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A small Moldovan region has the potential to complicate the country’s planned swing toward Europe.by Natalia Ghilascu 4 October 2013
CHISINAU | In November, Moldovan officials plan to go to Vilnius, Lithuania, to sign an agreement with the European Union that would tilt one of Europe’s poorest countries decidedly westward as it defies intense pressure from Moscow.
While the current Moldovan government is steadfast in its support of this association agreement, which is one step away from EU membership, residents of Moldova’s autonomous Gagauzia region are more likely to favor the alternative – joining the young Eurasian Customs Union that would unite Moldova with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and soon Armenia.
Although it has only 155,000 inhabitants, Gagauzia and its special status have the potential to greatly complicate Moldova’s maneuvering to make itself more European and less an outpost of Russia’s sphere of influence. On 1 October, the region’s governor asked Gagauzia’s legislature to announce a local referendum on Moldova’s relationship with the EU.
THE NEXT TRANSDNIESTER?
While public opinion in Moldova is also split between embracing Europe or Russia, the eastward leaning is concentrated in Transdniester and Gagauzia, two autonomous regions of Moldova. Both are pro-Russia, but Transdniester – which continues to include a Soviet hammer and sickle in its flag – has been lost to Moldova for two decades, locked in a unresolved conflict with Moldova and claiming independence with tacit Russian support.
Although not recognized by the international community, Transdniester’s de-facto leader, Yevgeny Shevchuk, recently made the unlikely prediction that his breakaway territory will gain that recognition within a year. He also encouraged Gagauzia to seek its independence.
But Gagauzia is somewhat different from Transdniester. While residents of the breakaway territory are characterized by their majority Russian-speaking population, Gagauzia’s residents have a uniquely Turkish identity, even though they are Orthodox Christian and are thought to have converted from Islam centuries ago. Gagauzia has partially worked out its issues with Moldova in its autonomy agreement. It also has separate enclaves surrounded by solidly Moldovan territory that would complicate further estrangement.
Nevertheless, some political figures among the Gagauz are seeking greater separation as Moldova strengthens its ties with the EU. Becoming part of united Europe, they argue, would further impoverish Moldova.
They hope that by 2015, a referendum – similar to the one Governor Mihail Formuzal is seeking – will be held asking residents of Gagauzia if they want independence and membership in the Customs Union. A referendum in 2006, while rejected by Moldovan authorities, affirmed Transdniester residents’ support for independence from Moldova, and at the same time a desire to become part of Russia.
Gagauzia’s more pro-Russia figures have formed a group in Comrat, Gagauzia’s main city, to ask Gagauzian People's Assembly deputies to investigate claims of the Moldovan government’s infringements of Gagauzia’s autonomous status. The group leaders, Ivan Burgudji and Zahar Mitul, threaten to hold the referendum if officials in Chisinau abuse the law that grants Gagauzia its autonomy as well as maintains its inclusion in the Moldovan state.
The group’s referendum, if it is ever held, would ask voters if they would want to change Gagauzia’s status – that is, seek independence.
The governor’s referendum proposal was more modest: Do the 100,000 voters of Gagauzia want the EU agreement, the Russian union or nothing? Formuzal did not say when he’d like to see it happen, but officials indicate that such a vote could not be organized before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November, at which the EU association agreement is to be concluded.
Why do Gagauzia’s movers and shakers think that getting close to the EU will be harmful? The answer may be found in the autonomy law, which allows Gagauzia the right to self-determination if Moldova decides to become part of EU member Romania, with which Moldovans share a language and a border.
It may also be found in the simple mathematics of European integration, which can eventually lead to the open borders of the Schengen Agreement.
“It will come to a massive exodus of the Gagauz population and our nation will disappear because it will be assimilated by more powerful countries,” said Valeri Ianioglo, first deputy governor of Gagauzia.
While observers of Moldova’s EU ambitions have suggested Russians may be provoking discord to punish Moldova, Ianioglo’s fear has foundations in previous experience.
While there are clear benefits that derive from joining the rest of Europe, nations like Lithuania – currently sharing the EU’s leadership responsibilities – have seen populations decline in part because their unemployed seek work in more prosperous EU nations.
To make their views felt, referendum proponents organized September protests in Gagauzia’s two main cities, Comrat and Ceadyr-Lunga. The message of these events was that the region’s poverty could be remedied by joining Russia’s Customs Union, not by aligning with the European Union.
“We need no EU. The authorities should have asked us first which direction we choose for ourselves. No one listens to our wish to integrate with the Russian Federation’s Customs Union,” said Mihail Vlah from Ceadyr-Lunga. “That is why a referendum has to be held as quickly as possible.”
Ceadyr-Lunga Mayor Gheorghii Ormanji said the "Gagauz have nothing to lose. Today, we often hear that many citizens want to join up to Europe. People in Gagauzia must decide for themselves. In my opinion, the majority want to join the Customs Union."
The opposition Gagauz Communist Party is spearheading the referendum drive, collecting signatures and encouraging others to promote the effort.
