Related Readings

Will Moldova Fracture? Considering the Case of Găgăuzia

Posted By July 14, 2014 No Comments

This article was originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute in July 2014.

On 27 June 2012 Moldova signed a set of trade and political agreements with the European Economic Community that places the nation on a pathway to EU accession, and by some estimations, possible NATO membership. An earlier E-Note considered the role of one pro-Moscow region, Transdniestria, in the unfolding Moldovan drama. Here, we consider a lesser known, but possibly more volatile region, Găgăuzia.

Known formally as the “Autonomous Territorial Unit of Găgăuzia,” [1] its approximately 160,000 residents account for only about 3.5 percent of Moldova’s total population. Găgăuzia is actually a composite of four noncontiguous land areas. They are located in the southern Moldovan geographic protuberance that lies between western Ukraine’s Odessa Oblast to the east, and the eastern Romanian județe of Vaslui and Galați to the west. Moldova’s strategic location between Ukraine Romania places it at a vortex of regional competition between NATO and Russia. The western- (and specifically, Bucharest-) leaning Moldovan government has long struggled with its two contentious, pro-Russia autonomous republics.

Warning that “Găgăuzia would declare independence” [2] if Moldova signed an association agreement with the European Union (EU), its governor, Mihail Formuzal, called on Moldova to defer signing the EU agreements until after national elections scheduled for later this year. “We have many questions regarding that document, including the impact it might have on our relations with Russia. The situation won’t look nice if the political elite in this country changes and Moldova renounces the accords with the EU,” he said. [3]

Public reaction in Găgăuzia to Moldova’s 27 June EU accord was decidedly negative. The leaders of two Moscow-aligned political parties were especially blunt. According to one, Igor Dodon, [4] “The signing of this agreement directly contradicts the Moldovan constitution, which clearly provides for a national referendum” to determine whether Moldova will move in the direction of the EU, or alternately, the Eurasian Customs Union. [5] “What the authorities are doing to the people of Moldova is a crime,” he continued. The day before, Dodon declared in Moscow that “we are committed to officially cancel the association agreement with the European Union,” (“ne asumăm angajamentul de a anula oficial Acordul privind Asocierea cu Uniunea Europeană”) noting that earlier referendums in Transdniestria and Găgăuzia instead supported joining the ECU. He said the “hastily initialed Agreement on Association with the EU” (“au parafat în grabă Acordul privind Asocierea cu UE”) was “rushed by Bucharest, Brussels and Washington” (“fiind zoriţi de Bucureşti, de Bruxelles şi Washington”) and “will put into doubt Moldova’s very statehood” (“va fi pusă însăşi statalitatea Republicii Moldova”). [6] Moldova, Dodon said, will either “be an integral state aligned with Russia, or lose our unity and a large part of our territory” to become a “tasty morsel for the Bucharest-NATO military experiment. [7]

Moldova’s former President and leader of its Communist Party, Vladimir Voronin, said, “The association agreement signed between Moldova and the European Union does not take due account of our interests in the east. We should not lose our partners and limit our development possibilities.” [8]

Fractured Geography, Fractured Politics

Găgăuzia’stotal land area is only 1830 square kilometers, or about 5% of Moldova’s total territory. Under Moldovan law, Găgăuzia includes all areas where ethnic Gagauz represent at least half the local population, and parts of Moldova that have opted to join the Găgăuziaby referendum. [9] As a result, the boundaries of Găgăuzia have undergone several small revisions since the region was officially established in 1994. It currently consists of four noncontiguous areas with just three cities between them: the capital, Komrat, plus Ceadîr-Lunga and Vulcăneşti, along with about 30 villages. [10]

