Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia was established on December 23, 1994 when the Law on its special status was passed by the Moldovan Parliament in line with the newly adopted Constitution, approved in July the same year. This ended a stalemate between Chisinau and Comrat that threatened Moldova’s territorial integrity, or so everyone thought. Twenty years later, Gagauz people have come as close as it gets in defying the central government in Chisinau, stopping short of declaring a full blown independence last February.
Gagauz leaders organized a referendum on February 2, 2014 in which autonomy’s residents overwhelmingly supported closer ties with Russia at the expense of EU. With turnout over 70%, voters almost unanimously (98.4 %) supported closer integration with the Russia-led Customs Union, while 97.2 % firmly stood against closer ties with the EU. It is really difficult to love something you know next to nothing about. In addition, when asked about Gagauzia’s future should Moldova lose its sovereignty, 98.9% agreed that Gagauzia should have the right to independence. This is the where the shoe pinches, as it remains unclear whether the third question implied potential unification with Romania or also covered Moldova’s accession to NATO and especially the EU. Regardless, neither makes the referendum legal. According to the law, only matters of local relevance can be subject to local referenda, whereas foreign policy is a matter of national importance, therefore to be decided exclusively by the central government or national referenda.
However, legal considerations played second fiddle to local political expediency and regional geopolitical competition. This referendum was perceived by many in Chisinau as an attempt by Moscow to derail Moldova’s European integration, by precluding Chisinau from signing the Association Agreement with the EU. Lacking any better options, leaders in Chisinau chose to ignore developments in Comrat and let the local Gagauz elites have their way, much like Transnistrian leaders had organized equally illegal referenda before. In retrospect, Chisinau’s feeble response to a de facto regional insurgency might have given Moscow just enough confidence to take the referendum on tour, first stop – Crimea. It is futile to ask what could have happened, had Moldova given a steadfast pushback in Comrat, because what followed one month later in Crimea is already contemporary history.
Gagauzia and the rest of Moldova have been at logger heads for most of the last 20 years. It is only during those brief moments when Chisinau had control over Comrat politicians that things went more or less smoothly. That rarely happened because, unlike Chisinau politicians, Gagauz lawmakers are elected in single member districts, and the head of the executive (president and prime minister in one person) is also elected directly. With no regional parties allowed and chronic distrust towards national parties, Gagauz often elected strong minded populist independents who made it their sole purpose to make life difficult for Chisinau. Yet, to be fair local elites have had their hands tied by Chisinau’s power of the purse. Chisinau’s drive for centralization and malign disregard of Comrat’s autonomy allowed incremental watering down of autonomy’s prerogatives. Mainly, subsequent amendments to national legislation automatically chipped away power from Comrat, be it in appointing local heads of law enforcement, judges, yet more importantly in dealing with taxes and customs duties.
Chisinau often chose to ignore Gagauzia mainly because of electoral considerations. Gagauz people were either repeatedly punished for “voting the wrong way” or they simply did not matter enough in national political calculations as they only represent less than 5% of the electorate. Furthermore, Chisinau habitually accused Comrat of lacking a desire to integrate in national processes, while Comrat responded with accusations of deliberate isolation. Ethnic and linguistic differences only exacerbated the divide, derailing too many policy discussions.
Not very numerous, but extremely proud people, it is no wonder that the Gagauz are frustrated with how things turned out. Despite the cliché ridden comparison between Gagauzia and Transnistria and attempts to present the former as a blueprint for diffusing the standoff with the latter, Chisinau has been largely consumed by mitigating daily governance fiascos, becoming chronically short-sighted. Failing to articulate an inclusive democratic vision for the entire country, instead succumbing to widespread prejudices, Chisinau politicians do not live up to the expectations of the Gagauz or the Moldovans for that matter. Hopefully the next 20 years will make a difference.