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Assessment for Gagauz in Moldova

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Gagauz in Moldova, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Moldova Facts
Area:    33,843 sq. km.
Capital:    Chisinau
Total Population:    4,458,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Gagauz have virtually no risk of rebellion and, given the widespread powers afforded them as a result of the 1994 autonomy agreement, their likelihood of protest remains low. In fact, the Council of Europe originally criticized the agreement as providing too much autonomy. Nonetheless, support among residents is generally favorable and prospects for the Gagauz appear promising. Residents of the region share a strong desire for stability and are tolerant of the moderate policies of the Gagauz councils.

On the other hand, the potential for escalation of ethnic tensions cannot be totally ruled out. Renewed conflict is possible, but the risk of that occurring seems to be small. It would require a victory of hard-line Romanian nationalists in the presidency and legislature, which at the moment seems rather unlikely given the overwhelming support (95%) throughout the country for continued independence from both Russia and Romania. Instead, the main threat to civil peace in Moldova seems to be chronic economic decline. Since all parts of the country are similarly afflicted, however, it is not likely to provoke a revival of militant separatism. Another key to Gagauz stability is the Transdniester issue. Thus far, the confrontation has pushed Chisinau to be accommodating towards the Gagauz out of fear of a new violent conflict. This could change if the resolution of the Transdniester conflict were to cause a backlash against the course of moderation. In this event, the gains made by the Gagauz (and also the Bulgarians) might be reversed.

Analytic Summary

The Gagauz live in a relatively small area of southern Moldova, in districts that have significant Moldovan and Slavic minorities (REGIONAL =1, GROUPCON = 3). They are Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christians whereas the dominant population, Moldovans, are linguistically Romanians (ETHNOG = 1; LANG = 1; CUSTOM = 1; RELIGS1 = 3; ETHDIFXX = 5). The origins of the Gagauz is in dispute. Most ethnographers cite two possibilities. They are descendants of Turkic tribes who settled in Bulgaria from the 12th - 17th centuries A.D. and were converted to Orthodox Christianity, or they are Europeans who were assimilated by the invading Turks (while retaining their religion). In the 19th century, during the Russo-Ottoman war, they fled from religious persecution in northeastern Bulgaria to Bessarabia, a province that was then under Russian domination but is now divided between Ukraine and Moldova (TRADITN = 3). There are very few Gagauz left in Bulgaria today (5,000 according to the 1989 census). Under Soviet rule the Gagauz were encouraged both to retain their Gagauz heritage and to learn Russian, thus serving as a counterweight to Moldova's identification with Romania. As a result, while most Gagauz consider Gagauzi their native language, most also read and speak Russian (only 4.4% claimed to speak any Moldavian in the 1989 census). Much of their literary tradition has strong Russian influences. The Soviets followed similar policies toward the mainly Slavic population of easternmost Moldova, the Transdniester region—the site of another separatist movement that is ongoing. In the late 1980s Moldovan nationalists took a series of mostly symbolic steps that were widely seen as moves toward unification with Romania. At the same time, a Gagauz cultural club transformed itself into an umbrella association known at the Gagauz Khalk (movement). Most threatening to non-Moldovans was legislation passed by the Moldovan Supreme Soviet in August 1989 that made "Moldovan" the only official state language and required all officials to demonstrate proficiency in Moldovan/Romanian, even if serving in Gagauz and Russian-speaking communities. Largely in response to this law, in September 1989, the Gagauz proclaimed the creation of an autonomous republic. In August the next year, they declared the independence of the Gagauz Soviet Socialist Republic, announced their intention to remain within the Soviet Union, and called for presidential elections. In response, the Moldovan legislature declared the Gagauz Khalk illegal and ordered some tens of thousands of young Moldovan "volunteers" to enter Gagauz towns and block the elections. The intervention of Soviet interior ministry troops prevented the incursion of the volunteers into Gagauz territory, preventing any serious violence between the Moldovan and Gagauz irregulars. After a protracted period of low-level conflict between the Moldovan and Gagauz governments, compromise became possible after the 1994 elections in which the moderate Agrarian Party gained a legislative majority over pro-Romanian nationalists. As the nationalists lost ground, Gagauz fears of being incorporated into Romania ebbed, lowering the appeal and support for Gagauz militants and making agreement possible. External factors played a major role in negotiations. Moscow was no longer readily available to manipulate Moldovan politics (though Russian support for an independent Transdniester republic continued). The Turkish government persistently encouraged the Gagauz to accept autonomy within Moldova and provided economic aid for the development of the region. The Council of Europe also gave its backing to a limited autonomy plan. The nationalist Romanian government was opposed, on the grounds that it might impede eventual Moldovan unification with Romania, but with little effect.

The new autonomous arrangement, adopted in 1994, established Gagauz-Eri as a "national-territorial autonomy unit." The new entity has its own elected legislative and executive authorities, uses 3 official languages (Russian, Gagauz, Romanian) and is entitled to secession successful. Virtually all its provisions were implemented during the first year of its existence (POLDIS00-03 = 1). Districts with a majority Gagauz population were automatically made part of Gagauz-Eri; in March 1995, 30 out of 36 districts voted to join the new entity (mostly with percentages far exceeding the number of local Gagauz); finally, in summer 1995, the Moldovan prime minister declared an end to the conflict and Gagauz militia turned in their arms and were incorporated into the Moldovan security forces.

Commentators generally agree that the absence of historic conflict, or discrimination between Moldovans and Gagauz played a key role in facilitating the agreement between the two groups. Gagauz do not seem to have experienced any serious disadvantages vis-à-vis the dominant population (DEMSTR03 = 0; ECOSTR03 = 0; MIGSTR03 = 0). Nor were Gagauz significantly economically disadvantaged compared to Moldovans (ECDIS03 = 0). As a result, mutual hostilities and grievances between the two groups were muted.

At present, the ruling Gagauz are satisfied with the existing arrangement. While there is a small group of radicals who call for a union with Transdniestria, the majority of Gagauz do not support these demands. Instead, they generally call for a greater degree of Gagauz autonomy. The group is represented by a number of conventional political parties and organizations, including the Democratic party of Gagauzia (DGP), The Gagauz Peoples Party, and the Gagauz Movement, among others. During in the hypothetical event that Moldova merged with Romania. The agreement proved largely 2001, elections were boycotted by some Gagauz (PROT01 = 2); and in 2003, the Gagauz government refused to negotiate with the central government on issues of a federal union. During 1999-2000, the group has received humanitarian help in the form of a shipment of 6,000 tons of diesel fuel from the Turkish government.


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