There are few issues more contentious in Ukraine than the possibility of "federalizing" its rebellious eastern provinces into autonomous republics.
The government in Kiev sees changing the status of Luhansk and Donetsk as a way for rebels to free themselves from greater Ukraine. The rebels view it as a leash preventing them from achieving the full independence and alignment with Russia that they crave.
What often goes unmentioned is the rough example of such a region just next door. Just across Ukraine's southwestern border in Moldova lies Gagauzia, a semi-autonomous, poor, agricultural region whose profile could rise as tensions in the region deepen.
Like Ukraine, Moldova – a former part of the Soviet Union – has uneasy relations with Russia. Many observers are worried that Russia may use Gagauzia to further destabilize Moldova, which is already struggling with economic and political uncertainty. But Gagauzia might also provide a hint of what a federalized, autonomous eastern Ukraine could look like in the future.
Welcome to Comrat
In the Gagauzian capital of Comrat, a statue of Lenin stands in front of the main parliament building, which looks out over Lenin Street, a dusty road that runs through the center of the small city. Nearby, communist-era blocks tower over simple, one-story brick houses. Some of the older buildings still display faded hammer and sickle emblems.
Gagauzia remains one of the poorest regions of Moldova, itself the poorest country in Europe. There is little visible sign of economic growth or opportunity, and villages are often nearly deserted, the residents away working in countries like Russia.
In late March the autonomous region elected its new bashkan, a position akin to governor, bringing in Irina Vlah, a politician who has actively called for the region to have closer ties to Russia. This comes as the rest of the country has taken steps toward the European Union, signing an EU association agreement last June alongside Ukraine.
“Russia is trying to exploit Gagauzia to push the whole of Moldova back toward Russia,” says Dionis Cenusa, a political analyst at Expert-Grup, an independent think tank in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. “Russian influence in Gagauzia is getting stronger.”
Gagauzia, population 160,000, is made up of mostly ethnic Turks who moved to the area centuries ago, adopting the Russian language and Orthodox Christianity. As the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s and Moldova got its independence in 1991, those in Gagauzia feared that they would be forced to adopt Romanian, the country’s official language, and change other aspects of their culture.
In 1994 they were granted semi-autonomy, controlling their own internal policy while sharing Moldova's foreign policy, security, and judiciary. Schools in Gagauzia are still taught in Russian and Russian television channels are the main source of information.
“There should be one Moldova, without any autonomous regions, but because of what happened in the 1990s with them pushing the Romanian language and other things, that’s not the case,” says Nicolai Canni, a pensioner strolling through a central park in central Comrat. “You shouldn’t touch the faith of a person or his nationality.”
A wedge against Moldova?
Today the biggest concern is that the region, which represents 3.5 per cent of Moldova’s population, will try to splinter off, or use the threat of that to divert the country from its path toward EU membership.
Already pro-Russian sentiment in Moldova is growing; during last year’s parliamentary election the Socialist Party, whose leaders campaigned with images of themselves meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, gained more than 20 percent of the vote, winning a quarter of the overall seats in parliament.
And last month, international media reported on Russian military drills in Transnistria, a neighboring part of Moldova that, following a brief civil war in 1992, has remained a breakaway republic and one of Europe’s frozen conflicts, with 1,500 Russian soldiers permanently stationed there. Shortly after the drills occurred Moldova announced it was planning to radically modernize its armed forces, in large part due to the conflict just across the border in Ukraine.
In Gagauzia, local politicians regularly use separatist slogans and pro-Russian statements to elicit local support.
In February 2014, as events in Crimea were unfolding next door, Gagauzia held a referendum of its own – unconstitutional according to politicians in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital – on whether it thought the country should move closer to the EU. The vote was overwhelming; 98.5 percent of voters wanted Moldova instead to strengthen ties with the Russian-backed Customs Union.
“Gagauzia needs to have closer ties to Russia. Russia has shown a lot of times it is stronger and more stable,” says Natalia Chirillova, who voted with the majority in the referendum.
Yet she’s worried about what is happening in Ukraine. “I pray for them, but I also worry it could spread towards Gagauzia.”
Outside Ms. Vlah’s campaign office in central Comrat, three flags flutter in the breeze: those of Moldova, Gagauzia – and Russia.
Over the past few months, several leading politicians from Russia have paid visits to the region to show their support. Gagauzia has also been exempted from the Russian embargo on Moldovan wines. That was put in place after Moldova initialed the EU association agreement, though the ban was ostensibly for health and safety reasons, not political ones.
“By discriminating against other Moldovan producers they are trying to cause dissent in the country,” says Mr. Cenusa of Expert-Grup. “It has been the mutual approach of politicians in Gagauzia and Moscow to put pressure on those in Chisinau, and it has proved fruitful.”
As conflict has flared in Ukraine, many outside Gagauzia believe that Russia is heavily involved in local affairs there, and the most pessimistic fear that Russia will annex the region and nearby Transnistria in the near future.
On April 15, at Vlah’s official swearing-in, the Russian ambassador to Moldova made a speech. “I’m really looking forward to helping you to connect the Russian and Gagauz people together in the future,” he told the crowd. Notably absent at the ceremony were any visible representatives from the West.
On stage, Vlah made a strong show of kissing the Gagauz flag, but made no movement toward the Moldovan one nearby. Days later, she headed to Moscow to discuss improving economic ties.
“We are seeking the renewal of the close collaboration of Gagauzia first of all with Russia,” Dmitry Konstantinov, the chairman of the Gagauz parliament, told The Christian Science Monitor, though he added that he also hoped for closer ties with Chisinau in the future.
“Russia doesn’t have a direct influence in Gagauzia yet, it is mostly indirect,” says Vladimir Socor, a political analyst of East European affairs for the Jamestown Foundation, pointing in particular to the “devastating impact” of Russian television channels that are broadcast into the region and the rest of the country.
“Russia wants the federalization of Moldova just like it is trying to do in Ukraine,” he says. “They are holding the Gagauzia card in reserve.”