Găgăuzia declared independence on 19 August 1991, shortly after the attempted coup d’état earlier that month in Moscow by the so-called “Gang of Eight.” [11] Several days later, on 27 August, Moldova also declared independence. Găgăuzia did not enjoy special status within the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. After their respective 1991 declarations of independence, Găgăuzia and Moldova coexisted warily until December 1994, when a compromise was struck in which Găgăuzia agreed to recognize Moldovan authority over the region. Moldovan political leaders opposed the idea of a federal state composed of three autonomous republics (Moldova, Transdniestria & Găgăuzia), and went only so far as to grant Găgăuzia status as a “national–territorial autonomous unit.” [12] This granted Găgăuzia limited self-determination in terms of the right to declare independence in the event that Moldova loses sovereignty. [13] That right was abolished, however, in July 2003 by a set of constitutional amendments that declared Găgăuzia a “constituent and integral” part of Moldova, and stated that its land and resources belonged to the Moldovan people.

There are three main Găgăuzian political factions. The civic organization Găgăuzia Unită (“United Găgăuzia”) is associated with the Partidului Regiunilo (“Party of Regions” or “PR”). Mihail Formuzal, whose second and final term as Găgăuzia’s governor ends in November 2014, leads it. A second civic organization, Noua Găgăuzie (“New Găgăuzia”), in November 2012 associated with a national political party, thePartidul Democrat din Moldova (“Democratic Party of Moldova”). The faction’s leader is Nicolai Dudogio, mayor of Găgăuzia’s capital city, Komrat. [14] The Motherland bloc is Găgăuzia’s third political faction and adamantly opposed to EU accession, which it says “grossly violates the country’s constitutional neutrality and sovereignty…by imposing a protectorate Romanian policy on our country with limited sovereignty…and aggressive anti-Russian foreign policy.” [15]

In the 2011 election to the Găgăuzian People’s Assembly (Romanian: Adunării Populare a Găgăuziei), the Party of Regions and the Democratic Party of Moldova collectively captured 15 of the 25 independent seats, with most of the balance won by the Moldovan Communist Party. [16] Representatives of the Găgăuzian People’s Assembly have demanded (so far, unsuccessfully) a permanent five seats in the 101-seat Moldovan parliament. [17]

Găgăuzia’s Referendum On ECU Accession

A February 2014 referendum in Găgăuzia put three questions before voters. The first question, printed on a red ballot, asked, “Do you agree with the direction of governmental policy to integrate Moldova into the European Union?” The second question, printed on a green ballot, asked, “Do you agree with Moldova’s accession to the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan?” The third question, printed on yellow paper, asked whether Găgăuzia should seek independence from Moldova, in the event the latter lost its sovereignty—such as if Moldova and Romania were merged into a single state. Găgăuzians overwhelmingly voted “no” to the EU (97.2%) and “yes” to the ECU (98.9%), and “yes” to right to secede (98.9%). Over 70 percent of eligible voters participated in the referendum, [18] which was monitored by international observers from Belgium, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary, who concluded the voting had proceeded in accordance with international standards. [19] The Moldovan parliament promptly amended the Code on Elections to ban local referendums on issues of state importance. [20]

Most analysts believe the referendum’s timing was linked to a power struggle between Găgăuzia’s governor, Mihail Formuzal, and the mayor of Komrat, Nicolai Dudoglo. The idea of a referendum on ECU accession had longstanding support: for example, New Găgăuzia in December 2012 called for one to determine Găgăuzia’s geopolitical orientation. However, when Formuzal in October 2013 proposed one, New Găgăuzia only supported it on 27 November 2013 after failing two weeks earlier, on 15 November, to remove Formuzal from office. Had New Găgăuzia members (and by extension, the Democratic Party of Moldova) succeeded in November 2013 to remove Formuzal from office, New Găgăuzia and the DPM would have had a de facto monopoly on political power in Găgăuzia.

