A Thorn in the Side: Moldovan Separatism By Raphael Conte
A diplomatic analysis of Gagauzia and Transnistria
On 24th December 2020, Maia Sandu of the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), was inaugurated as President of Moldova, a former Soviet republic and the poorest country in Europe. In her speech, Sandu spoke Bulgarian, Gagauz, Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian, epitomising the complex composition and geopolitical position of Moldova. Although the Moldovan Presidency involves few important powers, Sandu pledged a new direction for Moldovan foreign policy:
‘I will be the president of the country’s European integration, which will take the country out of international isolation and turn it back to external partners…I will promote a foreign policy that will help domestic policy, to build bridges, not walls…’
In the past year, this pledge has been translated into a Moldovan foreign policy based on four Ds: De-isolation, European Development, Dialogue, and Diaspora. Progress has indeed been made in various spheres, through agreements with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) as well as by increased interaction with the Council of Europe, NATO and the UN. As a keen advocate for European integration, Sandu signed the Council of Europe Action Plan for the Republic of Moldova in April 2021 in Strasbourg, directed towards implementing democratic reforms in the country. However, to differing extents, Gagauzia and Transnistria pose challenges to the Moldovan government, and are intertwined with the broader strategies of Russia and Turkey, turning them into potential flashpoints.
Gagauzia, officially named the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (ATUG) is situated in the south of Moldova, predominantly populated by the Gagauz people, an orthodox Christian Turkic group. In March 1991, Gagauzia voted strongly in favour of remaining part of the USSR and declared independence later that year, partly out of fears that Moldova would merge with Romania, a concern for Gagauzians to this day. Following a further referendum in March 1995, Gagauzia was granted autonomy. Alongside its special status, Gaugazia reinforced its pro-Russian separatist tendencies in 2014 through a referendum, with 98.4% of voters seeking stronger links to the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union, while 97.2% were against further EU integration. With a pro-Russian governor, Irina Vlah, Gagauzia has maintained close ties with Russia and – unlike the rest of Moldova with the exception of Transnistria – has remained free from Russian economic sanctions. Overall, Gagauzia remains a useful tool for Russia to limit Moldovan rapprochement with the West.
However, Gagauzia has also become a minor point of contention between Russia and Turkey in their broader geo-political rivalry and Turkey’s broadening pan-Turkism. Although Turkish action has been only ‘soft’, i.e. limited to the cultural and economic spheres, interest has spiked in recent years. For example, Turkey has established a consulate in the capital, Comrat, and has financed various initiatives, from a Turkish cultural centre and library, to leisure facilities and nursing homes. Additionally, since 2016, the region has benefitted from a free trade agreement between Moldova and Turkey, boosting Gagauzian exports by two-thirds. Turkey’s interest in the region has also been displayed by visits from President Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu in 2018 and 2020 respectively, reciprocated by a visit by Vlah to Ankara in February 2021. Although there are no immediate possibilities of conflict in the region, it is certainly an area of interest for the future, perhaps even the near future due to its position on the Ukrainian border, complementing Russia’s control of Transnistria in this respect.
Transnistria represents a greater obstacle for Moldovan integration with Europe and is one the various ‘frozen conflicts’ in eastern Europe. A much larger area, with a land mass of 4,163 square kilometres, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, home to Russian and Ukrainian ethnic groups, is a de-facto breakaway republic that remains part of Moldova. The region parted from Moldova in September 1990 for similar reasons as Gagauzia, leading to a conflict and resulting ceasefire in July 1992. However, this agreement permitted a Russian peace-keeping force. This force, named the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Trans-Dniester (OGRF) and numbering 1,500 troops, remains stationed in Transnistria to this day, posing an obvious problem for Moldova’s relationship with the West, especially in terms of closer integration through membership of NATO and the EU. Already as president-elect, Maia Sandu demanded the removal of Russian forces, although no real progress has been made. Russian military presence in the region has become all the more important in the context of escalating Russia-Ukraine tensions, as Transnistria shares a 250-mile border with Ukraine. Overall, therefore, it is clear that Transnistria is of greater geo-strategic and political importance for Moldova and Russia than Gagauzia.
To summarise, these two Moldovan case studies somewhat epitomise Vladimir Putin’s claim that ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the [20th] century’. While Russia has arguably sought to exploit these ethnic conflicts, Moldova has been caught in the crossfire, with these regions severely limiting the country’s European integration.