A Communist deputy in the Moldovan parliament, Irina Vlah, said Moldovan citizens are free to choose the nation’s priorities. She also accused Moldova’s ruling Democratic Party of delaying referendum efforts.
She said she believes Gagauzia should strengthen economic cooperation with the Customs Union, since the majority of exports go on these markets in the former Soviet, Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. The autonomy law also guarantees the rights of citizens of Gagauzia to express their will on foreign policy issues, she added.
Many of Gagauzia’s legislators believe Moldovan authorities exert too much influence on such economic issues. The same applies to social policies, they argue, such as improving schools by such policies as setting requirements for standardized tests. But while such control by the central government goes against Gagauzia’s right to autonomy, they go hand-in-glove with EU reform requirements accompanying a trade pact or the next step, EU membership.
Not all deputies in the Gagauz Assembly, though, share this perspective.
“The organizers of the referendum are provocateurs of Gagauzia, because it disturbs them to build the foundations of a pro-European Gagauzia,” said Nicolai Dudoglo, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party.
Gagauz Assembly Speaker Dmitry Konstantinov, also a Democrat, agreed, saying Gagauzia has priorities other than choosing geopolitical partners.
Political analyst Oazu Nantoi said the Gagauz authorities need to reject the anti-EU camp’s efforts, especially since its dreams of holding a referendum are likely to fall flat. He also urges politicians to resist the urge to follow the example of Transdniester, where local authorities held a referendum in 2006 which was ignored by Moldovan officials and international organizations.
“We had good cooperation with Gagauzia’s leadership and they shouldn’t be provoked. No referendum will be organized,” Liberal Democrat and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat said. “After the signal given by the association agreement with the EU, these extremist movements in Gagauzia will disappear.”
But there’s one factor whose disappearance is highly improbable, if not impossible.
“The interests of Russia were always present here,” said Mihai Ghimpu, the pro-Romania leader of Moldova’s Liberal Party. That means Russian markets for wine, the country’s biggest export product, Russian supplies of energy and an estimated $4.3 billion debt to Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Nevertheless, Moldova’s prevailing wind blows from Brussels, and its leaders are ready to sacrifice Russia’s good graces to satisfy the EU.
“No tanks are going to stop us; we are determined to associate with the EU. Comrat will not divert us from the European Union. We are not going to beg Russian authorities for cheap gas or be afraid of a wine and fruit embargo because of political interests,” Ghimpu said.
And Moldova’s current leader, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, seems unfazed by the prospect of a referendum in Gagauzia.
“There are politicians who try to muddy the waters in Moldova. The only issue of territorial integrity is Transdniester,” he said.
But some believe that Gagauzia provides something of a déjà-vu of Transdniester’s seemingly intractable situation. Supported mostly by Russia and Turkey, Gagauzia still harbors a secessionist streak rooted in disenchantment with Chisinau’s perceived abuse of the autonomy law.
INDEPENDENCE: TALK OR THREAT?
The law on the autonomous status of Gagauzia dates from 1994 and only the Moldovan parliament can annul it. And even then, three-fifths of its members must vote to do so.
And before that can happen – presumably inspired by a plebiscite on self-determination – the Popular Assembly of Gagauzia would need to approve it, according to the assembly’s speaker, Konstantinov.
Under the 1994 law, Gagauzia was to have its own judicial and security institutions under shared regional and central jurisdiction, but the central authorities retained sovereignty over citizenship, finance, defense, and foreign policy.
To correct those deficiencies, Gagauz Assembly member Burgudji said he believes the prospect of a referendum could help empower local authorities to administer autonomous bodies such as a prosecutorial authority and a court system.
“So far, we have no intention of organizing a referendum, unless our proposals for self-governance are not heard by Moldovan authorities,” Burgudji added.
The aim of this talk of referenda is to jolt Chisinau authorities into taking the needs of the citizens of Gagauzia seriously. This is especially true when it comes to changing the autonomy law, said Svetlana Mironova, the head of the Comrat Human Rights Center.
Chisinau authorities insist that the law is written as it should be.
“Our legislation is the most democratic regarding the rights of an autonomy,” said Liliana Palihovici, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party and deputy in the Moldovan parliament, adding that the law is an example for the rest of the world.
“We will do our best to ensure the [territorial] integrity of Moldova, which has recently been shrinking because of external interests in Eastern Europe,” Palihovici said.
With such views prevailing in Chisinau, it’s easy to see why officials are so dismissive of letting voters decide issues like trade relationships or greater autonomy.
Andrei Volentir, secretary of the Central Electoral Commission, said a secession referendum would be ruled illegal under the Moldovan Constitution. In his view, the constitutional right to change the character of the unified state belongs to the people of the entire country, not a single part of it.
"Local MPs have no right to organize plebiscites that violate the legislation of Moldova. Gagauzia gained autonomy so that local authorities could better address the specific problems of the area – social, economic, and cultural issues,” Volentir said, writing on a local online social network.
Those comments provoked Gagauzia Governor Formuzal to demand the secretary’s dismissal from the commission. Calling Volentir’s comments unprofessional and undemocratic, Formuzal asserted that any group has the right to makes its views known via the ballot box.