1 – Gagauzia: A Bone in the Throat
BSSB.BE fpri.org/ 15.11.2016
Romania’s first envoy to the then-newly independent Moldova set off a firestorm of criticism in August that has yet to die down. Reflecting on his role in Moldova’s transition from Soviet republic to nation-state, Ion Bistreanu observed that Moldova’s “biggest mistake,” he assessed, was to accede to Gagauzia’s autonomy:
[Russia] no matter what cannot prevail in Transdniestria as easily as it did in Abkhazia and Ossetia, whether today, tomorrow or in ten or twenty years. After all the declarations, they cannot get a Crimea-type solution [in Transdniestria] . . . Perhaps that’s why they’ve been so quiet, because there’s nothing they can do. But it’s good to keep a nearby place ‘hot’, so to speak, in order to apply pressure.
The Russians in my view haven’t forgotten an idea from the 1990s, something apparent in how they’ve seized onto federalization in Ukraine and Moldova. At the time, the idea was, I remember [Anatoly] Lukanov saying in 1990, ‘you have three republics’: Gagauzia, Transdniestria, and Moldova. And something like that exists today. I think one of Moldova’s biggest mistakes was to grant Gagauzia autonomous status in 1994, something that clearly can’t be taken back. And Transdniestria will accept nothing less than everything Gagauzia has, which as we know includes regional autonomy. That’s the big problem.
Mr. Bistreanu’s comments did not receive a charitable hearing in Gagauzia (or for that matter, in Moldova’’s separatist Transdniestria). The news portal Yedinaya Gagauz offered this acerbic summation of what he had to say—“Gagauzia’s special legal status” in Mr. Bistreanu’s view “is like a bone in the throat.”
Given Gagauzis’ animadversion toward Romanian revanchism (real and imagined) and creeping encroachment on its autonomous status by the Moldovan government in Chișinău, political leaders of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia intend that bone to remain well lodged. While Russia remains an outspoken supporter of Gagauzian autonomy—something it sees as instrumental to force a federal structure on Moldova—Turkish soft power intrusions are increasingly worrisome to Moscow.
Of special concern is Russian Tatars’ willing role as an instrument of Turkish soft power in the eastern Balkans. Today, it continues to be true that the autonomous territory’s compact footprint belies its ability as Margaret Thatcher once said of Europe generally, “to produce more history than they can consume locally.”
“History Condemned Moldova to be a State”
Gagauzia—Gagaúz Yerí in the eponymous Gagauz language, or Gagaúziya in its lingua franca, Russian—is an assemblage of four small noncontiguous territories in southern Moldova.
Known formally as the Republic of Moldova’s Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, it encompasses an area only two-thirds the size of Hong Kong or about half of the size of Rhode Island. With a minuscule population (161,000) the territory is of little consequence economically or otherwise, save one thing: it sits by historical accident atop a geopolitical fracture line where Russian, Turkish and Western geopolitical interests collide.
The Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia has, indeed, proved a “bone in the throat” of Moldova’s Romanian-leaning majority. Its People’s Assembly (Halk Topluşu) is pushing back hard against what it sees as Chișinău’s concerted effort to challenge territorial laws. The Chișinău government has targeted the autonomous territory’s electoral and broadcasting codes, tax code, and the legal status of Halk Topluşu members.
In mid-August, Ivan Burgudji—who, depending on one’s point of view, is either a criminal terrorist or a vigorous proponent of Gaugauzi autonomy—forcefully denounced the State Chancellery’s (Cancelaria de Stat) “corrupt practice” of nullifying laws enacted by the Halk Topluşu. Mr. Burgudji claimed territorial laws “have equal legal status” with national laws under the provisions of the Moldovan constitution guaranteeing ATU-Gagauzia’s autonomous status and prevail when there is a conflict of laws.
“All this is done with one goal in mind—to scale back the rights and powers of Gagauzia, relegating us to the status of an ordinary administrative unit,” he said, threatening to convene a September meeting “to discuss whether it was worthwhile for ATU-Gagauzia to participate in the upcoming Moldovan elections”—a reference to the country’s October 30 presidential election.
