For many Moldovan politicians, analysts and journalists, Gagauzia is a problem region, a sort of Transnistrian region that is less serious, a brake that slows the European integration of the country and keeps us all under the Russian influence. After all, Moldovans are, at least, divided into this East-West issue, but the Gagauz are almost unanimously in the pro-Russian camp. They are often described as anti-European, Romanophobs, separatists, Russian-speaking, brainwashed by Soviet propaganda, etc. In a nutshell, they are a sort of volunteer captives in a very narrow ideological cage. And, of course, it’s their fault. However, the truth is more complex and, fortunately, less gloomy. Below I’m going to approach several aspects of the ‘Gagauz issue’.
Unionists are among the eagerest against the Gagauz, accusing the latter of Romanianophobia. For instance, a video where a granny relates how the Gagauz rifled the families of the Moldovans left for the war has been shared over 2,000 times. In an article about the wine festival in Comrat, MoldNova portal made fun of the ‘autonomy’s shining land’ because the Governor Irina Vlah was speaking in Russian, while the traditional Gagauz food was sarmale ‘cooked according to the best Moldovan traditions’. The last part is even more ridiculous since ‘sarma’ is a meal and word we inherited from the Turks, whose Christian brothers are the Gagauz. Another portal funded by Bucharest, Deschide. md, wrote about the monument of the customs officers from Comrat, which contains the USSR map, in a language that looks more like the comments on Facebook rather than a quality journalism: ‘The Gagauz can’t accept that the Soviet Union has collapsed, wanting to be once again occupied’.
There are many examples of this type and they only aggravate the issue. When the Unionists do not limit themselves to politics and pitch even into the Gagauz ‘sarmale’, such attitudes and behaviors awaken memories related to Romanian fascists and gendarmes. Even if such memories were amplified by Soviet propaganda, one cannot imagine them. Another factor fueling Gagauz skepticism towards the pro-Romanian political movements is the refusal by many unionists to recognize Romania’s crimes during the Second World War and the fact that they defend Antonescu. The common residents of the autonomy are not Romanophobs in the broad sense of the word, but only anti-unionists. They don’t dislike Basescu because he’s Romanian, but because he’s a promoter of the Unification, and for the Gagauz the unionist rhetoric builds on guilt and accusations: ‘Antonescu is good because Stalin was worse’, ‘the Gagauz have no right to decide the country’s fate because they are strangers’, ‘it’s their fault that they haven’t learned Romanian yet’, etc.
The Gagauz opposition to the Unification cannot be explained only by the Soviet/Russian propaganda. The inflexible and uninformed speech of the unionists contributed and further contributes to maintaining the anti-Romanian skepticism among the Gagauz. The so-called Romanophobia is just a natural reaction to a menacing political speech. Recognizing Romania’s war crimes and accepting without an asterisk the facts that Gagauz are natives are among the first steps that would allow the unionists to launch a real and useful dialogue.
Another criticism of autonomy is the exaggerated nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the same URSS that, through famine and deportation, killed one in three Gagauz during the Stalinist period. Surveys show that around 40% of the ATUG population consider the USSR as its historical homeland.
Moldova ranks second with 35.3%, and Russia ranks third with 17.7%. A glance at the history of this people helps us understand these results. The early history of Gagauz is unclear and debated by historians, while the modern history begins with their migration from Bulgaria to the Russian Empire. It’s true that the lands where they settled are part of Moldova, but, politically and administratively, they immigrated to a province of the Russian Empire, not to a Romanian land. The region was multi-ethnic and the Gagauz were invited to occupy the villages abandoned by the Nogai Tatars, who were displaced by the Russians from the Empire’s border because they were too close to the Turks. Later on, in the USSR, the Gagauz first struck it rich with a literary language and schools teaching in this language. Even though it was a short period of time, the Gagauz remember it as a sort of birth of their modern culture. From a political point of view, the Soviets also shaped the Gagauz as modern citizens. The Russians and the Soviets laid the most of the foundation of the Gagauz identity, and this fact can’t be denied or canceled.
‘But still... the Stalinist crimes?!’ is a reaction one can understand. Despite the stereotypes, not all Gagauz ache for the URSS. In the early 1990s, the political processes in Comrat were similar to those in Chisinau. A representative of ‘Gagauz Halkı’ movement, which was later prohibited due to its separatist nature, attended the inauguration of the Popular Front in 1989. Many of the intellectuals wanted, like their peers from Chisinau, a revival of the national culture and the political conditions required for it. As in Chisinau, over the years, the former bureaucratic elites returned to power and did their best to keep the status quo.
