As the grand geopolitical struggle for Eastern Europe continues, greater attention will likely be drawn to Moldova, which is set to become the next major battleground in the saga. The omen for this has been seen in a most unlikely place: the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (known locally as Gagauz Yeri).
In contrast to Transdniestria, Gagauzia is not a breakaway republic but a "national-territorial autonomous unit" per a resolution on its status taken in December 1994. Now it seems that this once relatively quiet and unproblematic area of Moldova could again become one of the major scenes of contention as the geopolitical struggle for Eastern Europe begins to focus on what has long held the epithet of “Europe’s poorest country”.
During a recent referendum, voters in Gagauzia overwhelmingly voted against Moldovan integration with the EU. In it, 98.4 per cent of voters supported closer integration with the CIS-led customs union, while 97.2 per cent voted against closer ties with Europe. In addition to voting against EU integration, a referendum was held on independence for Gagauzia, in the case that Moldova should decide to continue its European path and possibly even unite with its larger ethno-linguistic counterpart, Romania. Mihail Formuzal, the leader of Gagauzia (known by the title of başkan) previously described the referendum as the beginning of true democratization in Moldova and highlighted grievances that he felt the central government in Chişinau was ignoring the desires of the Gagauz.
The referendum comes at a time of increased Russian pressure on Moldova, which signed the EU Association Agreement in Vilnius last November. The central authorities in Chişinau, however, have stated that the referendum was a “defiance of law” and that it promotes separatist tendencies in the autonomous region. Meanwhile, Gagauzia’s Governor Mihail Formuzal has expressed his concerns about Moldovan integration with the EU, stating that Gagauzia wants to have free markets with both the EU and the Customs Union.
The Moldovan government’s negative response itself has drawn criticism from officials in various CIS states. “The Moldovan government’s reaction to the referendum in Gagauzia isn’t right. Governments should consider the opinions of the people,” said Oleg Gaidukevich, deputy chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus (which supports Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko).
Historic and demographic background
The Gagauz, who make up around four per cent of the total population of Moldova, are a Turkic-speaking people who inhabit the southeast section of Moldova. Unlike most Turkic-speaking ethnic groups, however, the Gagauz are not Muslim but overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian. They descend from Turks who fled the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century and sought protections from the Russian czars; as such, their pro-Russian bent is nothing new. Gagauzia widely supported the Soviet Union during its twilight, and gave its backing to the August 1991 coup in Moscow. When the USSR’s days were numbered, Gagauzia declared its independence, even before Transdniestria did. Nevertheless, an armed conflict did not break out here as it did further north in Transdniestria, and Gagauzia’s autonomous status within Moldova was granted peacefully.
One important factor that distinguishes Gagauzia from Transdniestria is that in the former, more than 80 per cent of the population belongs to the ethnic group for which the autonomous region is named, while Russians and Ukrainians only make up approximately 3 per cent each of the population of Gagauz Yeri. This stands in contrast to Transdniestria, where Russians and Ukrainians each make up approximately 30 per cent of the population. Thus, the Gagauz could not be considered a “fifth column” the way that Slavs in Transdniestria may be viewed. Nevertheless, their pro-Russian orientation is unmistakable and can easily be turned into a strategic leverage capability for Russia.
While Transdniestria is a major factor inhibiting Moldova’s integration into the EU (least one mentions the presence of the Russian 14th Army in the breakaway state), Gagauzia’s status as an integral, yet autonomous part of Moldova may present its own unique set of problems. Gagauzia has been a relatively well-integrated part of Moldova for 20 years now. Nevertheless, despite its formal and well-entrenched political status as an autonomous yet undisputed part of Moldova, the region has had a tendency to act in some ways reminiscent of an independent state. In particular, Gagauzia has fostered strong bilateral ties with Russia. This state of affairs leaves open the possibility that Russia may use Gagauzia as a strategic lever, one in which its status vis-à-vis Moldova is currently less contentious.
