Friday, 17 April 2015



Originally Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute
Written by John R. Haines


Many see ATU-GAGAUZIA as a likely “perch” from which to spread destabilization into southern MOLDOVA and BUDZHAK, then north across the rest of the ODESSA region and possibly south into ROMANIA’S hydrocarbon-rich BUGEAC region. Some, like UKRAINIAN political scientist OLEG PASTERNAK, believe GAGAUZIAN separatism will spill into BUDZHAK, especially were GAGAUZIA to secede from MOLDOVA.

Moldova, it can be said, faces the problem of long-term liminality and geopolitical ambiguity.  In an underpublicized but in many respects highly significant episode of modern EUROPEAN history, Moldova declared parts of its ethnically distinctive southeastern region a “national-territorial autonomous unit” in 1995.  The region, known as GAGAUZ YERI in the official language, GAGAUZCA, incorporated all GAGAUZ-majority districts and others that elected to opt-in via local referenda.  The result was a BANTUSTAN-like geography of four non-contiguous districts, all but the smallest lying along MOLDOVA’S southern border with UKRAINIAN BUDZHAK.

The GAGAUZ descended from ethnic TURKS who fled the OTTOMAN EMPIRE in the 19th century for the protection of IMPERIAL RUSSIA and converted to ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY.  While they account for only about 4 percent of MOLDOVANS, GAGAUZ comprise more than 80 percent of the population of GAGAUZ YERI. There also are small GAGAUZ enclaves in southern MOLDOVA’S adjoining BASARABEASCA and TARACLIA districts.  Unsurprisingly, TURKEY has been actively engaged in GAGAUZIA for two decades, and in 2000 the COMRAT government opened a representative office in ANKARA.


GAGAUZ YERI—the territory is more commonly called the Autonomous Territorial Unit of GAGAUZIA (“ATU-GAGAUZIA”)—has a 35-member parliament, the GAGAUZIYA HALK TOPLUŞU or “GAGAUZIAN People’s Assembly,” and a territorial governor known as the BAŞKAN. While the MOLDOVAN law granting internal self-governance to ATU-GAGAUZIA left intact MOLDOVA’S national territorial integrity, it did open the door to secession in the event MOLDOVA’S status as an independent nation changed.

The Republic of Moldova

In late March, voters in ATU-GAGAUZIA elected a pro-RUSSIAN BAŞKAN, IRINA VLAH, to lead the regional government in COMRAT.  She defeated nine candidates to win an outright majority (51.01 percent) in the first round and avoid a runoff, far outpacing her nearest rival (at 19.05 percent). While VLAH ran as an independent, she served in the MOLDOVAN parliament for the Party of Communists until January, when she resigned citing the Communists’ collaboration with MOLDOVA’S pro-EUROPEAN parties to form a governing coalition in CHIŞINAU, the national capital. Her victory in March had much to do with the support she received from another ex-Communist, IGOR DODON, who in November led MOLDOVA’S Party of Socialists to a 26-seat plurality in the 101-seat national parliament. DODON managed to draw a large share of MOLDOVA’S traditionally Communist Russophile electorate to the Socialists, who in all previous elections had failed to win a single seat.  For RUSSIA, VLAH’S election may be important to stem GAGAUZIA’S perceived slow drift toward TURKEY.


What is the significance of a former Communist parliamentarian’s election as governor of a small autonomous region in southeastern MOLDOVA?  By one assessment, the election was won not by Ms. VLAH but by RUSSIA, with the support of which “a Barbie doll would have won in the first round.” In a more serious vein, DMITRI TRENIN tweeted that it shows the competition for MOLDOVA between RUSSIA and the EUROPEAN UNION, far from being over, is getting more intense. “The fact that GAGAUZIA is pro-RUSSIAN is no secret,” VLAH told DEUTSCHE WELLE in a post-election interview. While that truism is unremarkable in and of itself, what may turn out to be remarkable, however, is that VLAH’S election may mark the start of something remarkable.