Much of the ambiguity over the meaning of the word “autonomous” is rooted in the 1994 Law on Special Legal Status of Gagauzia.
- While it outlined key provisions of the territory’s autonomy status—for example, it delineated the territory’s administrative boundaries and the authority of its legislative and executive branches—the 1994 autonomy statute provides little guidance as to how the national and territorial governments are meant to decide where proper authority and responsibility reside on policy and governance matters.
- The Chișinău government has tried more than once to defuse what it sees as the “threat” posed by Gagauzi autonomy by electing to take small measures—one slice at a time, in one view—and has produced a flurry of national laws that ostensibly are incompatible with the 1994 autonomy statute.
Admittedly faring better than Transdniestrian separatists in their quest for cultural and administrative autonomy, the Gagauzi failed early on to win full sovereignty within a hoped-for tripartite (i.e., Gagauzia, Transdniestria, and a rump Moldova) confederation. So, observed Charles King, the Gagauzi “in large part made a virtue out of a necessity:”
The Gagauzi do not have access to the arms caches available to the Transnistrians [sic], they live in the poorest region of Moldova and thus do not threaten the state with the loss of most of its industry and energy links (as do the separatists in Transnistria), [and] they still rely on Chișinău to subsidize the local budget.
Speaking in a strictly legal context, Moldova today is a federal republic if one takes into account Gagauzia’s status as an autonomous territory. Sometimes we cling to legalisms or to one word or another instead of focusing on how to think about the fundamental problem of the country’s territorial integrity.
If you don’t have a strong economy, if you don’t have a strong military, then what should you do if you need to attract tangible resources and investment opportunities? You have to use diplomatic skills, to use the language in question.
Vadim Krasnoselsky reacted swiftly to Mr. Diacov. Transdniestria, he said, agreed to federalization in 2003 (under terms of the Kozak Memorandum) only to see it rejected by Chişinău.
- “The Supreme Council [of the PMR] has no intention of discussing Transdniestria’s status as part of a federal or confederated Moldova” since its proper status “is what we already have—independence.”
- The only configuration acceptable to the Transdniestria is integration with Russia, added Vice-Speaker Galina Antyufeeva. Ivan Burgudji responded that “there was no legitimate government of the Republic of Moldova” after the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic fell.
- In the interim, the people of Gagauzia formed their own independent Gagauz Republic on 19 August 1990. Transdniestria did the same on 2 September.
- And only after another year was the Republic of Moldova formed on the remainder on the territory. Were it not for the fact that Gagauzia entered [the Republic of Moldova] as an autonomous region, we would now be like Transdniestria.
Mr. Burgudji added that if Moldova “does not fulfill its commitments [to devolve certain powers to Gagauzia], then we need to go back to the framework of the independent Republic of Gagauzia . . . While on paper we appear to have a lot of authority, in reality we do not.” According to Halk Topluşu deputy Sergey Cimpoies,
[T]he Chisinau authorities have adopted a different tactic with regard to Gagauzia. Instead of open confrontation, they smile, they promise . . . Dmitriy Konstantinov [Halk Topluşu Speaker] and Irina Vlah for over a year have used one particular tactic—the two of them, they discuss problems . . . and meet with the Moldovan leadership, and something is whispered and we don’t really know what’s been agreed. The results we see are negative. I can’t blame them—they’re only renting their official powers . . . But I don’t recall any duo during Gagauzia’s existence who have been as weak politically as they are today.
The issue retook center stage in February 1993 when Chișinău asked Romania to replace its envoy, Mr. Bistreanu, because of incendiary public statements in which he characterized Moldova as a “temporary” country and future part of Romania.
Gagauzi resistance to Romanian hegemony is deep and longstanding. It is rooted in the mass resettlement of Orthodox Christian Gagauzis at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. They left the Ottoman-controlled Dobrudja region of modern-day Romania and Bulgaria for Tsarist Russia-controlled southern Moldova and the Odessa region.
The forced migration of the Gagauz was a critical juncture in the formation of their pro-Russian political culture because this event had a significant effect on the lives of the absolute majority of Gagauz.
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