[lg policy] In tiny Moldova, hints of a 'federalized' Ukraine's future
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Mon May 25 15:23:46 UTC 2015
In tiny Moldova, hints of a 'federalized' Ukraine's future
Gagauzia, an autonomous region in southern Moldova, looks to Moscow before
the West, much as Ukraine's restive east does. And the poor, agricultural
region could show the problems a federalized Donbass might face.
By Kit Gillet, Correspondent May 25, 2015
Comrat, Moldova — There are few issues more contentious in Ukraine than the
possibility of "federalizing" its rebellious eastern provinces into
The government in Kiev sees changing the status of Luhansk and Donetsk as a
way for rebels to free themselves from greater Ukraine. The rebels view it
as a leash preventing them from achieving the full independence and
alignment with Russia that they crave.
What often goes unmentioned is the rough example of such a region just next
door. Just across Ukraine's southwestern border in Moldova lies Gagauzia, a
semi-autonomous, poor, agricultural region whose profile could rise as
tensions in the region deepen.
Recommended: How much do you know about Ukraine? Take our quiz!
Like Ukraine, Moldova – a former part of the Soviet Union – has uneasy
relations with Russia. Many observers are worried that Russia may use
Gagauzia to further destabilize Moldova, which is already struggling with
economic and political uncertainty. But Gagauzia might also provide a hint
of what a federalized, autonomous eastern Ukraine could look like in the
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In Pictures Ukraine: 10 years in 30 images
Photos of the Day Photos of Memorial Day weekend
Welcome to Comrat
In the Gagauzian capital of Comrat, a statue of Lenin stands in front of
the main parliament building, which looks out over Lenin Street, a dusty
road that runs through the center of the small city. Nearby, communist-era
blocks tower over simple, one-story brick houses. Some of the older
buildings still display faded hammer and sickle emblems.
Gagauzia remains one of the poorest regions of Moldova, itself the poorest
country in Europe. There is little visible sign of economic growth or
opportunity, and villages are often nearly deserted, the residents away
working in countries like Russia.
In late March the autonomous region elected its new bashkan, a position
akin to governor, bringing in Irina Vlah, a politician who has actively
called for the region to have closer ties to Russia. This comes as the rest
of the country has taken steps toward the European Union, signing an EU
association agreement last June alongside Ukraine.
“Russia is trying to exploit Gagauzia to push the whole of Moldova back
toward Russia,” says Dionis Cenusa, a political analyst at Expert-Grup, an
independent think tank in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. “Russian
influence in Gagauzia is getting stronger.”
Gagauzia, population 160,000, is made up of mostly ethnic Turks who moved
to the area centuries ago, adopting the Russian language and Orthodox
Christianity. As the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s and Moldova got
its independence in 1991, those in Gagauzia feared that they would be
forced to adopt Romanian, the country’s official language, and change other
aspects of their culture.
In 1994 they were granted semi-autonomy, controlling their own internal
policy while sharing Moldova's foreign policy, security, and judiciary.
Schools in Gagauzia are still taught in Russian and Russian television
channels are the main source of information.
“There should be one Moldova, without any autonomous regions, but because
of what happened in the 1990s with them pushing the Romanian language and
other things, that’s not the case,” says Nicolai Canni, a pensioner
strolling through a central park in central Comrat. “You shouldn’t touch
the faith of a person or his nationality.”
A wedge against Moldova?
Today the biggest concern is that the region, which represents 3.5 per cent
of Moldova’s population, will try to splinter off, or use the threat of
that to divert the country from its path toward EU membership.
Already pro-Russian sentiment in Moldova is growing; during last year’s
parliamentary election the Socialist Party, whose leaders campaigned with
images of themselves meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, gained
more than 20 percent of the vote, winning a quarter of the overall seats in
And last month, international media reported on Russian military drills in
Transnistria, a neighboring part of Moldova that, following a brief civil
war in 1992, has remained a breakaway republic and one of Europe’s frozen
conflicts, with 1,500 Russian soldiers permanently stationed there. Shortly
after the drills occurred Moldova announced it was planning to radically
modernize its armed forces, in large part due to the conflict just across
the border in Ukraine.
In Gagauzia, local politicians regularly use separatist slogans and
pro-Russian statements to elicit local support.
In February 2014, as events in Crimea were unfolding next door, Gagauzia
held a referendum of its own – unconstitutional according to politicians in
Chisinau, the Moldovan capital – on whether it thought the country should
move closer to the EU. The vote was overwhelming; 98.5 percent of voters
wanted Moldova instead to strengthen ties with the Russian-backed Customs
“Gagauzia needs to have closer ties to Russia. Russia has shown a lot of
times it is stronger and more stable,” says Natalia Chirillova, who voted
with the majority in the referendum.
Yet she’s worried about what is happening in Ukraine. “I pray for them, but
I also worry it could spread towards Gagauzia.”
Outside Ms. Vlah’s campaign office in central Comrat, three flags flutter
in the breeze: those of Moldova, Gagauzia – and Russia.
Over the past few months, several leading politicians from Russia have paid
visits to the region to show their support. Gagauzia has also been exempted
from the Russian embargo on Moldovan wines. That was put in place after
Moldova initialed the EU association agreement, though the ban was
ostensibly for health and safety reasons, not political ones.
“By discriminating against other Moldovan producers they are trying to
cause dissent in the country,” says Mr. Cenusa of Expert-Grup. “It has been
the mutual approach of politicians in Gagauzia and Moscow to put pressure
on those in Chisinau, and it has proved fruitful.”
As conflict has flared in Ukraine, many outside Gagauzia believe that
Russia is heavily involved in local affairs there, and the most pessimistic
fear that Russia will annex the region and nearby Transnistria in the near
On April 15, at Vlah’s official swearing-in, the Russian ambassador to
Moldova made a speech. “I’m really looking forward to helping you to
connect the Russian and Gagauz people together in the future,” he told the
crowd. Notably absent at the ceremony were any visible representatives from
On stage, Vlah made a strong show of kissing the Gagauz flag, but made no
movement toward the Moldovan one nearby. Days later, she headed to Moscow
to discuss improving economic ties.
“We are seeking the renewal of the close collaboration of Gagauzia first of
all with Russia,” Dmitry Konstantinov, the chairman of the Gagauz
parliament, told The Christian Science Monitor, though he added that he
also hoped for closer ties with Chisinau in the future.
“Russia doesn’t have a direct influence in Gagauzia yet, it is mostly
indirect,” says Vladimir Socor, a political analyst of East European
affairs for the Jamestown Foundation, pointing in particular to the
“devastating impact” of Russian television channels that are broadcast into
the region and the rest of the country.
“Russia wants the federalization of Moldova just like it is trying to do in
Ukraine,” he says. “They are holding the Gagauzia card in reserve.”
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All: I have some questions about this article, particularly the claim that
the Gagauzi "adopted Russian" as their language. I visited Moldova and
Gagauzia in October 2001, on a visit sponsored by the Soros Foundation. We
traveled to Comrot and visited with officials there, who advocated for
their language, claiming it was sufficient for their needs, and that they
didn't need to know Moldovan (i.e. Rumanian). Most of this conversion
about this was conducted in Russian!
The Gagauzi we met claimed that there were about 120,000 speakers of Gagauz
and that they had received help with extending their language from Turkey.
The whole experience was rather strange--the huge statue of Lenin in the
main square, the dark 1960's era buildings, the belief that they could
exist totally on their own educationally by relying on Gagauz. I asked
them how many professors of medicine there were who could teach in Gagauz,
but they didn't like my question.
Anybody know more about this situation?
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