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Europe and Russia have been fighting for the support of Gagauzia, an autonomous territorial unit in Moldova, since the 1990s. Europe invests heavily in the region, usually focusing on the essentials: renovating children’s day care facilities and schools, installing plumbing, and implementing alternative sources of energy. The financial help from Russia is far more modest and generally funds more abstract educational and cultural projects.
However, it is clear that the sympathies of the locals still lie with Russia. Why?
There are over 100,000 people living in the Gagauz region, located in southern Moldova, making up approximately 2.8 percent of the general population. Gagauzia was awarded autonomy in 1994 – for four years before then, it was an unrecognized territory, similar to Transdniester today, and essentially independent of Moldova’s central government. Despite an array of challenges, the autonomy of Gagauzia continues to be considered an example of a successfully regulated, interethnic dispute in the post-Soviet sphere.
Gagauzia has its own official language, but few people are fluent in Gagauz, a Turkic language. As is the case with many ethnic minorities in Moldova, the common language of conversation is Russian. The prevalence of Russian is regarded as one of the main factors contributing to the geopolitical preferences of the Gagauz population.
European Investments? We Haven’t Heard Anything
According to data from the European Union delegation in Moldova, over the last two years the EU has provided 5.3 million euro ($6.22 million) in assistance to Gagauzia.
The village of Avdarma in the Comrat municipality provides a good example of how such funds are being expended (Comrat is the capital and main city of Gagauzia). Here, money from the EU has financed the insulation of a high school, the renovation of a day care center, and repairs at a center for children with special needs.
“Now we can save money on heating – the insulation means we’ll have to pay less for natural gas,” says Ivan Casim, the head of the village administrative body.
In another village in the same municipality, Bugeac, they have completely refurbished the plumbing system with EU funds.
“They have solved an enormous problem for us by replacing the old cast iron pipes with modern plumbing. Now the whole village has water,” explains Nicolae Dudoglo, the head of the village administrative body.
But the financial source of these crucial renovation and infrastructure renewal projects seems to be known only to representatives of the local governing bodies – the locals do not think about it, and they tend to associate financial support with Russia.
“For me personally, there is no benefit from the assistance provided by Russia, but I have a very positive attitude toward Russia,” says Stepanida Dumitrevna, an elementary school teacher in Avdarma. “I don’t know what the European support provides for us,” she admitted.
Another resident of this village completely cuts her off mid-conversation: “We do not need Europe. We want to be with Russia.” Another participant in this discussion, a 50-year-old resident of Avdarma named Ilia, explains that his sympathy for Russia stems from their common history: “We grew up in the Soviet Union, after all, and a lot ties us to Russia.”
Mihail Sirkeli, chairman of the Piligrim-Demo youth center in Comrat, believes that local residents would be more sympathetic toward the EU if they understood that it is precisely Europe that has been improving their lives.
“Most of the population of Gagauzia does not even know that the European Union is investing money here – and in considerable amounts,” says Sirkeli. The local residents are poorly integrated into Moldovan life, he adds. They do not speak the official state language, and therefore the majority of the population can’t follow the news or understand other media content.
“[People in] this region watch Russian TV channels, which do not say anything [good] about the role of the EU. Even the Moldovan media does not pay attention to this issue,” Sirkeli adds.
Russia: Books, Stipends, and Free Surgery
If we compare the data provided by the EU delegation with the report from the Gagauzia Department of External Relations, in 2016 the amount of Russian aid to the autonomous region was around three times less than that of the EU. The area received 1.1 million euro from Russia and 3.1 million euro from the European Union.
In 2016, Russia helped the region by providing agricultural machinery, ambulances, and firefighting vehicles. But the funding mainly went to books for school libraries and stipends for students. In addition, Gagauzia was given the opportunity to have 10 patients receive free surgery in Russian hospitals.
In February 2014, a referendum was held in Gagauzia, designed to determine the direction of foreign policy development not just for the region, but for the country as a whole. This plebiscite was timed to coincide with a summit between Eastern Partnership countries and the EU in Vilnius, where Moldova initialed an agreement with the European Union. The referendum did not have any legal force – Chisinau suspended the decision to hold the vote with a special court ruling.
Nevertheless, an illegal referendum was held, funded by money “collected by the population of the autonomous region.” It is known a Russian businessman of Moldovan origin sponsored the referendum. Subsequently, regional authorities stated that 98 percent of Gagauzians had supported accession to the [Russia-led] CIS Customs Union, and 97 percent opposed closer EU integration.
“People said that Moldova should be in the Customs Union. We are pragmatic, and we cooperate with all countries, including the EU,” says Vadim Ceban, first deputy chairman of the Comrat Executive Committee, commenting on the geopolitical preferences of local residents.
“We are open to cooperation, but the people expressed themselves in 2014.”
“The population of Gagauzia is almost 100 percent-oriented toward being pro-Russian,” says Mihail Shalvir, the executive director of the Center for Regional Initiatives in Gagauzia. Not only are the ordinary, local residents pro-Russian, but the politicians and officials in the region are as well, he says.
“Many here are suspicious of free assistance, so it is necessary that people have the opportunity to have a dialogue with representatives of the European authorities and partners. They need to provide an answer to the question: ‘What does the European Union want [in return] for this?’ "
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