Gagauzia: A Traveller's Perspective
By: Heidi Koelle
Gagauzia is a small autonomous region in southern Moldova. It was established in 1995 and officially known as the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (Huseynov 2019).
Out of the population of 155,600 (which makes up 4.6 per cent of Moldova’s population), the Gagauz people represent the majority of the region’s inhabitants (82.1 per cent), followed by Bulgarians (5.1 per cent), Moldovans (4.8 per cent), Russians (3.8 per cent) and Ukrainians (3.2 per cent) (IBID).
The Gagauz are ethnically close to Turks, however predominantly subscribe to Orthodox Christianity, rather than Islam. They are also Moldova’s second-largest ethnic minority, after Ukrainians. There are several theories about how this group came about.
Some scholars say they are either of Bulgarian or Turkish origin and fled to present-day southern Moldova when the region formed part of the medieval Bulgarian empire. The conversion to Orthodox Christianity speculates that they were in this before the Ottoman conquest in the 14th century (Benazzo 2018).
Gagauzia, like Transnistria, declared its independence from Moldova after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Rather than becoming an unrecognized country, Gagauzia only had this status for a short period of time and was reintegrated into Moldova through a special autonomous status.
Gagauzia plays a crucial role in the geopolitical tug of war that Moldova finds itself in. While Gagauzia, unlike Transnistria, has accepted being an autonomous area and is not as outspoken about wanting to be independent or subsequently annexed by the Russian Federation.
The Gagauz people harbor a fair amount of resentment towards Romania. The region is one of Moldova’s least supportive parts into integrating into Western institutions such as the EU and NATO. As such, Gagauzia remains to be one of the most 'pro-Russian' areas of Moldova.
Since Moldovan and Romanian are essentially the same languages, unlike the rest of Moldova, the least amount of Romanian is spoken in the region of Gagauzia. They remain nostalgic for the Soviet Union and have opted to use Russian as a second language.
Since the region is poor, many have family working in Russia and Turkey (Necsutu 2018). Although it is critical of the West, it receives a fair amount of outside support from the European Union.
The situation for Gagauzia would change if Moldova and Romania were to unite. In a non-binding referendum held in 2014, 99% of Gagauz voted that they would support independence with Moldova in the event Moldova was to reunite with Romania (Nationalia 2014).
However, the chance of this remains to be very slim. Moldova already deals with political gridlock in the rest of itself and Romania issues passports quite liberally to Moldovans who can prove some type of connection to Romania (Bidder 2010).
Travelling to Gagauzia
The best way of getting into Gagauzia is by starting in Chisinau, Moldova, and making your way to Comrat, the capital of Gagauzia. Regular minibuses (marshrutkas) go to Comrat from the Gare de Sud in Chisinau almost every hour until around 18:00.
The journey takes about 2-3 hours and costs a little more than 2 euros. There are also quite a few marshrutkas going a day to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. After 18:00, it is tough to make your way to the autonomous region.
Unlike Transnistria, there is no registration or border check since Gagauzia is only an autonomous region and not a de facto state.
What to See in Gagauzia
Gagauzia's capital city is Comrat (Komrat) and is home to most of the sights in the autonomous region. There is a giant Lenin statue in front of the Gagauz parliament which is a reminder of its Soviet past.
One can also see the cathedral of St John as well. Gagauzia is one of the most impoverished areas of Moldova, but it still has does not mean the cathedral goes without a golden roof.
There is also the Museum of Gagauaz culture In Belsama (which is on the way to Komrat) which is exciting and worth dropping in for a look, although it only has information in Gaguaz and Russia. One can also go to Ceder Lunga to see the famous golden statue of Vladimir Lenin.
If you decide to take a tour to either Moldova or Transnistria, Gagauzia is definitely worth the visit as it offers a different perspective of the region and its history, in only a short drive. It is a good example of how separatism can lead to reintegration and is generally seen by the west as an example for the future status of Transnistria - albeit very unlikely.
Necsutu, M. (2019, January 15). Romanian Language Takes Root in Moldova's Gagauzia. Retrieved from https://balkaninsight.com/2018/12/14/signs-romanian-language-taking-root-in-moldova-s-gagauzia-12-10-2018/
99% of Gagauz voters support declaring independence if Moldova joins Romania. Retrieved from https://www.nationalia.info/new/10151/99-of-gagauz-voters-support-declaring-independence-if-moldova-joins-romania
Benazzo, S., Napolitano, M., & Carlono, M. (2018, May 18). Gagauz Resist Moldova's Embrace of West. Retrieved from https://balkaninsight.com/2018/01/03/gagauz-resist-moldova-s-embrace-of-west-01-01-2018-1/
Bidder, B. (2010, July 13). Romanian Passports For Moldovans: Entering the EU Through the Back Door - SPIEGEL ONLINE - International. Retrieved from https://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/romanian-passports-for-moldovans-entering-the-eu-through-the-back-door-a-706338.html
Huseynova, R. (2019, May 2). Gagauzia: Geopolitics and identity. Retrieved from http://neweasterneurope.eu/2019/05/02/gagauzia-geopolitics-and-identity/