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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

The autonomous territorial unit of Gagauzia

Gagauzia must be one of the most peculiar para-states in the world, although it is a vexed question whether it is a para-state at all. Its politicians would like to imagine that it is; but those in the capital of Moldova, Chisinau, would say something quite different. Even the territory's name, 'the autonomous territorial unit', is designed to obscure the question of just what it is both de facto and de jure.

To understand Gagauzia it is important to appreciate why Moldova's capital Chisinau is growing at so giddy a rate, a subject about which we have already written and this essay stands as a sister article with that piece.

A good place to start is probably the fact that Gagauzia, unlike Moldova's other peculiar para-state entity Pridnestrovia, does have fixed borders. They are shown in the following map:

Here is a somewhat more detailed map:

Note that:

  1. Gagauzia consists of four enclaves within southern Moldova, each of which has no territorial continuity with the other three.

  2. Gagauzia has only five settlements that are not villages: Comrat (population 23,000) is the capital. Ceadir-Lunga (population 17,000) is in the same enclave. Vulcănești (population 12,000) is in the southmost enclave. There are two others variously categorised as small cities: Taraclia (12,000) and Basarabeasca (8,500 people). The whole population of the Gagauzian Yeri (Yeri is is the Gagauzian for 'land', so there is an element of equivocation as to whether the Gagauz call themselves a separate country) is some 165,000.

  3. The Bascan (Gagauz for 'ruler') of Gagauzia is Irina Vlach. She is both the head of the executive administration of Gagauzia and a Deputy in the Moldovan Parliament, a member of the pro-Russian opposition Socialist Party.

  4. Although the executive administration of Gagauzia is devolved and autonomous, the Police and security forces are centrally managed from Chisinau and Moldovan law applies subject to the competencies invested in a regional parliament.

  5. There are formal indications of borders for Gagauzia but they are not manned by anyone.

  6. Gagauzia has a number of small manned and informal borders with the southwestern part of Odessa oblast in Ukraine. So does 'Moldova proper' in this region. The two principal towns in southwestern Odessa oblast, near Gagauzia, are the Danube ports of Izmail and Reni, which we will return to.

  7. The following map showing Gagauzia as a single territorially contiguous entity, although common, is wrong. Cimisli is no longer in Gagauzia. There is a blending of identities across southern Moldova; it is difficult to identify where one ethnic group stops and another begins.

The next thing to note about this area is that Moldova, while landlocked, has a Danube port in this region, called Giurgiulesti. It is adjacent to one of the Gagauzian enclaves but it is not itself formally in Gagauzia. Here it is:

The enclave of Gagauzia closest to Giurgiulesti is Vulcănești, about 40km northeast by road. The Ukrainian Danube River port of Reni is nine kilometres east. The Ukrainian Danube River port of Izmail is about 80km east.

Study of these geographical details is important, because it helps one understand what Gagauzia really is. The Gagauz people are Turkic Orthodox (the only such peoples in the world) who were the result of the meeting of the Russian Empire with the Ottoman Empire in Bessarabia in the nineteenth century. They speak a version of Azeri written periodically in Cyrillic (Azeri itself being a variant on Turkish) and, like most people in the region, their national affiliation is Russian. That is why the issue of Gagauz nationality was not of relevance during the Soviet era but became so when Moldova became an independent nation upon the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gagauz, in Turkish and Gagauz, means 'traitor'. The Gagauz were Turkic people who declared their adherence to Christianity in order to integrate with the Russian Imperial rulers of Bessarabia in the nineteenth century.

Much effort has been made to invest to preserve traditional Gagauz culture through domestic and international grant procedures under local structures prudently and competently managed. The result is a number of cultural centres and historical reconstructions of some beauty.

