine has emerged — Colonel Mykola Palas, who was awarded the hero’s star by President Zelenskyy.
And in Moldova, the Gagauzes continue to live the myths of Russian propaganda.
This break with the Ukrainian Gagauzes is another tragedy of the Gagauz people, which they do not yet realize.
Is there a chance that Gagauzia will declare independence from Moldova?
The issue is not about the formal right to such a step, but rather the fact that there are simply no conditions for the independence of this region. It is impossible.
Gagauzia consists of three small towns (including the regional capital, Comrat) and just over 20 villages. It does not have a natural border along a river like Transnistria does. Furthermore, this region does not have a unified territory at all — Gagauzia consists of several (4 or 5, depending on how one counts) scattered enclaves.
While objectively speaking, independence for Gagauzia is not even a possibility, there is a chance that Russia may attempt to exploit the situation.
Recently, Russia succeeded in having a new, Moscow-friendly governor of Gagauzia elected as the leader of the autonomy. Yevgenia Gutsul from the Shor party was chosen for this position (the inauguration is scheduled for July 19).
This party is an agent of Russia in Moldova, and there is no doubt that its interests now fundamentally diverge from the interests of the people of Gagauzia. Considering this, attempts to involve the region in a confrontation with Chisinau cannot be ruled out.
However, there are positive signals that give hope that people will have the wisdom not to succumb. In May, a so-called “Congress of Deputies at all levels” took place in Comrat. There was much talk about the confrontation with Chisinau, and suddenly one politician, former mayor of Comrat, Nikolay Dudoglo, proposed to the participants of the congress to declare, in essence, “if our demands are not heard, we will hold a referendum on secession from Moldova.”
These words caused fear, and even radical participants of the congress preferred to dissociate themselves from it.
That is, the idea of Gagauzia’s “independence” is not supported now.
And here it is worth recalling that the Gagauz have no homeland other than Moldova.
This also means that it is suicidal for the region to go against the European vector chosen by the country, which is detrimental to the national interests of the Gagauz themselves.
However, so far, this is exactly what is happening.
How the Russian-affiliated party won the elections in Gagauzia
The Shor party, whose representative won the election for the head of the autonomy and is now preparing for the inauguration, is a phenomenon.
Firstly, it is not really a political party, but rather a business project and, at the same time, a tool of the Kremlin in Moldovan politics.
Secondly, Shor wins elections by breaking the system of electoral democracy in Moldova.
Indeed, in Gagauzia, with the help of intensified brainwashing and by spending an enormous amount of money for the region, they promoted a candidate whom absolutely no one knew about a month before the elections in Gagauzia.
Yevgenia Gutsul, who won the election in Gagauzia, is a “hollow” figure, a hologram. People did not vote for her, but for the image of the Shor party, which, over the past year and a half, using a series of crises, managed to unite the entire protest electorate, the votes of the entire opposition.
To gain the love of the people, Shor promised cheap gas and a plethora of populist promises. And the beaten-down, impoverished, and repeatedly deceived voters of Gagauzia, and Moldova in general, were willing to vote for anyone who promised them the moon.
Now, the intrigue lies in how Yevgenia Gutsul will govern the region since she lacks knowledge of the fundamentals of economics, communication, and an understanding of how Gagauzia is structured. Perhaps someone else will be entrusted with the management while she serves as a mere photo opportunity.
About disputes with Chisinau
Although the Gagauz people may appear pro-Russian from the outside, they do not consider themselves as such. Moreover, Gagauz politicians seriously refer to themselves as the “anchor of Moldovan statehood” and believe that thanks to them, Moldova has preserved its sovereignty.
The point is that Moldova’s legislation (the law On the Special Status of Gagauzia) includes the provision: “In the event of a change in the status of the Republic of Moldova as an independent state, the people of Gagauzia have the right to external self-determination.”
This provision, adopted in 1994, became a compromise that resolved the conflict between Comrat and Chisinau.
Gagauzia then agreed to return under the control of the capital with autonomy rights in exchange for guarantees that Moldova would not join Romania. The above-quoted provision on the right to self-determination, although it does not contain the word “Romania,” is dedicated to it.
This story stretches back to the early 1990s, when the idea of unification with Romania was briefly in vogue in Moldova, and the Gagauz were afraid of it: “We do not want to join Romania, because in Romania we will be assimilated.”
These fears were artificially fueled because Gagauz people have never had any historical tendencies towards anti-Romanian sentiment. Many Gagauz individuals have had successful careers in Romania, especially in the 1990s! Alexander Barladyan, a native of Comrat, was the Chairman of the Romanian Senate from 1990 to 1992. There were also many Gagauz artists in Romania, such as Ioan Papazoglu.
However, the media and politicians took on the task of stoking and inflating anti-Romanian sentiment. This political technology phenomenon, devoid of any grounds, emerged in the 1990s and continues to influence the mood in Gagauzia.
About Gagauzia and support for European integration
Every politician is tempted to align with the prevailing public sentiment before elections. This inclination exists in Gagauzia, from the governor of Gagauzia level to the smallest village councils. Consequently, openly pro-European and anti-Russian politicians are virtually absent in Gagauz elections.
However, the very next day after being elected, every new Gagauz politician encounters a different reality and realizes that nearly all infrastructure projects in Gagauzia, from road repairs to water supply, are linked to European grants. At that point, the elected official understands that there is simply no alternative vector other than the European one.
Therefore, after coming into power, the rhetoric of every leader changes because each of them understands the need to develop relations with European partners.
This was particularly evident with Irina Vlah, the governor of Gagauzia from 2015 to 2023. She came to power with a staunchly pro-Russian stance and direct support from the Kremlin. However, during her second term, she adopted a new rhetoric, declaring the principle of “360-degree openness of Gagauzia” and prioritizing cooperation with the EU, Turkey, and others. This approach yielded results for the region. Today, all projects that can serve as a hallmark of Gagauzia are funded by European money.
However, new politicians who come to power often espouse slogans of friendship with Russia.
This should change, and the turning point could be the shift in external labor migration, which is high in Gagauzia, as well as in Moldova as a whole. We are talking about tens of thousands of people (according to voter lists, there are approximately 100,000 registered adult residents in Gagauzia).
The thing is, about 10-15 years ago, the majority of Gagauz people went to Russia for work. Today, most labor migrants are heading to Europe, particularly to Germany. In other words, “private Eurointegration” is taking place, and it cannot but influence public opinion.
Gagauzia’s place is only within Moldova.
Wherever the Moldovan ship goes, Gagauzia will go with it. There is no other option.
The interest of Gagauzia lies in economic prosperity, population growth, access to quality education, healthcare, and more. The European vector of Moldova provides such opportunities. Eventually, Gagauz people must come to understand this.
Chisinau needs to start working with this region. It is challenging to do so, as it is much easier, as it is happening now, to simply label it as a “pro-Russian region” and dismiss it. Indeed, Gagauzia is currently a hostile electorate for the Moldovan government and President Sandu. However, a true politician must work with an unfriendly environment and speak the truth to it.
Nevertheless, first and foremost, the Gagauz people themselves need to learn to feel their national interests, stop running towards Romania, cease promoting Moscow, and refrain from supporting agents of Russia in Moldova like the Shor party.
Originally posted by Serhiy Sydorenko and Vyacheslav Krachun on European Pravda. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website