Nowadays, the younger generations begin to rethink the history in a critical way. Hence, the URSS is no longer seen through rose-colored glasses. For instance, last year, two of the ‘elders’ of the autonomy proposed to dedicate a day to commemorate the victims of 1946-1947 famine. Although the idea wasn’t supported with sufficient votes by People’s Assembly, the gagauzmedia.md portal and the museum of Avdarma village launched a contest to this end: students and high school pupils conducted interviews in Gagauz with the famine survivors, and the best ones were awarded and published. The village has also a monument dedicated to the famine victims. Similar monuments were built in other villages too. In Ceadir-Lunga, ‘Doorluk’ Association organises commemorative meetings every year. Things are changing slowly, and the conventional historic narratives are questioned. Contrary to what others think, Gagauzia is not a Soviet artefact.
The language issue
The failure to recognise the Romanian language is probably the biggest issue of the autonomy. This linguistic barrier makes the communication between Gagauz and the rest of Moldovans difficult and informationally isolates them. Only 12.5% of the region’s residents state they can fluently speak – 16 – Romanian/Moldovan. Blame falls squarely on politicians rather than on ordinary people. The overwhelming majority (74.5%) agrees that all citizens need to know the state language. In other words, Gagauz are open to learn Romanian. It depends only by certain conditions and their motivation.
At practical level, Gagauz and Russian are their priority languages. The former is their mothertongue, hence – no explanations are needed. Russian, although a foreign language, is perceived and used just as much as the mother-tongue Gagauz. At home, more Gagauz speak more Russian that Gagauz. The advantages are obvious: it’s a language that allows communication with other ethnic groups such as Moldovans, Bulgarians or Ukrainians, it’s language that offers access to a very rich information and cultural space (from RuNet and TV entertainment to classical Russian literature), and it’s a language that allows them to find a job in most former USSR member states, especially in Russia. Thus, although open to learn Romanian, at least at the level of principles, the Gagauz will direct their personal efforts towards the Gagauz and Russian languages. Their motivation is equally pragmatic and ideological. The Gagauz don’t prefer Russian only because they love Russia. Equally important are the employment and education opportunities that come in hand with this language.
The autonomy’s linguistic integration needs efforts and expenses from Chisinau’s part. More than half of the Gagauz (56%) have a positive attitude towards the opening of some common schools where part of the lessons would be in Russian and a part – in Romanian. However, such schools are few. In the same survey, the respondents were asked what measures are needed for those who don’t know the state language to learn it. As much as 46.4% of the Gagauz said that the quality of the teaching should be improved, 45.3% said that courses should be organised in all communities, 24.6% believe that the number of Romanian classes in schools should be increased, and 21% believe that some materials to learn the language by themselves would be needed.
Solutions are not easy, but not impossible. Even if they call it Moldovan, Gagauz want to learn Romanian, and we have studies and surveys that show what needs to be done. The next step is that Chisinau and Comrat authorities really wanted to do something to this end. The case of Comrat Mayor, Serghei Anastasov, who learned Romanian and is in favor of extending its teaching in the autonomy is promising. However, the lack of money is an eternal excuse, i.e. no money – no teachers. Without criticizing the way the Government manages the national budget, I’ll highlight only the fact that the money spent on projects such as the National Arena or the so-called good roads could have been allocated for the linguistic integration of Gagauzia. And if we accept the excuse that Moldova is poor, Romania could be a source of funding, thus supporting the opening and functioning of schools with Romanian/Russian or Romanian/Gagauz teaching, or the publishing of certain online courses and learning materials for independent learning. It would certainly be a more useful project than many of the activities funded by ICR. There is also Turkey, which is already investing heavily in the autonomy. Since Chisinau authorities became close friends with Erdoğan, they could ask him to help them with this issue too. There is also the EU, with a developed legal framework and a lot of experience in integrating and protecting ethnic minorities. In addition to funding, Europeans could provide technical assistance in developing and implementing language policies in Gagauzia.
The situation in Gagauz Autonomy is not as gloomy as it seems at first glance. The Gagauz are also the citizens of this poor and corrupt country. They want to learn Romanian, they begin to review the history inherited from the USSR and they are not Romanophobs, but only skeptical and defensive. Like the rest of the Moldovans, the Gagauz are struggling to make a decent living, and many of them go abroad, especially to Russia and Turkey, where they have no time, no desire, no use to learn Romanian or to investigate the crimes of communism.