Nostalgia after empire and Gagauz factor in Moldovan politics. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



The European principle - more money for more reforms -  should become applicable to the process of overcoming the trap of Soviet nostalgia for the Gagauz people...


Anatol Țăranu

On September 2, Maia Sandu, the President of the Republic of Moldova, paid a working visit to the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. The visit to Comrat generated a vivid echo in the press and on social media. “Dispute” was the key word that prevailed in the interpretation of this visit, which is explained by the impolite and provocative attitude of some of the representatives of the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia towards the President. This political incident brought the Gagauz problem back into public focus in Moldovan society, with voices more insistently predicting the eventual withdrawal of the status of autonomous unit offered to the region that has its center in Comrat in 1994. This way or another but the Gagauz problem continues to shake political life in the Republic of Moldova, causing a lot of headaches to the rulers in Chisinau.

Historical explanations for loyalty to empire

The Gagauz problem in Moldova eastward the Prut appeared during the years of “perestroika”, when the process of democratization and “glasnost” triggered national emancipation movements in the Soviet republics, which finally led to the implosion of the USSR. However, unlike other suppressed nations of the Russian and Soviet empire, which aspired to freedom through the fall of the empire, the Gagauz minority opposed the dismemberment of the Soviet imperial state, opposing the national emancipation movement and the obtaining of state independence by the Moldovans in whose environment they live. The paradox of such an attitude in the people of Gagauzia towards the Moldovans has historical explanations.

Despite the theorizing assertions of some of the homegrown historians about the uninterrupted stay of the Gagauz people in the area between the Prut and the Nistru, in reality the Gagauz ethnic element appeared in a consistent form in this area only at the beginning of the 19th century, when the so-called Bulgarian colonists settled in southern Bessarabia even if the process of relocating the Balkan refugees in the Principality of Moldavia was nonlinear and long-lasting. As a result of the multiple withdraws of the Russian army from the Balkans during the numerous Russian-Turkish wars, the Russian military convoys were followed by caravans of refugees who were fleeing from the Ottoman repression. Some of them settled on the land of Moldovan lords. So, the first Gagauz people who were not many in number appeared in the Principality of Moldavia in the 18th century. However, the mass population of Bessarabia by Bulgarian colonists started after 1812, when, within the tsarist program for colonizing southern Bessarabia, the Balkan colonists were offered land and many economic privileges. During a long period of time, these refugees were indicated in all the Russian imperial documents as being Bulgarian colonists and only at the end of the century, in the census of 1897, the Gagauz people distinguished themselves as part of the composition of Bulgarian Bessarabians according to the linguistic criterion. The census recorded 103,492 ethnic Bulgarians in the Russian Bessarabia (out of 170,000 from the whole empire) and, for the first time, 57,045 Gagauz people.

Only the Balkan origin, the Turkish language and the Christian religion are known definitely as clear elements in the Gagauz ethnogenesis. Taken together, these made them original and different from the rest of the inhabitants of Bulgaria. The most recent study of the genetic component, which covered Gagauz people from different settlements, shows that the Gagauz people are closely related to the Bulgarians and have some ties with the Turkish genetic branches. Owing to the fact that no historical documents referring to the period before the 19th century, which would mention the name of Gagauz, have found until now, the history of this ethnic group remains a subject of dispute among historians.

Dramatic fate left imprints on national character

The Gagauz people in Bulgaria that was conquered by the Ottomans had a dramatic history and fate that left deep imprints on their national character. On the one hand, speaking a language that is almost identical to the Muslim Turks, the Gagauz people practiced Christianity, which made them traitors to the faith in the eyes of the Ottomans and the Gagauz people were therefore subject to very cruel repression. On the other hand, the Bulgarians, along whom the Gagauz people had lived for centuries, treated them unfriendly owing to their language that associated the Gagauz people with the occupying Turks. In this suffocating environment, the Gagauz minority existed for centuries, dreaming of a happier fate. As a result, when the Russian tsar came with a project to relocate the Bulgarian colonists to Bessarabia that was recently conquered by Russians, the largest majority of Gagauz people left Bulgaria without regret in search of a new homeland.

