Updated: Sep 11, 2019
By: Sara Zeineddine
“The Ryazan mushrooms have eyes. They look at you while you are eating them” - Gagauz Proverb.
It describes very well how the nation of the Gagauz people are. They have a lot of hospitality, respect and they never put themselves above any other nation. They are all about sharing their culture and traditions and respecting others.
The Gagauz people live in Moldova, but more precisely in the region of Gagauzia, also called the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. The autonomous region has been ruled by different empires throughout the centuries.
Where is Gagauzia?
Gagauzia (Ga-Ga-Uzia) is an autonomous region within Moldova. Within Moldova, it is located in the south east of the country, next to the Ukrainian border. The region embodies the right of the Gagauz people to self-determination” (CATUS, 2014).
Gagauzia is a very small region and is only home to three cities and a few districts.
The Gagauz People
The Gagauz people have been around for a very long time. Different studies say that they come from two different places: the first one claims them as Christian Orthodox Slavs who borrowed the Turkic language and traditions.
According to the second one, they are Turkic-speaking Cumans and Oghuzes, who came to the land between the rivers Prut and Dnister from the Balkans (OSTROVERKHA & LOGVYNENKO, 2019).
Therefore, according to these two theories, the Gagauz people are a “blend of ethnic Turkic and Christian Orthodox” (GENOVA, 2017) and also come from the Balkan population.
Today, most of the Gagauz people live in Moldova, Ukraine and Turkey. According to some legends “when the Gagauz and Bulgarians came to this land, they first let their lambs out to graze” (OSTROVERKHA & LOGVYNENKO, 2019).
This means that as long as they found a place where they can find food to survive, they decide to stay and live. They speak a dialect mixed with different languages such as Turkish, Slavic, Bulgarian and Russian. Today, they use two languages: their native Gagauz language and Russian. Moldovan is also a common language amongst the Gagauz people.
During the reign of the Russian Empire, the Gagauz people were mostly in Bessarabia. Before the beginning of the Soviet Union, they declared their independence in 1906 and became the Autonomous Republic of Komrat.
Nevertheless, it only lasted for five days and was not able to establish itself. Gagauzia was dominated and ruled not only by the Soviet Union, but also by Romania and Moldova during the 20th century.
In a 2014 census, there were 147,500 Gagauz people in total. Most of them live in Gagauzia, while others live in other countries such as Ukraine and Turkey.
After the annexation of Bessarabia in 1940 by the Soviets, many Gagauz people left and went separate ways, to what is today Moldova and Ukraine.
As a result of its annexation into the Soviet Union, “some 75 percent of Gagauz people consider Russian to be their second language” (MINORITY RIGHTS GROUP INTERNATIONAL).
In the late 1980s, with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, Gagauz nationalism became more prominent. The Moldovan government wanted to make the Moldovan language the first and official language of the region. This fear of losing the Gagauz identity triggered this nationalism.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Komrat, the capital of Gagauzia, wanted to create the Gagauz Republic and declared independence from Moldova. Moldova considered this declaration of independence illegal and unconstitutional. It was a short-lived unrecognized country that was re-integrated into the Republic of Moldova.
With this declaration, war broke out in 1992. This conflict led to the guarantee of autonomy for the Gagauz people in the Moldovan Constitution.
In December 1994, the "law on the special legal status of Gagauzia Yeri/ Gagauzia" (MINORITY RIGHTS GROUP INTERNATIONAL) considered the Gagauz as a 'people' and not an ethnic group. This is important to them since they want and need a territory.
If they are only considered as an ethnic group under Moldovan law, their ability to claim territory is not considered as legitimate. In addition to this, this law recognized the self-determination of Gagauzia within Moldova.
The law allowed Gagauzia to have many state-like characteristics such as; their own legislature and their own police.
Moreover, this recognition gave the Gagauz people the possibility to create an autonomous region within Moldova and the ability to have their own capital, which today is Komrat.