The Lingua Franca between Gagauz and Moldovan people is Russian; Russian is an official language of Moldova and serves as the Lingua Franca between Moldova's mostly peaceful ethnic groups. For such a small country, Moldova has remarkable ethnic diversity that derives from her position at the centre of Bessarabia, the region where so many different groups of peoples have met amidst the confluences of rivers and mountains. Nevertheless what makes Moldova so special is that she manages to find political means of peaceful coexistence between her varied peoples.

Moldova has developed through her own internal procedures a series of federal systems for her myriad peoples, with a division of executive and legislative powers between the capital and the regions. If the Gagauz people can find such harmony with with the Moldovans in Chisinau, then surely it should be straightforward for Pridnestrovia (Transnistr) to do so once the Russian military influence has been eliminated. While a long time has passed since the brief war in 1992 that established Pridnestrovia's de facto independence, the same sense of peaceful harmony as pervades the rest of Moldova is also part of Transnistrian society and, with a flexible set of federalisation procedures, coexistence between Tiraspol and Chisinau ought to be possible just as it is between Comrat and Chisinau.

Within Gagauzia, notwithstanding the Gagauz pro-Russian orientation deriving from the region:s historical associations with the Russian Empire, European regionalism funds have already been deployed to start construction of a major highway running through Gagauzia to the port of Giurgiulesti.

In 2021 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the EBRD) took possession of the port at Giurgiulesti after Moldova defaulted on the credit for the port's redevelopment. This was a national embarrassment but the port's efficiency may benefit from a period of international stewardship that will not last forever (these things never do).

The reason why the Giurgiulesti port investment initially failed is surely due to the proximity of the Ukrainian southwest Odessa oblast ports of Reni and Izmail, that are effectively unregulated and that specialise in smuggling. Given the porousness of the borders in the region, in which local traffic is just waived through, these informal ports without laws or restrictions are bound to have competitive advantages over a European-monitored Moldovan port.

It is worth re-emphasising that this southwestern Odessa oblast region of Ukraine is dominated, like Gagauzia, with mixed ethnic peoples of Turkic and other origins whose loyalties in principle lie with Russia. As part of any process of the European normalisation of the Bessarabian region, European Union institutions will need to take a strong hold over Ukraine's Odessa oblast as a whole, both the southwestern part (that includes the smugglers' ports of Reni and Izmail) and the northeastern part of the oblast (that includes the city of Odessa, the infrastructural centre of the region, and the Ukrainian land slice to the east of Pridnestrovia/Transnistr).

Gagauzia has received investment not just from the European Union and her various organs and associated institutions, including the European Regionalism Fund and the EBRD; but also from Turkey. Russian influence is on the wane. Russia no longer invests in or subsidizes Moldovan energy or other parts of the economy, particularly since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine pushed Moldova into an increasingly westwardly perspective.

The quality of construction, economic activity, employment and road and other infrastructure standards are vastly superior in southern Moldova to those in Ukraine before the war, in particular in the south of Ukraine. Had greater attention been paid to Ukraine in the same way as Moldova's regions have been cared for in the last decade, the acute economic factors that led to Russia's invasion of Ukraine might not have been so exacerbated. Whereas Moldova's regions have been cared for, Ukraine's regions were neglected.

This might be one reason why those two adjacent countries with similar Soviet and communist backgrounds are currently engaged on such dramatically different paths, the Ukrainian course quite tragic. Ukraine's regions, particularly in her south, were chronically under-invested over three decades since 1992. Moldova has cared for the entirety of her country and the results have spoken for themselves.

Essential details

Autonomous Unit (Yeri) of Gagauzia

Sovereign state: Republic of Moldova

Area: 1,832 km2

Currency: Moldovan Leu

Capital: Comrat, 100km south of Chisinau

Time zone: EET

Languages: Gagauz; Russian

Law: Moldovan

Executive: Regional leader with full executive powers, devolved pursuant to Moldovan parliamentary resolution

Police: Moldovan (regional branch)

GDP per capita (PPP): USD12,800 (2020)

Population: 165,000

Declaration of Republic: 19 August 1990

Autonomy established within Moldova: 14 January 1995


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