A Christian Turkic minority, the Gagauz, enjoys local autonomy in the southern part of Moldova. The Gagauz are the only group on earth that ever voluntarily converted from Christianity to Islam – and then back to Orthodox Christianity. In addition, the Gagauz are a heavily armed population (thanks to Turkey) and have a constitutional right to choose independence.
In August 1990, a pro-Soviet faction of the Gagauz ethnic minority (approximately 153,000 in the entire republic) proclaimed a “Gagauz Soviet Socialist Republic” (Gagauz-Yeri), with its capital in the city of Comrat. In 1994, however, Chisinau and Comrat reached apower sharing agreement that created the Gagauz Autonomous Region (GAR) and granted it significant autonomy, including a separate legislative assembly to deal with strictly regional issues.
The GAR is not a territorially-contiguous entity, but consists of a number of towns and villages in the vicinity of Comrat that voted for inclusion in the GAR. The Gagauz language is a Turkic dialect. Few Gagauz speak Moldovan/Romanian, and Russian serves as the public language. The Gagauz are traditionally Orthodox in religion, adhering to the Moscow Patriarchate.
In general, establishment of the Autonomous Region has been a successful case of a tolerant central government policy toward an ethnic minority. Although the Gagauz compromise of 1994 did not specifically address the issue of districting for the Moldovan parliament, the Gagauz leadership opposed retention of the “one-country, one-constituency” arrangement and favored instead the creation of distinct election districts representing specific constituencies. They saw the present arrangement as placing the Autonomous Region at a disadvantage interms of national representation and inconsistent with the spirit of the compromise.
The Gagauz elected a new governor and 35 deputies to their Popular Assembly in free and fair elections in September 1999; however, during 2002 central authorities pressured him to resign, and there were irregularities in the gubernatorial elections in October 2002 to replace him. The Gagauz complained frequently that the central Government did not abide by the terms of the agreement giving Gagauzia autonomous status and that it enacted laws that directly contradicted both local and national legislation establishing Gagauz autonomy. When central government commission members submitted a new status law governing the autonomy in December 2001 without first discussing it with the Gagauz members of the commission, the latter left the commission and complained to the OSCE Mission and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe (CLRAE).
Legislative elections in Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia were scheduled for 16 March 2008. Lack of funding created uncertainty about whether the elections may have to be cancelled. Candidate registration finished February 14, with 160 candidates running for 35 seats in the Gagauz People’s Assembly. Three major political forces were competing in the race: candidates promoted by Bashkan (Governor) of Gagauzia Mihail Formuzal, candidates supported by the Communist Party, which has a majority of seats in the current legislature, and candidates supported by Mayor of Comrat Nicolai Dudoglo. With Communist Party influence weakening in Gagauzia, prospects looked good for Formuzal to gain a clear majority in the People’s Assembly.
With international observers and a strong American contingent watching widely and carefully, March 16 elections for the 161 candidates contesting 35 positions in the Gagauz autonomous region’s People’s Assembly proceeded for the most part without incident. Problems that did occur were relatively minor and included a shortage of ballots at a few polling stations, showboating local mayors, apathetic human-rights observers, and some inconsistencies in applying the rules. Initial results showed that 17 of the 35 contests went to runoff elections on March 30. First- and second-round voting in March 2008 yielded results that bore no relationship to the actual loyalties or voting intentions of the 35 members of the PA (MPAs): election winners included 10 Communists (PCRM), one from the Democratic party, one from the Social Democrats, two from Ravnopravie, and 21 independents.
In September 2012 the autonomous region of Gagauzia held two rounds of elections for its 35-seat People’s Assembly (local legislature). The NGO Piligrim-Demo, which monitored the election, noted minor problems at the polls, including violation of the secrecy of vote, overcrowded polling stations, campaign materials in the proximity of polling stations, and police on polling station premises. There were some problems with voter lists, including missing names and deceased persons on the lists, but no evidence of widespread multiple voting or legitimate voters being denied the right to cast ballots. After the results were validated, a court suspended the mandate of one deputy in what some alleged was a political move to intimidate the other deputies during the People’s Assembly’s leadership selection.
On 02 February 2014, Gagauzia held a controversial referendum, asking locals if they favor closer relations with the EU or the CIS Customs Union. Moldova’s central government tried hard to stop the February 2 referendum, which it sees as a challenge to the country’s territorial integrity. The referendum asked whether Gagauzia should be able to declare independence in the event that Moldova loses or surrenders its own independence and whether Moldova should pursue closer relations with the EU or with the CIS Customs Union.
The referendum of February 2, 2014, considered illegal by the Moldovan authorizes, preceded the one in Crimea by just over a month. With a turnout of over 70 percent, voters almost unanimously (98.4 percent) supported closer integration with the Russia-led Customs Union, while 97.2 percent firmly stood against closer ties with the EU.
In addition, when asked about Gagauzia’s future should Moldova lose its sovereignty, 98.9 percent agreed that Gagauzia should have the right to independence (Gagauzinfo.md, February 3, 2014). It remains unclear to this day whether the third question implied Moldova’s potential unification with Romania or it referred to the country’s supposable accession to NATO and especially the EU.
Either way, despite Moldova having signed and ratified the Association Agreement with the EU, Gagauzia remains a stronghold of pro-Russian sentiment in Moldova and, by the virtue of the 2014 illegal “self-determination” referendum, it can serve as a destabilizing factor in the country. The fact that president-elect Igor Dodon stated that Moldova’s integration into the European Union is only possible without Gagauzia and Transnistria provides further evidence (Interfax.ru, November 21).
This legislative election is unlikely to change much in Gagauzia as the legislators, who are serving only part time, keeping their day jobs, lack the resources and prerogatives to significantly improve the conditions in the autonomous region. In terms of geopolitical discourse, they will remain hostages of their electorate, who are heavily influenced by the Russian media, despite receiving large amounts of aid from the European Union and its member states, and virtually none from Russia (Moldnova.md, September 8).
Unfortunately, these facts find it hard to reach Gagauz voters. Importantly, the Moldovan authorities have done little to integrate the Gagauz into the national political and social life. Until Chisinau makes it a national priority to address the grievances of the Gagauz autonomous region, which remains one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest countries in Europe, there is little prospect for better relations between Gagauzia and the rest of Moldova and, certainly, fewer chances of re-integration with Transnistria.
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