The Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia was established on December 23, 1994 when the Law conferring it 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 which threatened Moldova’s territorial integrity, or so everyone thought. Twenty years later, Gagauz people have come as close as it gets to defying central government and stopped short of declaring full blown independence last February.
Gagauz leaders organized a referendum on February 2, 2014 in which the region’s residents overwhelmingly supported closer ties with Russia at the expense of the EU. With a turnout surpassing 70%, voters nearly unanimously (98.4 %) supported closer integration with the Russian-led Customs Union, while 97.2 %firmly stood against closer ties with the EU. In addition, when asked about Gagauzia’s future, in the event that Moldova should lose its sovereignty, 98.9% agreed that Gagauzia has a right to independence. This is the where the shoe pinches, as it remains unclear whether the third question implies potential unification with Romania or also covers Moldova’s accession to NATO and especially to the EU. Regardless, neither deems this referendum legal. In terms of law, only matters of local relevance can be subject to local referenda, whereas foreign policy is a matter of national importance and is therefore te to be decided exclusively by central government or by 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 Moscow-initiated attempt to derail Moldova’s European integration, by precluding Chisinau from signing the Association Agreement with the EU. Due to lack of alternatives, leaders in Chisinau chose to ignore the developments in Comrat and let local Gagauz elites have their way, much in the same way as the Transnistrian leaders, who had organized illegal referenda before. In retrospect, Chisinau’s feeble response to a de facto regional insurgency might have given Moscow enough confidence to take the referendum on tour, its first stop being Crimea. It is futile to ask what might have happened, had Moldova given a steadfast pushback in Comrat; what followed one month later in Crimea is already contemporary history.
Gagauzia and the rest of Moldova have been at logger heads for the most part 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.