Some speculate another reason the referendum was organized was to improve Găgăuzia’s bargaining position in negotiations the Moldovan national government in Chișinău. Current law provides for Găgăuzia to retain all local personal and corporate income tax, and value-added and excise tax receipts. In July 2013 Moldova proposed to drop substantially the share retained by Găgăuzia and other regions to only 25% of local personal income tax receipts, and 50% of corporate income, VAT and excise tax receipts[21]

Historic Alignment with Russia

Moldovans split when the Soviet Union held its “first, and last” referendum on 17 March 1991. It asked Soviet voters “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedoms of persons of all nationalities would be fully guaranteed?” Votes in Găgăuzia and Transdniestria voted to retain the Union whereas the rest of Moldova boycotted the referendum. [22] One commentary observed, “Moldova’s choreography of joining (in 1991), leaving (in 1993) and re-joining (in 1994) the Commonwealth of Independent States reveals the improving and degrading alike dynamic of its relationship with Russia” [sic]. [23]

For its part Găgăuzia has long used the threat to adopt pro-Russian policies as a bargaining chip with the Moldovan national government in Chișinău. Russia, though, maintained a studied indifference toward Găgăuzia for the first decade of Moldovan independence, opting instead to foment separatism in the more strategically located (and geographically unitary) Transdniestria. In November 2003, Russian proposed a peace plan for Moldova known informally as “the Kozak Memorandum.” [24] Moldova quickly rejected the proposal, which would have federalized Moldova, and given Transdniestria and Găgăuzia a veto on foreign policy matters and international treaties. [25]

More recently, Russia has again turned to Găgăuzia as it seeks additional leverage to counter Moldovan ambitions to EU accession. Russian interest in Găgăuzia increased in parallel with rising turmoil in neighboring Ukraine, a volatile admixture for Găgăuzia described as a combination of “separatism and the constant centrifugal force of Ukraine.” 261]

In early 2014, Farit Mukhametshin, the Russian Ambassador to Moldova, said “this year, the embassy will pay particular attention to Găgăuzia and Tărăclia.” [27] Regarding the latter, the population of this Moldovan raion is two-thirds Russian-speaking ethnic Bulgarians. Moldova’s Romanian–language press has cautioned that unrest could spread northward from Găgăuzia to Tărăclia. [28] There were published reports in mid-May that provocatori (“provocateurs”) attempted to take positions in Reni, a Bugeac city only 22km from the Ukraine border. [29]

Russian Ambitions in Găgăuzia?

As one former Georgian diplomat wrote recently regarding Găgăuzia, “Russia…knows the nooks and crannies of its former empire better than EU diplomats do.” [30] For Russia, Găgăuzia is a lever to influence Moldovan politics, but not a strong one: only a single electoral district represents Găgăuzia’s small population, making its voice in Moldovan national politics largely inconsequential. [31] One commentator sees the situation as follows:

“This situation may be the beginning of a qualitatively different phase in what has initially seemed like just another East-versus-West confrontation. Increasingly, the developments in Moldova are taking on the trappings of a proxy war.” [32]

Moldovan political analyst and founder of its Social Democratic Party, Oazu Nantoi, is blunt about Russian intentions: the February 2014 referendum “was written by the Russian embassy in Chișinău,” he said, continuing:

“This is a well-written scenario, with elements of political provocations. Gagauz authorities are some faithful executants of Moscow, while the Communist Party is accomplice in the attack on the constitutionality of the Republic of Moldova [sic].” [33]

Despite Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement that Russia is officially “in favor of a settlement which would respect territorial integrity and sovereignty of Moldova,” [34] there is region-wide speculation about Russian ambitions to consolidate Găgăuzia and parts of southern Bessarabia in Ukraine’s Odessa Oblast. This is the historic region known to Russians and Ukrainians as Budzhak (Буджак) and Bugeac to Romanians and Moldovans. It is located southwest of Odessa in an area bounded by the Black Sea, and the Danube and Dniester rivers. When Bessarabia was reintegrated into the Soviet Union after World War II, the Slavic-majority territories in northern and southern Bessarabia were made part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Central Bessarabia was joined with the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (centered on modern Transdniestria) to form the Moldovan SSR.

