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Moldova: How Russian is the autonomous region of Gagauzia?

Violeta Colesnic
April 29, 2023

Gagauzia, a region in the south of the Republic of Moldova, elects a new governor this Sunday. Despite the fact that the region was modernized with EU funding, most people there remain loyal to Russia.

Two election posters, each with photo of a man and Cyrillic writing, on the side of a building
Election posters in Comrat, the capital of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia Image: Violeta Colesnic

When the people of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia in the south of the Republic of Moldova vote for their new bashkan (governor) on Sunday, there won't be a single candidate on the ballot paper who has pro-European views. All eight candidates represent pro-Russian positions and are critical of the central government in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.

For many Gagauz, though, Russia's war against Ukraine has been a wake-up call. The people we spoke to on the streets of Comrat, the regional capital, told us they wanted peace. The outgoing governor, Irina Vlah, has also changed her rhetoric. In 2015, she won her first mandate with the slogan "Russia is with us." Now, at the end of her second and last term in office, she advocates the integration of Moldova, including the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, into the EU.

Lenin watches over everything

Comrat's central boulevard, Lenin Street, is bustling with activity. A woman raking over the rain-soaked earth in the flowerbeds pauses for a moment and leans on the handle. A few meters away, a man is picking up the withered carnations that have fallen from the pedestal where Lenin is enthroned. The monument to the Bolshevik leader is right in front of the People's Assembly building, the regional parliament. The sidewalks are clean, the curbs and tree-trunks painted white. The city is ready to go to the polls.

A woman rakes a flowerbed  while a statue of Lenin can be seen in the background
Lenin's statue gazes out over Comrat, the regional capital of Gagauzia, as it is spruced up for the electionImage: Violeta Colesnic

Polling station No. 7 is in the building housing the city's cultural center. There, we meet Sergey, the security guard, who has just finished his shift. He tells us he plans to come to work very early on Sunday, to turn on all the lights and unlock all the doors before the election officers and observers arrive. "The police will already be here; so will the committee. Then I'll go home, and I'll only come back in the evening after the polling station has closed," he says.

Sergey earns 4,500 lei (225 euros, 250 US dollars) a month. He says he can't ask for a raise, because they would just tell him to hand in his notice. Someone else would immediately take his place. The election is only a few days away, but he admits that he still hasn't decided whether or not to vote — because, he says, he doesn't know which of the candidates are telling the truth and which are lying. "I don't trust any of them. Maybe you're better informed — who should I believe? Who should I vote for?"

A middle-aged man in a black beanie hat and a black puffer jacket
SergeY, the security guard at the Comrat cultural center, doesn't trust any of the candidatesImage: Violeta Colesnic

Sergey speaks Russian, because that's what he got used to in Soviet times. His children also only speak Russian; they went to a Russian school and studied at a Russian-language university. Election posters and newspapers, announcements, menus in restaurants, street signs — in Comrat, all are in Russian.

The long shadow of Soviet propaganda

The Gagauz are a Turkic ethnic minority in the south of Moldova. During the Soviet period, the Gagauz underwent a process of Russification. Hardly anyone speaks their mother tongue, Gagauz, anymore. Because not many speak a language other than Russian, most people here get all their information from Russian sources. Many Gagauz have lived and worked in Russia. Almost all of them returned home when Putin's army marched into Ukraine. They were afraid of being conscripted and sent to the front, because many of the men have both Moldovan and Russian citizenship.

23-year-old Valeriu, who has just graduated from the University of Comrat, presses some election leaflets into our hands. He tells us how important Russia's support was for Gagauzia gaining its autonomy in the early 1990s. Both his parents and his teachers in school had told him that. "That's why people here are pro-Russian and support Russia," says Valeriu confidently.

A young man in sunglasses handing out election leaflets
23-year-old Valeriu says the people of Gagauzia are pro-Russian because Russia supported the region in its bid for autonomyImage: Violeta Colesnic

Mistrust of the EU

Almost everyone we spoke to told us they would not be voting on Sunday. Sergey — a different Sergey — sells seedlings on the vegetable market in the center of town. When we met him, he was annoyed that he couldn't sell his plants, and had to watch them wilting in the sun. "I'm not going to vote on Sunday," he said. "It's the same as always: We go and vote for them, and they don't do anything to help us."

Life is hard, says Sergey; people hardly have any money to buy fresh produce. Local growers can't sell their own apples or tomatoes, but the shops are full of imported goods. "If Moldova joins the EU, this country can only lose, because they'll flood our market," he declares firmly. This is the same discourse as that of the pro-Russian former president, Igor Dodon, who talks of an "invasion of European agricultural products and other foodstuffs."

Nicolae was the only one who wanted to speak Romanian with us, Moldova's official language. He told us that most streets in Comrat are still known by their Soviet-era names. "Here, we're in Pobeda [Victory] Street; over there you've got Lenin Street, the Street of the Tank Drivers, Komsomol Street, etc. Lenin has a monument right in the center of town," he says. "He's wearing a hat like mine and stretching out his hand." He raises his arm, in imitation of Lenin.

An elderly man stands on the street in the sunshine with one arm outstretched
Nicolae explains why most local people vote for pro-Russian candidatesImage: Violeta Colesnic

The Gagauz were always on the side of the communists, says Nicolae; that's why they're pro-Russian. They were promised that Gagauzia would unite with Transnistria [the separatist region in the eastern part of the Republic of Moldova – Editor's note], and that Russian President Vladimir Putin would give them free gasoline. Nicolae says that most people these days only speak Russian, not their own Gagauz language or Romanian. "People don't want to learn Romanian, because their heads are filled with propaganda. Just so you know, the politicians here pursue an anti-Moldovan agenda. On Sunday, people will vote for the candidates who use the slogan 'for Russia' in their election manifestos," he tells us.

This article was originally published in Romanian.