“The rather small territory of the Republic of MOLDOVA hosts at least three geopolitical conflicts: TRANSDNISTRIA, the South BESSARABIAN conflict, and the problem of the MOLDOVAN-UKRAINIAN border. The respective conflicts intersect and influence each other.  The South BESSARABIAN conflict is in close connection with the TRANSDNISTRIA one, as well as with the conflict related to the MOLDOVAN-UKRAINIAN border. Geographically, [the South BESSARABIAN] conflict results from the borderline drawn in the summer of 1940 and politically, in the movement of BESSARABIAN ROMANIANS and the proclamation of the Republic of MOLDOVA’S independence.”

Autonomist GAGAUZIA and separatist TRANSDNIESTRIA—to which, it can fairly be added, the BULGARIAN ethnic enclaves in southern MOLDOVA centered on TARACLIA—share an abhorrence of MOLDOVA’S ambitions of unifying with neighboring ROMANIA, and oppose MOLDOVA’S hoped-for accession to the EUROPEAN UNION.

In November 2013 the MOLDOVAN government signed a EUROPEAN UNION Association Agreement establishing the framework for bilateral negotiations over MOLDOVA’S hoped-for membership.  That agreement was swiftly and forcefully rejected by ATU-GAUGUAZIA. A February 2014 consultative referendum—condemned as illegal by the CHIŞINAU government, which froze financial accounts in an attempt to deny it the use of government funds—asked whether MOLDOVA should seek closer ties with the EUROPEAN UNION, or alternately, the RUSSIA-led EURASIAN CUSTOMS UNION; and a separate question whether ATU-GAUGAUZIA had the right to secede if MOLDOVAN sovereignty was lost.  Voters were given three separate ballots printed on different colored paper.

As one RUSSIAN commentary colorfully put it, CHIŞINAU’S efforts to block the referendum “pulled the chair out from under the skinny legs of ‘MOLDOVAN statehood’ by aggravating the country’s political situation.” With 70 percent of eligible voters participating, 97.2 percent rejected closer ties with the EUROPEAN UNION and 98.4 percent supported closer ties with the EURASIAN CUSTOMS UNION. An even higher 98.9 percent endorsed GAGAUZIA’S right to secede under the sovereignty question, which was understood to mean MOLDOVA’S unification with ROMANIA.


After declaring RUSSIA would start showing a “special interest” in ATU-GAGAUZIA (and TARACLIA), Ambassador FARIT MUHAMETSHIN publicly supported the referendum.  When denied funding by the CHIŞINAU government, a RUSSIAN businessman, YURI YAKUBOV—who, claiming roots in GAGAUZIA, said he “could not help a rush of patriotism and a desire to help his fellow citizens”—gave the COMRAT government an estimated €55,000 - €75,000 to fund the plebiscite.

There also have been rumblings in southern MOLDOVA’S BULGARIAN enclaves. RUSSIA advocates a “UNITED GAGAUZIA” to unify MOLDOVA’S GAGAUZ and BULGARIAN enclaves into a single autonomous unit that would cover most of southern MOLDOVA. The addition of the BULGARIAN enclave, TARACLIA, would, as one RUSSIAN commentary put it, “allow GAGAUZIA to ‘open a window’ to UKRAINE,” especially to UKRAINIAN GAGAUZ.

In April 2013, the TARACLIA district council—the political center of MOLDOVA’S 65,000 RUSSIAN-speaking Bulgarians (two-thirds of all TARACLIANS)—unanimously demanded ATU GAGAUZIA-like status for TARACLIA as a national-territorial autonomous unit.  TARACLIA’S demands—“justice for the BULGARIAN community” and “preservation of BULGARIAN ethnic identity”—were modeled on similar ones by the BĂLŢI municipal council in 2012 (which later dropped the one for an autonomy referendum).

Rumors surfaced in BUDZHAK, during late 2014 of a separatist plot centered in BOLHRAD, a two-thirds ethnic BULGARIAN city in region’s northwest (and the birthplace of UKRAINE’S president, PETRO POROSHENKO). There were unconfirmed allegations of involvement by former SOVIET officers, including a former brigade commander, OLEG BABICH; and other allegations regarding purported separatist sympathies held by public figures like ANTON KISSE, a UKRAINIAN parliamentarian and chairman of the Association of BULGARIANS in UKRAINE.  What has greater potential to crystalize pro-separatist sentiment among BUDZHAK ethnic BULGARIANS is UKRAINE’S controversial series of military mobilizations (four so far) to conscript manpower for the conflict in eastern UKRAINE. Some news accounts go so far as to describe a “rebellion” among BUDZHAK BULGARIANS. For its part, the BULGARIAN government has remained (publicly, at least) circumspect about UKRAINE’S mobilization of ethnic BULGARIANS, to not inconsiderable domestic criticism.


