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Pro-Russia Populists Attempt to Capture Gagauzia

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Chisinau, Moldova - February 19, 2023: Protest rally in the center of Chisinau, pro-Russian party "Shor".

On April 30, residents of Gagauzia, a pro-Russia autonomous region in southern Moldova, will elect a new governor. Currently eight candidates are in the race. An important component of almost every candidate’s election campaign is relations with Russia. 

Since the invasion of Ukraine, relations between Moldova and Russia have deteriorated rapidly. Moldova’s pro-European government has firmly aligned itself with the West, condemning Russia’s actions and maintaining unequivocal support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. 

Infuriated by this, the Kremlin has attempted to destabilize Moldova by hiking gas prices, banning agricultural imports, sponsoring protests, and even allegedly plotting a coup. In response, the Moldovan government has taken measures to limit Russian influence by moving closer to the European Union and by banning certain Russian television stations and symbols associated with the war.

The recent, and rapid, deterioration of relations with Russia has not sat well with the Gagauz, a Turkic but heavily russified minority that reside in primarily in southern Moldova. Since the late 1980s, the Gagauz have regularly found themselves at odds with Chișinău. In the hopes of remaining under the control of Moscow, a Gagauz separatist movement emerged in the early 1990s when it became clear Moldova would secede from the Soviet Union.

Gagauzia was granted wide-reaching autonomy and peacefully reintegrated into Moldova in 1994. Nevertheless, disputes persisted. The Gagauz responded to Moldova signing an Association Agreement with the EU in 2014 by organizing an illegal referendum which saw the majority of participants reject closer ties with the EU in favor of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

It should come as no surprise, then, that relations between the regional authorities in Gagauzia and the central authorities in Chișinău have become increasingly strained since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The government’s pro-Western position has infuriated some members of the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia, the region’s legislature, who have accused the government of Moldova of “ignoring” the plight of the residents of the Donbas and attempting to drag Moldova into the war. Residents of Gagauzia have also continued to display banned symbols associated with the war effort, and outlawed Russian television stations are still broadcasting throughout theregion. 

The consequences of Russia’s attempts to destabilize Moldova are also acutely felt in Gagauzia. Rising inflation and gas prices have made life increasingly difficult in this already impoverished region. A drought in the summer of 2022, which devastated much of the region’s crops, and Russia’s temporary ban on importing Moldovan agricultural produce further exacerbated the situation. Unsurprisingly, then, several of the candidates running in the election have placed improving relations with Russia at the center of their election promises. Examples of these pro-Russia candidates include Sergei Chimpoesh, Grigory Uzun, Viktor Petrov, and Yevgenia Gutsul.

Competing for Russia’s Backing
Sergei Chimpoesh is an independent candidate who has regularly condemned the Moldovan authorities’ “unfriendly actions” toward Russia. Throughout his campaign, Chimpoesh has consistently maintained that once elected, he will secure Russia’s assistance in helping the region with its “political and economic challenges.” 

While also nominally independent, Grigory Uzun has managed to secure the support of the pro-Russia Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), Moldova’s largest pro-Russia party. Uzun’s campaign launch was attended by controversial former president Igor Dodon, who was recently released from house arrest after being accused of corruption and treason. Dodon endorsed Uzun by assuring voters that if elected, Uzun would resist European integration, prevent the country from being sold to Soros, and build closer ties with Russia.

Vitkor Petrov is a shrewd politician who has been attempting to increase his power in Gagauzia for the last number of years. He is currently serving as a member of the People’s Assembly and made a failed bid to become its speaker last year. Petrov is also chairman of the People’s Union of Gagauzia, a controversial pro-Russia populist group founded in June 2022. 

The group regularly organizes rallies, where speakers blame all of the region’s problems on the current government’s pro-Western policies and call for the restoration of relations with Moldova’s “historic friends” (i.e., Russia). The People’s Union also issued a statement condemning the Ukrainian armed forces after Russia alleged Ukraine was going to attack Transnistria, Moldova’s Russia-backed breakaway republic. Additionally, in an interview posted on his Telegram channel, Petrov went so far as to question whether Russia was really behind the Bucha massacre and criticized Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, for blaming Moscow before “all the facts were known.”

Petrov failed in his bid to attract the support of the PSRM, which opted to support Uzun. The Kremlin has not offered any support to Petrov either. 

One candidate who has had considerable success in attracting Russian support is Yevgenia Gutsul. Gutsul is a member of the controversial Shor Party. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the PRSM was Moscow’s preferred party in Moldova. However, since the invasion, the Shor Party has played an increasingly important role in Russia’s efforts to destabilize the country. The Shor Party has organized massive antigovernment protests in Chișinău and has allegedly received considerable financial assistance from the Kremlin. 

Gagauzia’s Balancing Act
These elections may upset the delicate balance of power that currently exists in Gagauzia. Since the war began, pro-Russia forces in Gagauzia have consistently clashed with more moderate ones. Roughly half the members of the People’s Assembly are unapologetically pro-Russia and have vocally condemned the current Moldovan government for its pro-European position. These deputies have been restrained by their more moderate colleagues and by Gagauzia’s outgoing governor, Irina Vlah. However, the election of one of the aforementioned pro-Russia candidates would tip the balance of power in Gagauzia in favor of the pro-Russia forces.

The authorities in Chișinău are aware of the stakes. President Sandu stated that she hopes the next governor will not work in the interests of Russia. Nicu Popescu, Moldova’s minister of foreign affairs, recently commented that Gagauzia was an important component of Moscow’s strategy to reestablish itself as a regional hegemon, and that the Gagauz are particularly susceptible to Russian propaganda. The Moldovan government also denied accreditation to Russian observers ahead of the election.

Not every candidate running in the race is in favor of increasing ties with Russia. The most moderate and experienced candidate running for election is Dmitrii Croitor. Croitor served as governor of Gagauzia from 1999 to 2002 and is currently Moldova’s ambassador to Turkey. This latter point is particularly important as the Gagauz are a Turkic ethnic group, and Istanbul has invested a considerable amount in infrastructure projects in the region. 

Croitor has attempted to address Gagauzia’s most pressing issues, including the mass exodus of young people, unemployment, and the increased cost of living, without referring to Russia. For example, when addressing rising energy prices, Croitor has promised to increase subsidies and invest in solar energy, rather than calling for closer relations with Russia.

Croitor has a considerable amount of support in Gagauzia, and the region has a history of electing a more moderate governor. However, relations between Chișinău and Gagauzia have reached an all-time low over the past year. Life in Gagauzia has become increasingly unbearable. Rising energy bills and inflation, coupled with a drought, has brought great hardship to this already impoverished region. Moreover, the people are unhappy with the government’s pro-European position and believe that Moscow, not Chișinău, is best positioned to get them out of their current situation. With this in mind, the allure of improving relations with Moscow may be enough to ensure a candidate such as Petrov or Gutsul selected.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

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Keith Harrington

 Lecturer, School of History and Geography, Dublin City University
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more