In 2014, a referendum in Gagauzia took place and two questions were asked. The first question was about joining the Eurasian Union supported and promoted by Russia.
The second question was about joining the European Union. There is no doubt that the Gagauz people wanted to join the Eurasian Union, about “98.4% of voters chose closer ties with the Eurasian Customs Union and Russia” (FILATOV, 2016). In addition, “ 97.2% were against closer integration with the European Union” (FILATOV, 2016).
The real question here is why the Gagauz people wanted to keep things this way. It is said that “today, when the Gagauz people are being recruited and persistently invited to Europe (“Come to us!”), the population has decided to stick to those traditions in which it has lived for many hundreds of years” (FILATOV, 2016) .
“Gagauzia is where Europe could have happened, but didn’t, it is a relic of the Soviet past, a past well-forgotten but not extinct” (VINCENZI, 2017).
Food in Gagauzia
Gagauz cuisine is heavily influenced by its Turkish roots. They have a “special way of processing milk and the preservation of meat, curds and sheep milk cheese in a skin” (ENCYCLOPEADIA).
They take pride in their dishes especially during holidays. A very well-known holiday called Hederlez or Saint-George is “the holiday of the world revival” (OSTROVERKHA & LOGVYNENKO, 2019).
They cook traditional food such as Kurban or Sarma. The traditional dish called ‘kurban’ is made from wheat porridge and meat and means sacrifice.
The second traditional dish called Sarma: “minced meat and spices are added to boiled rice, and then fried on an open fire together with onions and carrots. Then wrapped in cabbage or grape leaves, put in broth and kept on a small fire for around an hour” (OSTROVERKHA & LOGVYNENKO, 2019).
During this same holiday, they give away a lamb carcass to the local church, because according to Gagauz tradition, it will bring “welfare, peace and health to families in the next year” (OSTROVERKHA & LOGVYNENKO, 2019). These are also common dishes during other holidays such as Christmas or Easter.
The Gagauz people have a really modest lifestyle, they use what they can find especially in the farm. Baking pies is also one of their specialties, they make it on every holiday.
The Gagauz people also have a long history of winemaking and many wine festivals take place in the region.
Religion in Gagauzia
Religion is an important pillar for the people of Gagauzia, with the majority of its inhabitants being of the Christian Orthodox faith. Religion is taught at school, therefore “the basics of the Orthodox faith are taught at many public schools by priests or teachers prepared by them.” (FILATOV, 2016).
There are two types of flags in Gagauzia, the civil one and the ethnic one. The first one is used to identify the autonomous region of Gagauzia within Moldova. It has the colour blue, white and red on it, plus three yellow stars on the left.
The ethnic flag of the Gagauz people is quite different. It is all blue with a form of a wolf’s face in the middle. The significance of the wolf dates way back and takes its roots from a Gagauz folkloric legend.
CATUS Kamil, (March 10 2014), Gagauzia: growing separatism in Moldova ? .Retrieved from https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2014-03-10/gagauzia-growing-separatism-moldova
ENCYCLOPEADIA,(2016),Gagauz.Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/modern-europe/russian-soviet-and-cis-history/gagauz
FILATOV Nikita, GAGAUZIA: THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN TURKISH NATION : a talk with Archpriest Dimitry Kioroglo. Retrieved from http://orthochristian.com/91547.html
GENOVA Alexandra, (September 21 2017), A struggle for identity in a forgotten corner in Europe. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/09/gagauzia-moldova-identity-culture-tradition-soviet-union/
OSTROVERKHA Anna & LOGVYNENKO Bogdan (JULY 25, 2019), The Gagauzes of Ukraine: who are they ?. Retrieved from https://ukrainer.net/gagauzes/
RIGHTS GROUP INTERNATIONAL, (2019), Gagauz. Retrieved from https://jam-news.net/gagauzia-moldovas-pro-russian-autonomous-region/
VINCENZI Alessandro (2017), The turkic wolf. Retrieved from https://phmuseum.com/alessandro/story/the-turkic-wolf-8d49547f0d