The Gagauz referendum: Back to the nineties?

IPN Analysis: As final preparations are being made to hold a referendum in Gagauzia, we've seen “emergency” actions from both Chisinau and Comrat. Experts say an escalation of the situation could put “the Gagauz dispute” back on the agenda.

Chisinau responds

After preferring to refrain at first from taking hard action against the initiators of the Gagauz referendum on the country's foreign course, several weeks before the vote the central government in Chisinau decided to launch a crackdown. Acting on a request by the local representative of the Government Chancellery, the Comrat Court first suspended and then canceled the resolution of the Gagauz parliament to hold the referendum scheduled for February 2. The court in particular ruled in its January 3 decision that the People's Assembly exceeded its powers when putting up for a vote a matter of national impact.

A week later, on January 9, the Prosecutor General's Office announced criminal proceedings against the decision to hold the referendum. The charge is that the Assembly members violated a number of constitutional, electoral and other legal rules, committing the crime of “arbitrary action” , which is punishable under Art. 352(3) by five to eight years in prison.

Another reaction came from the Central Election Commission (CEC), whose formal authorization is required when holding local referenda, but which nevertheless was left outside of the supervision process for this poll. As CEC deputy chairman Stefan Uritu said in an interview, this is seen as an attempt by the Gagauz authorities to arrogate the powers of CEC and this will probably lead to legal action. “The law enforcement must react on its own initiative to this resolution by the Gagauz People's Assembly. In fact, this should have been done earlier, because violations have long been taking place there", said Uritu.

Comrat considers a 'popular assembly'

The central government's efforts to try and keep Gagauzia within the limits of law, which Chisinau claims is being violated by the autonomy, apparently have little effect on the Gagauz leaders. On the contrary, as the developments in the autonomy indicate, the decision to hold the poll has become even firmer. An extraordinary meeting of the People's Assembly is to take place on January 17. The sole item on the order of the day will be the “sociopolitical situation” in Gagauzia. It's been reported that the autonomy's parliament will consider calling a pre-referendum “meeting of deputies of all levels”, a sort of popular assembly bringing together executive and legislative leaders, district representatives and councilmen from across the autonomy.

Notably, the last time Gagauzia held such assemblies was almost a quarter of century ago. This was precisely the forum that adopted the decisions which led to the crack in the relationship between Chisinau and Comrat in the early nineteen-nineties. Thereafter, threats to assemble such meetings have been voiced each time the relationship tensed up.

Taraclia hasn't been dissuaded

Besides Gagauzia, there is no immediate prospect, either, for Chisinau to reach compromise with the leadership of Taraclia district, which has shown support for the referendum. As we remember, public consultations will be held here on February 2 to ask people in each town and village to vote in an exercise of direct democracy on the same issues that are being put up for the referendum in Gagauzia.

On January 11, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca was supposed to come to Taraclia for a working visit, where he was expected to meet the leadership of the district and town as well as representatives of ethnic Bulgarian organizations. The official purpose of the visit wasn't announced. But, as Taraclia Mayor Sergey Filipov guessed, Leanca intended to talk the district leaders out of supporting the referendum in neighboring Gagauzia. Anyway, at the eleventh hour the premier canceled his visit, citing health issues. Moreover, five deputy ministers who were expected to accompany Leanca didn't come either.

The meeting of Taraclia's leadership was nevertheless held. In their speeches the local officials and activists almost unanimously reasserted their intentions for February 2, while voicing sharp criticism against the Chisinau government.

Will the tension grow even deeper?

Experts say the growing strain in the relationship between the regional and central elites could revert the country to the situation of the nineteen-nineties. As the Gagauz political pundit Aleksandr Angeli told IPN, today, much like two decades ago, Chisinau's and Comrat's positions are becoming increasingly “mutually exclusive”.

“Throughout its history as an autonomy, Gagauzia has preserved an isolation from Moldova on issues of foreign policy. Moreover, the autonomy's leadership has insisted that it is given a say in such matters. Chisinau, on the other hand, cannot afford to make the foreign policy of the entire country dependent on the actions of one administrative unit”, says the expert. He remarked that this dissent has existed for the last two decades , but it didn't take extreme forms due to the fact that Moldova's foreign policy had been either unassertive or was in agreement with the sentiments in the south. “The situation started to escalate clearly as Moldova has moved closer to Romania and the European Union in the last few years. The tension is likely to grow deeper and eventually Chisinau will again be faced with the need to settle the “Gagauz dispute”, said Aleksandr Angeli.

Veaceslav Craciun, IPN


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