Gagauzia, small autonomous territory in southern Moldova, three cities, dozen of villages and no more than two hundred thousand inhabitants. Fields, meadows, garbage and fallow lands. What is interesting about Gagauzia? Can it offer anything for an average tourist? Monuments of nature, centuries-old sights? Not really. The reason for this region’s uniqueness is its geopolitical situation. It is one of the arenas where the powers of East and West collide and recently its the East who is taking the lead.
Way to autonomy
Gagauz are the small, strongly pro-Russian oriendted, nation whose culture and history we wanted to learn about. Their political choices can soon change the balance of power in Europe. But let’s start from the beginning.
Gagauz came to Bessarabia at the end of 18th century from Dobruja, a historic region by the Black Sea. Where did they come from? Historians have different opinions, main hypothesis indicates their Turkish roots but on the other hand they cannot exclude their Slavic origins. One thing is sure – in 14th and 15th centuries on their original lands there was an Oghuz Turks state, which hallmark was a grey wolf, recognized today as one of the symbols of Gagauzia. The country disappeared from world maps conquered by the Ottoman Empire. After arriving to Bessarabia Gagauz, despite many attempts, did not set up their own country. Most important events took place in relation to Russian revolution of 1905 and in 1906 the Republic of Comrat was proclaimed. Although uprising lasted only for 5 days, it is the basic event for Gagauz identity until today.
Further history of Gagauzia was a constant connection with USSR and the next turining point happened in 1988. They established a discussion club “Gagauz People” which later on turned into a political movement. Next it went really quickly and in 1990 they proclaimed the Republic of Gagauzia, still as a part of USSR but an independent of Moldovan SSR. After the Soviet Union collapsed Gagauz stayed within the borders of the Republic of Moldova but already in 1994 they created the Autonomous Territory of Gagauzia. Final shape was given to the region a year later, on the basis of the decision taken in referendum of Comrat being a capital city of this new formation.
Today we can easily reach Gagauzia. Road from Chisinau is full of craters, sometimes asphalt is missing at all, but in general the road is passable. Formal border does not exist and if you miss the sign, you might not even realise that you just entered the territory of Gagauzia.
Finally we reached the capital city – Comrat. Here is located the Parliament of the autonomy and the Governor of Gagauzia has his seat. We have no idea how it happened but instead at the main street of the city we ended up near located aside Comrat State University. Quite sybmolic. The University is the pride of Gagauzia but although it is an important element of their identity, teaching language is Russian. Why not Gagauz? The reason for it is long-term russification during USSR era and the fact that the history of written Gagauz is very short. Until the end of 19th century Gagauz was only a spoken language. It changed in the 50’s of 20th century when Cyryllic was adapted for writing it and it’s teaching at schools started. Very quickly they came back to Russian. In 1993 Moldovan Parliament adopted for Gagauz new orthography based on Latin alphabet and currently Gagauz is obligatory in primary schools. Despite the fact that it is used by such small community, the language has two dialects.
Coming back to university – the building and in particular its campus is very impressive what is due to Turks who financially support its development and operation and send their students to learn in Comrat. Why Turks? Because the are the closest related nation to them. Although the fact that Gagauz are Orthodox Christians and Turks represent the Islam world the dialog between two nations is continued. After the collapse of USSR, when Gagauz were building the fundaments of their statehood, Turkey supported them not only politically but also in the matter of culture. Nevertheless the greatest sympathy of Gagauz is directed towards Russian Federation and Transnistria.
In the center of Comrat
Central point of the city is the building of Parliament which actually did not impress us too much. The only thing that attracted our attention was located right next to it the monument of Vladimir Lenin. After a short stay in Bessarabia we were already aware that there are still many outward signs of this area’s previous belonging to USSR block. The seat of Parliament and Governor of Gagauzia office, are the center of statehood of the nation being in continuous conflict with Chisinau. Key decisions for autonomy were taken here in 2014. In opposition to the central government Gagauzia run the voting in which most of people decided that their land should aim for independence, integration within the Eurasian Union and separation from Moldova if it looses its full independence. Chisinau does not accept neither the fact of referendum nor its reslult. Situation is also strategically used by Russians – after Chisinau signed Associacion Agreement with EU Russia banned import of their fruits and wines excluding the ones from Gagauzia territory. It surely strengthen Gagauz relation with RF and their desire to secede from Moldova.
Our next steeps we turned to St. John’s Church, in fact the only historic sight in Comrat. Yellow structure is well visible in mostly grey colour of the city. It supposedly is richly decorated insight but since it was closed we did not get to see it.
It is worth to see also a nearby Historical – Ethnographic Museum. Because Ola first saw a great playground right next to the church and after intense play and some games with a new Gagauz friend she became hungry we decided to look for some place with regional food. We gave it up quickly as we haven’t fount anything like that in the city center and ended up in one of restaurants in the Central Park of Comrat. It is quite common for developing countries that it is easier to get there some pizza or a hot-dog than something of local food. Our waiter did not have any idea which of their wines were produced in Gagauzia. Finally we reached for some Transnistrian brandy and a fruit coctail. But the most important thing was to feed Ola. It is completely clear that hungry Ola is mad Ola and mad Ola is the worst thing that can happen to us not only in Comrat but in every other place in the world. Thankfully, despite the fact that they had no high chair and nothing in menu suitable for one-year-old baby, Ola left the place with full stomach. Somewhere deep in our bags we always have a baby dinner in the jar that lets us survive any situation. Actually this always is our first choice. Whole park makes a nice impression: unfortunate but at least even Baum type brick, new playgroung for kids, working fountain and few european style restaurants. All that and especially the playground was loved by our daughter.