The tsarist government aimed to populate Bugeac – the geographic “corner” of the Prut-Nistru interfluve – to which the Nogai Tatars were moved by distributing a number of privileges to the potential colonists, which didn’t apply to the indigenous population of the province. In the course of the 19th century, a number of groups of Balkan colonists reached Bugeac. This led to a situation in which until 1905, in a Bessarabian province, out of its three counties (Akkerman, Bendery and Ismail), there were 65 Bulgarian colonies, including colonies inhabited by Gagauz people, with a total of 103,225 colonists all over the province of Bessarabia. After obtaining large lots and broad economic privileges, the Bulgarian colonists, including the Gagauz people, created strong and economically viable agricultural farmsteads.

Grater privileges than in the case of natives

At a time when the Moldovan peasants didn’t have enough land and didn’t enjoy economic privileges, the Bulgarian colonists were economically prosperous and this led to the formation of feelings of profound gratitude to the Russian tsar and Russia in general. In the past, the people of Gagauzia and other Bulgarian colonists lived in conditions of persecution and even of ethnic genocide in Bulgaria that was conquered by the Ottomans. In their new homeland, under the care of the Russian tsar, they prospered economically and offered a future to their children. In such conditions, they perceived not Bessarabia that was part of historical Moldova as their new homeland, but Russia, which they started to idolize for bringing the Ottoman yoke to an end and for the obtained the economic welfare, leaving this attitude to their children as inheritance. Even if in reality the Bulgarian colonists settled on historical Moldovan land, their attitude to the Moldovans didn’t built on this in time. For the Gagauz people, Russia is their savior. In the collective Gagauz mentality, the cult of Russia became increasingly dominant. This attitude does not change even if the Gagauz people under the Russian or Soviet rule didn’t get any right of autonomy and even if the imperial government brutally suppressed any manifestation of freedom in the Gagauz people, such as, for example, the brutal suppression of the Gagauz people when the Republic of Comrat existed in 1906 or Stalin’s repression against the Gagauz intellectuality, or the terrible Soviet famine of 1946-47 in areas that were densely populated by Gagauz people, or the Russification policy that was merciless as it marginalized the Gagauz language.

The fall of the USSR took the Gagauz people by surprise. In the referendum of 1990, the Gagauz people, unlike the Moldovans, voted to conserve the Soviet Union. The people of Gagauzia opposed the Moldovan national renaissance movement and became allies of the Transnistrian separatists. Not even the fact that the Moldovan Parliament offered autonomous rights to the areas that are densely populated by Gagauz people solved the problem of Comrat’s loyalty to the policy pursued by the official Chisinau. Not even the fratricide war waged by Russia on Ukraine served as a reason for reviewing the Gagauzia point of view on Russia. Most of the Gagauz people continue being nostalgic for the lost empire, becoming on the political arena personages similar to the historical serfs who opposed the abolition of serfdom.

More money for more reforms

Among the numerous problems faced by the young Moldovan state, the Gagauz problem remains among the most difficult ones. Not accidentally, the imperial policy pursued by the Kremlin in Moldova is based on two key allies – the Transnistrian separatism in action and the lateen separatism formula in Comrat. In such conditions, we should admit that Chisinau has very superficial expertise coverage for the Gagauz problem. The recent meeting of President Maia Sandu and deputies of the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia showed that Chisinau influences to a very small extent the state of affairs and spirit in this region of the country where the domination of nostalgia for the Soviet empire became a generalized one.

The Soviet nostalgia, combined with the subversive information and economic actions of Moscow in the Republic of Moldova, creates existential dangers for the young Moldovan state. The counteracting of such dangers necessitates complex and long-lasting efforts. In current Gagauzia, the imposition of the condition of offering European development assistance for the region in exchange for the loyalty of the Gagauz people to the policy to Europeanize the Republic of Moldova can be the most efficient policy to diminish the noxious effects of the Soviet nostalgia. The European principle – more money for more reforms - should become applicable to the process of overcoming the trap of Soviet nostalgia for the Gagauz people.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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