Leonid Slutsky, a member of the Russian Duma and Chairman of the Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States, welcomed the results of Găgăuzia’s February 2014 referendum, which called for Găgăuzian self-determination and the integration of Moldova into the ECU. [35] When one of the Găgăuzian referendum’s organizers was asked at the time about the pending one in Crimea, he said, “We are confident that the referendum is the highest form of democracy. However the Crimean people vote, we respect their decision.” Găgăuzian governor Mihail Formuzal earlier invited officials from Ukraine’s just then-deposed Yanukovych government to “come and ‘vacation’ in autonomous southern Moldova.” [36]

Will EU Accession Fracture Moldova?

A RIA-Novosti commentary characterized the 27 June EU agreement as a “voluntary acceptance of slavery” that is “not supported by most” Moldovans. It suggested the agreement will “infringe Transdniestria autonomy” by among other things, allowing Romanians as well as Slovakians and Hungarians to assert property claims in Moldova. “What will be ensured here?” the commentary asked, “the rights of European claimants to Găgăuzia, Transdniestria, Donetsk, and Lugansk?” It concluded somewhat menacingly, “Perhaps Russia should protect those who are not willing to accept slavery?” [37]

In a 12 June 2014 interview with the Turkish press, Mihail Formuzal, the governor of Găgăuzia, said that the interest of “Găgăuzian autonomy” would demand Găgăuzia’s independence if Moldova joined the EU. At the same time, however, Moldova is enacting tougher legal penalties for advocating separatism. Its principal intelligence agency, the SIS, [38] said it was prepared to “annihilate secessionist movements” and “attempts to escalate tensions” by what it characterized as promoters of Eurasian unity, “and was ready to tackle” any possible paramilitary groups or followers of extremist ideologies. [39] Romanian political figure Antal Arpad offers a rhetorical answer: “We are not separatist, we are autonomist.” (Nu suntem separatiști, suntem autonomiști). [40]

In February 2014, Moldovan authorities alleged Găgăuzia intended to implement a “strategy devised in Moscow” to install a “Cossack battalion of Bugeac” that would establish “a state within a state” near Moldova’s Galați raion. [41] An 11 June press report said that the “first signs” of Găgăuzian secession “have already come”: “under cover” of forming home guard units trained by local police, “detachments of Cossacks” were being infiltrated to foment and escalate ethnic riots in Găgăuzia and Bălți (a city in north central Moldova) against the government in Chișinău. [42]

Romania: an Aspiring Regional Hegemon?

The Romanian government’s 2007 National Security Strategy articulates an unambiguous “one nation-two states” principle with respect to Moldova:

“On the basis of the special relationship between Romania and Moldova and the common sense of community responsibility arising from national history, language and culture, the principle of ‘one nation-two states’, and the spirit of European unity, we will pay special attention to cooperation with the Republic Moldova. Romania’s political and moral duty is to support the Moldovan state through the process of modernization, democratization and European integration, and to do everything possible to support – in political, economic and diplomatic terms – Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as to enhance our contribution to the expansion of its physical security and prosperity. To this end, Romania will closely monitor developments in the separatist conflict in eastern districts of the Republic of Moldova, and will actively contribute to the identification of viable solutions- based on the country’s democratization and the demilitarization of the region, including the withdrawal of troops stationed illegally there – and support decisive involvement in the peace process by the European Union and the United States.” [43] [Emphasis in original]

Găgăuzian separatism is in substantial part animated by fear of the unification of Moldova and Romania, something purposefully fuelled by local officials and compounded by statements from Bucharest. [44] To the latter, Romanian president Traian Băsescu made what one commentary called “an astonishing declaration” [45] during a 27 November 2013 interview with Romania’s TVR-1 national television station:

“I am convinced that if ‘unionist winds’ start to blow in Moldova, Romania will always be ready for that. Accession to NATO was once a fundamental project for Romania. There was also another one – accession to the EU. I think that the third fundamental project should become our unification with Moldova. There can be no doubt about that…it is a realistic project that Bucharest is strong enough to put into practice…all of my actions concerning Moldova are linked with the idea of our possible unification. I know that the time is not right now. But this will happen because human blood is not water.” [46]

Băsescu’s declaration preceded the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit, and came only days before Romania’s Unification Day. In an interview several weeks later reported by Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency, Băsescu doubled-down, saying of neighboring Moldova:

“This country was not born with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact – it has a history, culture and language, which are connected with Romania and the Romanian nation.”

