The Moldovan minority forms the border between Russia and the homeland
In open fields west of the Moldova-Ukraine border, a red, white and blue striped flag bearing three stars floated above thousands of Turkish and Russian-speaking Gagauzians.
The Orthodox Christian minority in southeastern Moldova, 160,000 strong, celebrated Herdelez — Saint George’s Day — and the beginning of the pastoral year. But although horse racing, local food and games offered a distraction, the May 6 festivities were overshadowed by war – and officials in the Moldovan capital Chisinau worried about the region’s pro-Moscow sympathies .
With Ukraine visible on the horizon, these traditionally Turkish-speaking but now largely Russian-speaking people worry about what the coming months might bring.
“My mother forbade me to come to the festival, she doesn’t want me to be in the crowd because you never know what can happen these days,” said Cristina, 16, from Ciadir Lunga, the second city region and a hotbed of pro-Russian Gagauz separatists when the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago. “I came anyway because I don’t even want to think about the war, it’s too scary.”
The southern region of Gagauzia in Moldova is one of the least developed regions of the poorest country in Europe. Southern part of historic Bessarabia, the region passed in the 19th century from Ottoman domination to Russian and then Romanian domination before falling under Soviet control after the Second World War. It is emblematic of a corner of Europe shaped by a patchwork of ethnic identities, shifting borders and competing allegiances that have recently been amplified by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
Turkish involvement in the region dates back centuries, but in recent times Gagauzia has leaned towards Russia. Unlike Transnistria, the separatist Moldovan enclave that waged a bloody separatist war in 1992 with Moscow’s backing and has since hosted Russian troops, Gagauzia has avoided confrontation with Chisinau and settled for regional autonomy within Moldova.
But while US and Ukrainian officials warn that Russian President Vladimir Putin could try to open a new front in Transnistria, Moldovan officials are also concerned about Gagauzia.
“The local assembly is divided and still influenced by Russian stories, which cause anxiety across Moldova. There are politicians trying to incite and divide,” said Iulian Groza, a member of Moldova’s Supreme Security Council, who advises the president on security strategy.
Charles King, an academic who wrote a book on Moldova, described the Gagauz as a “largely forgotten minority within a neglected republic”. He counted up to 19 explanations for the ethnic origins of the Gagauzes, the most common being that they are descendants of Christianized Turks. But he also noted that no other group in Moldova speaks Russian so widely.
“At Comrat [the regional capital] we mainly speak Russian, we use Gagauz mostly for jokes, as it is more widely spoken in smaller villages and towns,” said Vitali Barbarica, 39, who previously drove buses to and from Moscow and is now a life coach. conduct. “Russia is just closer to our way of thinking.”
As in Transnistria, Gagauzia has preserved its statues of Lenin dating from Soviet times, including one in front of the seat of the regional authority. During the 2015 regional elections, Irina Vlah, the governor, campaigned under the slogan “Together with Russia”.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and began its war in eastern Ukraine, Gagauz people voted in a local referendum deemed illegal by Chisinau for the region to develop closer ties with Moscow rather than with the EU.
Earlier this month, a report by Romanian newspaper ZDG based on numerous video interviews suggested that many Gagauz believe that if Putin had not started the current war, Ukraine would have invaded Russia.
Tensions rose briefly ahead of Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on May 9, when local officials said they would ignore a central government ban on Soviet symbols widely seen as pro-Russian, among which the ribbon of Saint George, as well as the “Z” and “V” marks displayed by the Russian army during its invasion of Ukraine. The government deemed the display of the symbols to be a celebration of the invasion of Moscow.
Sergiu Litvinenco, Moldova’s justice minister, called local authorities’ promise to defy the ban “an illegal act that must be erased”, while the Russian foreign ministry warned of a “painful” response from Moscow.
Attempts by the local government to overturn the ban were overturned by a Moldovan court, although escalation was averted through “intensive dialogue”, Groza said.
Some Gagauzes are conciliatory. “We don’t want conflict, we live in the Republic of Moldova. We have a good country, maybe not the best in the world, but it is a very good country,” said Sergey Anastasov, 58, mayor of Comrat.
But distrust of Chisinau remains. Ina, a 40-year-old teacher from the town of Cadir Lunga, criticized the central government’s ban on Russian symbols before May 9 and said Moldovan media did not accurately reflect Russia’s war in Ukraine. “We have to research our own sources to get fair coverage,” she said.
Many people celebrating the Herdelez festival were reluctant to discuss politics. Georgie, wearing a traditional Gagauz hat, noted that Moldova and Gagauzia were powerless in the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. “Nobody wants war, we don’t want war, but what can we do? he said.
Anna Statova, the owner of a traditional Gagauz restaurant who had just won a prize at the festival, added: “We are only hundreds of meters from Ukraine, so it is difficult not to feel their pain.
This story has been corrected to note that Sergiu Litvinenco is Moldova’s Minister of Justice and has called local authorities’ promise to defy a ban on displaying Soviet symbols illegal.