And the city itself? We had mixed feelings – provincial town, shopping centers contrasting with surrounding poverty. Right next Gagauz flags you can see Russian ones, in their cars people tie black and orange St. George’s bands, here and there posters of Vladimir Putin. Nothing tells that this area still belongs to Moldova. In the restaurant we ate we heard important sentense, probably true one, that even the wine does not unite Comrat and Chisinau any more. The date of one of the major Moldovan holidays, the Wine Festival, was changed in Comrat for the week later than in Chisinau.
Walk through the streets of the city was not easy, beside main arteries sidewalks tend to fall apart. Landscape of the city are shopping centers contrasting disintegrating wooden houses. Streets names and stores signs are in Russian. Except for official signs it’s hard to find Moldovan language. In fact not even Moldovan but Romanian because in 2013 Constitutional Court of Moldova decided that country’s official language will be Romanian and the name “Moldovan language” will be used to describe Romanian language spoken in Moldova. Even Wikipedia closed Moldovan wersion and supports one for both Romania and Moldova. As our Russian-speaking waiter said Gagauz have their own Wikipedia in their national language! We seemed to hear only Russian on the streets of the city but they say that Gagauz is still being used in the country.
We haven’t found too many signs of Gagauzia in Comrat and counting to meet some in always more conservative country we left the city and headed to the country. First thing we noticed leaving Comrat was garbage everywhere. It’s on the fields, along the roads, sometimes when driving down a country we seemed to be going throug garbage dump. The trashes are contrasted by fields beautifully green in the summer. Of course the majority of them are wineries.
Outside the capital you won’t miss the poverty which is not so intense in the city. Farming is not well equipped in machines. They are replaced by great inventiveness of local people – we kept on finding strange tractors and other altered machines. Today it is probably the last place in Europe where we can find horse and donkey carts still in use. The most characteristic for all villages are beautifully decorated wells, roadside chapels and modest but with traditional ornaments houses. What is interesting, many villages are sewered but because of high cost people still use water form the wells. It is difficult to understand that even though each house is equipped in telephone, TV and gas, only half of them use running water.
Life focuses around shops and churches. Temples from the outside do not impress that much but all of them are richly decorated inside. We paid attention to those as Orthodox religion is the thing that unites Gagauz people. Today this religion is very popular in Eastern Europe, in the Ottoman era it was an element of national identity. This tradition was not even destroyed by Soviet Union. Currently the state helps to rebuild Orthodox churches what results in many newly renovated temples.
We went to one of Gagauz villages in the south – Avadarma. Complete silence was interrupted only by the bell. Although the church looked really impressive there were only few prayers inside atending the service. It seems that religion is here more like an element of cultural identity than attachement to religion. It is confirmed by researches – more Gagauz declare themselves as Orthodox than as believers. Right next to the church there is a newly-built Memorial of Nazi occupation victims. There are plenty of memorials in whole Gagauzia, some are dedicated to war heroes, people murdered during war or to the glory of the Red Army. In fact not all of them are from USSR times. Some are from earlier period, for example in Vulcanesti there is a big monument commemorating the victory of Russian Empire over the Turks. Monuments can be easily found almost everywhere and make us realize how important is the memory of ancestors and how strong the tradition of building the monuments is in Gagauzia.
Memorials are well cared for, somebody has just changed the flowers. It’s quite strange that in the country which never had its army there are so many monuments to fallen soldiers. Majority of them died during Second World War and the Afghan War. Situation with the army can change very quickly as recently Gagauz parliament decided to create a National Guard, which might be the beginning of such formation. We might only assume what kind of conseqences that could bring. Similar situation took place in 1991 when Gagauz organized a substitute for armed forces, battalion “Budzak” formed of hundreds of volounteers. Moldova threatened to deal with it by force and in reaction to that threat Cremlin representatives with the offer of military support immediately showed up in Comrat. That situation was solved peacefully but in next power struggle in this area Moscow might not give up the possibility of demonstrating its power.
Quo vadis Gagauzia?
What happens next to Gagauzia? It’s hard to say. Only one day after we left the situation changed dramatically. Few days ago there was a change in the position of Comrat mayor. Unexpectedly the election was won by Serghei Anastasov representing pro-Russiand “Our Party” who defeated long-term mayor Nicolai Dudoglo supported among others by “Our Gagauzia”. It seems that voters set the bill to “Our Gagauzia” for joining pro-European Democratic Party of Moldova.
Nicolai Dudoglo also lost election for the Governor of Gagauzia. The post was taken over by supported by Moscow Irina Vlah who sees the future of the region woth close relation with Russia.
Do those events mean the change of Gagauz attitude towards Chisinau? This is what politicians declare but we have to notice that there are also changes taking place in Chisinau. Bescause of allegations of false education Prime Minister of Moldova Chiril Gaburici resigned. Forming the new government by pro-European parties might be difficult and new elections might bring different results. “Our Party” mentioned before, was not allowed to take part in last parliamentary election due to allegations of funding from Moscow but it gets high results in the polls and has just won the mayor’s officein Bielice and Comrat. In relation to recent goverment crisis and banking scandal support for pro-European parties is dropping.
New elections may bring different results, pro-Russian parties success can make Comrat and Chisinau closer but opposite outcome will probably make Gagauz pursue to their independence. So it is definitely worth to visit Moldova soon and remember about Gagauzia because you might hit that moment when the history will change right before your eyes.