Russia-goading Russia is not new to Băsescu: he was quoted in 2011 as saying “Please note that Romania does not have experience in annexing other states.” [47]

Romania’s interests in Moldova have been analogized to Russian interests in Crimea:

“Romanian interests are somehow indirectly influenced by what happens in Ukraine…the Republic of Moldova is of major interest, and the situation in Moldova it is not so different from the one of the Ukrainian state, as we have under its territory important Russian population and two territories similar to Crimea – Transdniestria and Gagauzia [sic]. Also, within the current political discourse of Romanian leaders, Russia was always depicted as a potential enemy and an distrusting player that has the potential of affecting Romania’s interests also at Black Sea.” [48]

Some see danger for Moldova embedded in the Ukraine analogue:

“The real danger that the Ukrainian crises has on the Republic of Moldova is encouraging the break-away regions of both MRT [Moldovan Republic of Transnistria] and Gagauzia to escalate the efforts of gaining more independence while the Republic of Moldova stays firm on opposing such attempts. Consequently, there is a constant in the declarations of the Moldovan officials and official press releases when Ukraine is concerned, namely supporting Ukraine’s integrity. In addition, it is constantly submitting messages that question the legality and legitimacy of the Crimean referendum due to take place on March 16th this year mostly due to the fact that MRT has also made the object of such an action in 2006, when almost 100% of the population voted for independence from Republic of Moldova and openness to close the relations with Russia. Needless to say, Moldovan officials have heavily questioned its legality and legitimacy. [49]

For its part, Găgăuzia’s governing committee has escalated its criticism of the Moldovan government in Chişinăului. This includes proposing new penalties of up to 15 years in prison “for the promotion of unionism and particularly the unification of Moldova with Romania.” [50] Not surprisingly, the view of the Romanian government is different: “everyone knows that Moldova alone has no chance [to block Russia], so union with Romania is the only viable option, even if the subject of Transdniestria is still unresolved.” [51]

After Moldovan authorities refused to allow an aircraft carrying Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to use Moldovan airspace, Găgăuzia’s governing committee apologized for what it called “reckless actions of the Moldovan authorities” (“acțiunile nesăbuite ale autorităților din Republica Moldova”). [52] Earlier, in April 2014, People’s Assembly President Dmitry Konstantinov asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to examine the possibility of opening a consulate of the Russian Federation in Comrat,” [53] a day after asking President Putin to simplify procedures for granting Russian citizenship to Moldovans. [54]

While some Găgăuzia commentators argue that “the direction of Găgăuzia’s foreign policy should be coordinated with Turkey,” [55] others are adamant that Moldovan (and Romanian) “actions to drive a wedge between Găgăuzia and Turkey… are repeated and purposeful…clearly, what we are seeing are explicit steps by pro-Romanian forces to isolate and deprive Găgăuzia of its support from fraternal countries.” [56]

Romania Sees Shadows in Găgăuzia

A Romanian perspective is that “if Găgăuzia would attach to Bugeac by means of a corridor through Bender (Moldova), the new autonomous republic Transdniestria-Odessa would approach the size and population of Moldova…and have a better chance than Moldova of becoming economically viable given access to the Black Sea and the Danube River. The installation of Russian forces so close to Constanța’s port [note: Europe’s second largest] and airport would check these strategic positions, something the EU and NATO should take into account and consider very closely.” [57]

Romania also sees “a Moscow-Budapest axis” (“axa Moscova-Budapesta”) that under Viktor Orbán has made ‘systematic statements on the Transdniestria issue demanding autonomy for the region— obviously thinking of Transylvania.” [58] This is important for several reasons, principal among which is the fact that both Romania and Hungary are EU and NATO member-states. Turkey, too, has interests here:

“Turkey attributes particular importance to the relations with the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia where our kindred Gagauzians live. We perceive the presence of Gagauzians as a bridge which further strengthens bilateral relations with Moldova. There are nearly 170,000 Gagauz people living in Moldova out of which 160,000 live in Gagauzia.” [59]

One Turkish perspective is represented by the headline “Between the EU and Russia are descendants of the Oghuz” ( Oğuzların torunları AB ve Rusya arasında), a reference to “Oghuz origin Gagauz Turks” who “want to protect their identity.” “There is nothing for us in Europe,” according to one Găgăuzian, “”we do not speak their language.” [60] Speaking in Gagavuzya (Turkish for Găgăuzia) in May 2014, Turkey’s Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek said, “We, as Turkey, are furthering our efforts to enhance bilateral relations with Gagauzia in every field and to contribute in resolving its problems.” [61] Another Turkish official said, “Within the relations with Moldova, Găgăuzia has a special importance for Turkey due to our language and cultural ties with its people.” [62] It was referred to in another article as one of Turkey’s “Blood brother countries” (Kan kardeşi ülkeler). [63] While Turkey has “invested a great deal of money” in Găgăuzia through its Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency, “only 4.4 percent of those polled on the issue of Moldova’s foreign policy orientation favoured prioritising [sic] relations with Turkey.” [64]

Romanian president Traian Basescu sees a nation beset from several directions, of which Găgăuzia is but one source:

“Romania is once again engulfed by conflicts, in a region of conflict if the situation in Ukraine escalates and in an area of instability. In the south, in the Balkans, there is Bosnia and Herzegovina, where people are in the streets; there is the Ukraine crisis; Moldova, with Transnistria launching challenges against the Chisinau administration; a Găgăuzia that held a referendum to join the Eurasian Union; with a Communist Party in the Republic of Moldova seeking to give rise to a conflict in northern Moldova this time, so opposite to Găgăuzia, in Balti, for the Eurasian path of the Republic of Moldova.” [65]

Can Russia Leverage Găgăuzia to Foment Conflict within NATO?

Russia has long pursued opportunities to tear off wedges of territory from other spheres of influence on its periphery. I have written before of how Russia surrounds itself with buffer zones and failing states under its abiding doctrine of defense-in-depth: “It is no coincidence that so many divided states border on Russia. Nor is it coincidence that so many unstable states sit on its periphery.” [66] I have also written about how Russia is sowing discord among the 160,000+ ethnic Hungarians in western Ukraine’s Kárpátalja.

Regional conflicts in such places as Ukraine (Crimea and the Donbas), Transdniestria and Kárpátalja have been major points of discord between Russia and NATO (which Russia considers synonymous with the EU). It is certainly not, as once optimistically suggested, the case that “NATO expansion, because of a number of important reasons, does not conflict with Russian interests.” [67]

Many current and aspiring NATO states that are former Soviet republics or Warsaw Pact members regularly wrestle with whether their national security interests are ”a pillar or a pole?”: a pillar in the sense of supporting NATO and its broad security interests, or a pole in the sense of existing to pursue uniquely national security interests in a multipolar world. [68] It seems it may default to what we might call the “French solution” [69] : a national pole, sometimes though not always aligned with an American one, as one of many pillars supporting NATO. As one scholar wrote, “NATO expansion eastward and to non-European concerns” has always posed the risk that “diverging interests and discord [would] emerge between member states.” [70]

It is self-evident that Russian interests would be served by conflict sown by NATO member-states pursuing their own national interests in Găgăuzia (and as mentioned parenthetically, in Tărăclia). The fissiparous tendencies already threatening the integrity of Moldova as a state are exacerbated by the pursuit of competing interests, real or claimed, among NATO members. Romania, in particular, has been singled for criticism over the better part of two decades for “veiled striving to revise the borders,” [71] something recent comments about “one nation, two states” in Moldova serve to reinforce.