Russian relations with Gagauzia
Ahead of the Gagauzia referendum, Mihail Formuzal stated that he has every intention of garnering Russian support for initiatives in the autonomous region. He highlighted the fact that Russian remains a “state language” in Gagauzia (unlike in Moldova itself, where Russian is still widely spoken but holds no official status) and that Russian culture continues to exert profound influence on Gagauzia. In 2008, the Chairman of Russia’s Federation Council Sergei Mironov visited Gagauzia to meet with Mikhail Formuzal. During the meeting, Formuzal highlighted the “centuries-long” relationship the Gagauz had with Russia. “Gagauzia’s special relationship with the Russians has become deeper in the economic and trade sphere. Gagauzia is ready to become its very own oasis for Russian business,” he said during the 2008 visit. Other issues discussed during the meeting included Gagauzia and Russia’s strategic bilateral relationship. Indeed, many Western experts, such as the Jamestown Foundation’s Vladimir Socor, consider that Russia has traditionally used the Gagauz to its own geopolitical advantage even during the days of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
Some voices, such as the civil society movement New Gagauzia, stand in opposition to the current Moldovan foreign policy of EU integration but represent a more moderate path, calling for balanced relations with both the EU and Russia. The group has called for increased partnership with the Democratic Party of Moldova. This stands in contrast to New Gagauzia’sprevious stance, which was firmly in favour of cooperation with Russia and the Customs Union. Indeed, Russia and the EU are not the only factors in Gagauzia’s external relations. While Russia has not been the only European power to court Gagauzia, its primacy remains relatively undisputed. Turkey, taking advantage of the fall of the USSR, has undertaken limited steps to gain a foothold in the region, based on a shared ethno-linguistic background. Indeed, Turkey has invested a great deal of money in Gagauzia (something which Turkey has done all across the newly-liberated Turkic-speaking world traversing Central Asia). Nevertheless, only 4.4 per cent of those polled on the issue of Moldova’s foreign policy orientation favoured prioritising relations with Turkey.
Russia placed economic difficulties on Moldova in the days leading up to the signing of the 2013 Association Agreement. Earlier this month, some EU member states drafted a proposed “Eastern Package” to assist countries in integrating with the EU. The package included specific proposals for Moldova, including frequent high-level diplomatic visits to Chişinau and resolving the conflict in Transdniestria. Likewise, the document calls for the publication of papers which highlight the economic benefits of association with the EU, and discredit declared benefits of joining the Customs Union as well as fears of the costs of EU association.
A strategic risk comes from the fact that so much of Moldova proper is bordered by Ukraine. The Moldovan borderlands with Ukraine largely consist of Transdniestria and Gagauzia. If the outcome of the current crisis in Ukraine yields the result that Ukraine will join Russia’s economic structures, there is a chance that the Customs Union could allow for trade with Gagauzia and Transdniestria, which may in turn deny that trade to Moldova proper outside of these regions, thus undermining Moldova’s territorial integrity even further. Moldova, similar to Georgia, is a country with a strong viticulture background, and was subjected to a ban on exporting its wine to Russia in 2006, at the same time that the same restriction was placed on Georgian product.
Prospects for conflict
All this begs the question of whether or not there is a chance that Gagauzia could break out into conflict, especially if Moldova continues to pursue its European path. Oleg Gaidukevich believes that the Moldovan government has already created a conflict situation by ignoring the demands of this section of its own country. However, an armed conflict seems unlikely at this point, given the lack of a Russian military presence in Gagauzia as there is in Transdniestria. Nevertheless, one cannot rule out the possibility of an armed conflict in the future of the rumbles for independence grow louder. As small as that population of Gagauzia may be, even a protracted conflict limited to the diplomatic arena will cause major quandary for Moldova’s EU integration.
Regardless, in the emerging geopolitical battle for Moldova, this once peaceful region will likely become a focal point in that struggle.
Tony Rinna is a contributing geopolitical analyst at the United States-based Center for World Conflict and Peace. His areas of focus include Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.