The separatist discourse has reemerged in Gagauzia, part of an effort to block Moldova's European path. The moment coincides with the winning of the elections by one of Ilan Shor’s representatives.
The Gagauz electorate, convinced by the representative of a fugitive criminal
On May 27 in Comrat, the capital of the region, the “Congress of deputies and representative authorities of all levels”convened, an advisory body that brings together local elected officials, the regional leadership, deputies. The meeting took place after the controversial elections for the office of Governor (Bashkan), suprisingly won by the candidate of the Shor Party, Evghenia Guțul. A “no name”, who represented the party of the fugitive oligarch IlanShor, sentenced to 15 years in prison in the 2014 massive bank fraud, which cost Moldovan citizens a billion dollars, which was approximately one eighth of the country’s GDP. The fraud triggered inflation, the devaluation of the national currency, as well as an economic and political crisis.
However, the decision-makers in Comrat were not bothered by the choice of the residents of the region who believed the generous promises of Ilan Shor and his candidate: half a billion euro worth of investments in the region (equivalent to 10 annual state budgets), an amusement park, roads and social housing. What bothered them was the intervention of the police forces controlled by Chisinau, who carried out searches, including at the Electoral Council of the region, as part of a case regarding voters being corrupted by representatives of the Shor Party.
Therefore, the “deputies and representative authorities of all levels” in Comrat took the investigative measures as an affront to Gagauzia and in the resolution adopted at the Congress they demanded more rights and powers, including ensuring the state's autonomy through a constitutional law. Currently, this statute, adopted in 1994, is regulated by a law that can be amended with a qualified majority of three fifths of the deputies in Parliament, while two thirds are needed to amend the Constitution.
They also want for the said law to be amended only with the Agreement of the People’s Assembly (legislature) in Comrat. At the same time, it was requested an adaptation of the legislation of the Republic of Moldova to the status of Gagauzia, shares in Parliament and in other structures, but also issues that have nothing to do with autonomy - the banning of the activity of parties and public organizations “whose program aims to eliminate the Republic of Moldova as an independent state” – hinting at those who opt for union with Romania.
Gagauzia has always hampered Moldova's attempts to break away from Russia and get closer to the West
Gagauzia’s separatist tendencies date back more than 30 years and flare up at turning points for the Republic of Moldova, especially when the latter is trying to distance itself from Moscow's influence. The first movement of this kind was in the late 80s - early 90s, when the National Liberation Movement was formed in Chisinau, the Latin script was resumed and everything culminated in the Declaration of Independence from the USSR, on August 27, 1991. Exactly then, the Autonomous Republic was created in Comrat, followed by the proclamation of the Republic of Gagauzia, which existed de facto until 1995, after pro-Russian forces returned to Chisinau and adopted the Constitution that instated the “Moldovan language” and permanent neutrality, and a few months later a law was adopted on the “special legal status of Gagauzia (Gagauz-Yeri)”, which also stipulates that “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 in the law primarily targeted the“risk” of the union of the Republic of Moldova with Romania.
Like the separatist Transnistria, openly supported by Moscow, Gagauzia seems to act as a brake on the pro-Western orientation that most citizens of the Republic of Moldova favor. This is what happened in 2014: when the Republic of Moldova was negotiating the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, and in Kyiv Ukrainians were being killed because they were demanding their country’s rapprochement with the EU, a referendum declared illegal by the judiciary was organized in Comrat, financed from obscure sources, in which, as in the Soviet times, 99% voted for the accession of the Republic of Moldova to the Eurasian Union and against European integration. Moreover, 99% also opted for the independence of Gagauzia in case the Republic of Moldova lost its statehood. In 2022, the People's Assembly criticized the Republic of Moldova for obtaining the status of a candidate country for EU accession.
It is clear that Gagauzia is a spare lever for the Kremlin to put pressure on Chisinau and try to influence its decisions, especially the geopolitical ones, when it comes to getting closer to the European Union, which means reducing Russia’s influence, or even releasing the Republic of Moldova from Moscow's orbit. The Russian propaganda narratives about the rights of the national minorities in the Republic of Moldova and the Russian language being undermined, the imminent accession to NATO and, more recently, its involvement in the war in Ukraine, but especially the “danger” of annexation by Romania and the return of the Romanian gendarme - transformed by disinformation of Soviet origin in a symbol of the oppressive state - primarily target national minorities, including the Gagauz.
The tensions in Comrat have usually also pleased certain political forces in Chisinau. In this case is the Shor Party, whose representatives already have the support of a good part of the population in several important regions of the Republic of Moldova (Orhei - center, Balti - north). After the victory in Gagauzia, the party could hope to transform itself from a local party into a regional one with claims to become a formidable force at the national level as well. The Shor Party seems to be a tool of the Kremlin as evidenced by several things: Russian political strategists , attempts to destabilize the political situation in the Republic of Moldova, for which the party and its leaders were included in the list of sanctions by the USA, the European Union and by other states. However, the party’s plans for growth were turned upside down, at least temporarily, by the decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Moldova to outlaw it.
Last but not least, the troubled waters of Gagauzia benefit some local politicians and businesspeople. On the one hand, because they can blackmail Chisinau, and on the other, because in the absence of centralized control, they can promote their own business or political interests. Many of them have connections in the Russian Federation, as the recent elections have shown, when several candidates have posed their relationships with various Russian officials.
How did the Gagauz become Moscow’s flag bearers?
The Gagauz, a Turkic people who adopted Orthodoxy, were brought to Southern Bessarabia after its occupation by the Tsarist Empire in 1812. Russia thus remained in the collective memory as a kind of liberator. During the Soviet period, the Gagauz massively adopted the Russian language, which became dominant in the region.
The developments in the Republic of Moldova in more than 30 years of independence, Russia’s geopolitical claims, but also the errors of the governments in Chisinau, have kept the region in a political and informational bubble controlled by Moscow. In Gagauzia, some attempts by Chisinau to limit the influence of Russian propaganda in the Republic of Moldova by banning some channels or TV shows did not work either, given that the region has its own Broadcasting Council that is not subject to central regulations. And economically, the inhabitants considered themselves connected to Russia primarily through the large number of Gagauz people who, starting in the 90s, went there for work.
Chisinau’s indifference (intentional or circumstantial), as well as some of its wrong decisions, only increased the rebelliousness in Comrat. Central authorities have done little to nothing to eliminate or limit the role of the Russian language in the region, and the few Romanian language study programs have been ineffective.
The raids in Gagauzia, the initiation of an investigation into election fraud, and some pointless searches only weaken citizens' trust in the power of the rule of law, and in Gagauzia it only inflames and enables the promoters of separatism. After talk of abuse and fraud, including by President Maia Sandu, the latter is in a position now to sign the decree regarding the appointment of Evghenia Guțul as a member of the Government. That, of course, unless by then evidence is found and proven in court to allow the annulment of the elections, or if the law is changed, so that the governor of Gagauzia can no longer be a member of the Government.
Nevertheless, either solution will trigger personal vendetta. Probably, from a political point of view, the best solution would have been not to draw attention to those elections and to let Evghenia Guțul and the Shor Party drown in unfulfilled electoral promises.
As for the separatist movements in the region, they are intended to distract Chisinau, but most likely will not turn into concrete actions.
On the one hand there is uncertainty about the war in Ukraine – when and how it will end. On the other hand, Gagauzia has neither the economic potential nor the geographical location that have been the foundation of Transnistrian separatism for over three decades. For now, however, Chisinau has not found a solution to remove the Russian flag from the minds of the Gagauz people.