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03 Jan 18

Gagauz Resist Moldova’s Embrace of West


Turkey and Russia are competing influences in Moldova’s only autonomous region, where most locals eye Moldova’s courtship of the EU with suspicion.

Marco Carlone, Martina Napolitano, Simone Benazzo BIRN Gagauzia

Strollers on the main street in Comrat,Strada Lenin, cannot fail to notice the Atatürk Library, named after the founder of modern Turkey and opened in June 1998 in the presence of former Turkish president Süleyman Demirel.

The library is just in front of the region’s Cultural Centre and State University, forming the cultural hub of the capital of Moldova’s autonomous Gagauzia region.

Alongside this symbol of Turkish influence, Russia is also making its presence felt in the tiny capital of the Autonomous Unit of Gagauzia, as it is officially called. Most people on the streets also communicate in Russian, not Moldovan, a language close to Romanian.

Self-sufficient only in rugs, butter and wine, Gagauzia is by no means a wealthy region. Unsurprisingly, it seeks outside support and money, not only from Turkey and Russia besides Moldova, but from the European Union as well.

Origins shrouded in history

Sign at the entrance to Comrat, capital and the largest city of Gaguzia. Photo: Marco Carlone, Martina Napolitano, Simone Benazzo

The Gagauz are an unusual people, as they are ethnically close to Muslim Turks but are mostly Christian in religion. Numbering around 150,000, they are also Moldova’s second largest ethnic minority, after Ukrainians.

There are some 20 different academic theories about their origin. There is even uncertainty about the origin of the ethnonym itself.

Some theories say they are either of Bulgarian or Turkish origin and fled to present-day southern Moldova when the region formed part of the medieval Bulgarian empire.

Their conversion to Orthodox Christianity suggests they arrived in the region before the Ottoman conquest in the 14th century.

But there is no real way to determine for sure whether the Gagauz are turkified Bulgarians or christianized Turks.

When the Russian Empire conquered the region in 1812, more Gagauz from then Ottoman-controlled eastern Bulgaria moved to the area.

The Gagauz briefly made a bid for independence when the self-proclaimed Republic of Comrat was formed in 1906, which lasted only five days in 1906. In a similar move, in August 1991, Gagauzia attempted to declare its independence after Moldova declared its own independence from the Soviet Union.

This was not permitted. However, three years later, Moldova’s parliament approved a law allowing the people of Gagauzia a large degree of autonomy, thereby resolving the dispute peacefully. It is the only autonomous region in Moldova today.

Currently, Comrat is home to the region’s assembly, executive committee and “Bashkan”, or governor, a post now held by Irina Vlach, a 43-year-old woman active in the region's politics since 2003.

Turkey bids for popular support

A statue of the first founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk , was unveiled at the end of August last year in Comrat. Photo: Marco Carlone, Martina Napolitano, Simone Benazzo

Nowadays in Comrat, besides the Turkish library, one can also see a brand new statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the backyard of the library, unveiled at the end of August last year.

The ceremony was accompanied by the playing of no less than three national anthems, the Moldovan, Turkish, and Gagauz ones, followed by a minute’s silence to commemorate the great leader of the modern Turkey.

The librarian proudly shows us shelves packed with books about the life and acts of Atatürk, and explains that the library hosts regular classes in Turkish language and culture in a separate room, where a great painting portraying Atatürk welcomes the visitors. The library collects a series of Gagauz periodicals as well.

The institution was funded by the Turkish government’s agency for cooperation, TIKA, which states that it has donated a total of 24 million US dollars to the region between 1993 and 2012.

Besides the library, TIKA has funded the delivery of new medical equipment, improved clinics for children and the elderly and a stadium for the Gagauz soccer team Saxan.

It has also helped enhance the aqueduct system, fix public buildings, and support the Gagauz radio and TV channel, GRT.

 Local library hosts book on both Turkish and Gagauz history and culture. Photo: Marco Carlone, Martina Napolitano, Simone Benazzo

TIKA supports also the Scientific Center of Research on Gagauzia, named after Maria Vasilevna Marunevich [1937-2004], a great ethnographer and activist for the Gagauz people.

In 1994, she intervened in the UN forum on indigenous issues in Geneva and one year later went to The Hague to report to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. A statue was erected to her in Comrat in 2009.

The Scientific Center has four divisions, a laboratory, and an archive. Nineteen researchers work here full time, three of whom are completing their doctorates. Eight more specialists collaborate with the centre on a less regular basis.

Pyotr Pashaly, a former director at the centre, says Gagauzia is facing different issues today. Recently, he lamented that no specialists on Gagauzia were working at Moldova’s Ministry of Education in Chisinau.

“The government’s linguistic policy is therefore unable to cope with ethnic minorities,” he added.

More love for Russia than Romania

 Family walks through a park in centre of Comrat. Photo: Marco Carlone, Martina Napolitano, Simone Benazzo

Language is a very sensitive topic in Moldova. Even the name of the official state language is disputed, as the constitution calls it Moldovan while the declaration of independence in 1991 called it Romanian.

In 2003 a law agreed that the two are in fact the same language, and a constitutional court decision in 2013 ruled the language should be called Romanian.

Moves to amending the constitution to name Romanian as the official language are currently ongoing. A draft law must be passed by parliament with a two-thirds majority.

However, for many people in Moldova, including Gagauzia, the dispute is academic as they prefer to speak  Russian, which isofficiallyrecognized asthe “language for inter-ethnic communication”.

Besides, many Gagauz have relatives working in Russia, and on consequence support joining Russia's Customs Union. In February 2014, in a referendum that the government in Chisinau rejected, people in the region voted overwhelmingly for closer ties with Russia and against EU integration.

The Gagauz generally distrust Romania, which ruled Moldova between the two world wars, and who they see as plotting to reunite Moldova and Romania ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though a referendum in Moldova in 1994 massively rejected such a solution.

A leaflet briefly explaining the history of Gagauzia, produced by the Scientific Center, refers to the period between 1918 and 1940  as the “Romanian occupation”, adding that “Soviet army liberation in 1944 saved the Gagauz from the realization of the plans of Romanian [fascist wartime] marshal Antonescu to annihilate and assimilate the Gagauz”.

Gaguz government building in Comrat. Photo: Marco Carlone, Martina Napolitano, Simone Benazzo

In Comrat, as in most towns and villages across Moldova, the main TV channels, magazines, radios, street signs are in Russian.

Gagauz people say that for them Moldovan or Romanian is distant and hard to understand. They also encounter often difficulties in daily life, as official documents such as court trials, fines, or bills are provided only in the official state language.

Provocatively in May 2016, Gagauzia adopted a regional education code that implied a greater use of the Gagauz language in school, as well as a more detailed study of Gagauz history and culture.

The law was a reaction to the Moldovan government’s decision two years earlier to modify the national education code, foreseeing their gradual substitution of Russian language in schools with the official state language, namely Moldovan.

Unsurprisingly, the Moldovan authorities declared the Gagauz Code “unconstitutional and provocative.”

The disagreement over language and education reflects, in particular, Moldova's conflicted identity, which continues to oscillate between the revived, closer links with Russia or integration into the EU, sponsored by Romania.

In Gagauzia, at least, more local autonomy, including cultural autonomy, and support for Russia, remain the preferred options.