ANATOL TSARANU wrote that UKRAINE’S government believes “the situation in eastern UKRAINE developed according to ‘the TRANSDNIESTRIA scenario’,” and that the unresolved situation in TRANSDNIESTRIA poses a continuing threat to UKRAINE’S ODESSA region. The risk here is separatism spilling over from TRANSDNIESTRIA and/or GAGAUZIA into the UKRAINE’S ODESSA region—or more likely, that it would be actively exported into BUDZHAK, where favorable conditions for ethnic unrest might already exist—bolstered by the menacing presence of RUSSIAN armed forces in the region.

Ethnically diverse and largely ignored by KYEV, BUDZHAK is fertile ground for political disruption. Among the several tools in its hybrid warfare toolbox, RUSSIA has long operated in the region through front groups and cutout organizations. One technique used to great effect in MOLDOVA was to organize TRANSDNIESTRIAN branches of established RUSSIAN media portals and place them under control of the internal security service.  In early 2006, the RUSSIAN media outlet LENTA established LENTA-PMR [Лента ПМР), which in reality was controlled by DMITRY SOIN, a senior intelligence officer in the PMR-TRANSDNEISTRIA State Security Ministry known by the acronym MGB. In July 2009 a known SOIN associate, ROMAN KONOPLEV, formed what purported to be a new TRANSDNIESTRIA-focused RUSSIAN media portal, DNESTR (Днестр), which in fact used a RUSSIAN domain name as a subterfuge. SOIN himself occasionally wrote anti-MOLDOVAN, anti-Romanian commentaries under his own name, usually ending with a call for TRANSDNIESTRIA’S unification with RUSSIA.

In 2005 SOIN organized a front group known as PRORYV or “Breakthrough,” a self-described “EURASIANIST INTERNATIONAL YOUTH ORGANIZATION” that registered as political party in TRANSDNIESTRIA. At the time, he directed the CHE GUEVARA High School of Political Leadership, and chaired the TRANSDNIESTRIAN branch of the RUSSIAN National Strategy Council (a putative think tank, it was in fact a RUSSIAN front organization). SOIN eventually fell out with the PMR-TRANSDNIESTRIA political leadership, and decamped from TIRASPOL in March 2013 for ODESSA while remaining a member of the TRANSDNIESTRIAN parliament. He reemerged in public in April 2014 when he announced formation of the “UNION OF TRANSDNIESTRIANS IN UKRAINE,” a group purporting to represent UKRAINIANS in TRANSDNIESTRIA. According to SOIN, “The situation on the [TRANSDNIESTRIA-UKRAINE] border was on the verge of exploding” because of illegal restrictions on border crossings imposed unilaterally by CHIȘINĂU. He pledged the UTU would work to overturn prohibitions on dual MOLDOVAN-UKRAINIAN citizenship, and support for opening a UKRAINIAN consulate in TRANSDNIESTRIA. SOIN’S usefulness ended abruptly in August 2014 when UKRAINIAN authorities arrested him in KIEV on an Interpol warrant charging him with two murders while he was an MGB officer.


Classic hybrid warfare techniques executed through front groups and cutout organizations are inconsistent with an aggressor’s objective to take and hold physical territory, even if they raise the specter of activating separatist forces. This alone substantially dilutes arguments that “MOLDOVA is the next UKRAINE,” notes DAN DUNGACIU of the ROMANIAN Academy Institute of Political Science and International Relations.  RUSSIA sees TRANSDNIESTRIA and GAGAUZIA instrumentally, i.e., as means to an end, meaning a federal MOLDOVA. Re-integrating TRANSDNIESTRIA and GAGAUZIA into a newly federalized political structure would likely foreclose MOLDOVA’S pathways to unification with ROMANIA and to EUROPEAN UNION and NATO accession, at least for the foreseeable future.  It would also give RUSSIA the option to escalate BUDZHAK separatism as a means of pressuring UKRAINE, for which the presence of a non-EU, non-NATO MOLDOVA “wedge” on its western flank would necessarily complicate its own accession ambitions as well as its defensive posture.

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