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Dispatch from Gagauzia Moldova’s autonomous region where Soviet-era Russification and Moscow’s political influence remain strong

Source: Meduza

Dispatch from Gagauzia Moldova’s autonomous region where Soviet-era Russification and Moscow’s political influence remain strong

Source: Meduza
Sergei Grits / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Story by Paula Erizanu. Edited by Eilish Hart.

The autonomous region of Gagauzia in southern Moldova is home to roughly 160,000 people. Also known as Gagauz Yeri, the region is mainly populated by Gagauz: a Turkic minority that is predominantly Orthodox Christian and, as a lasting consequence of Soviet hegemony, Russian speaking. Like the more famous breakaway region of Transnistria, Gagauzia declared itself independent in 1990 amid the USSR’s slow-motion collapse. And although it reintegrated with Moldova just four years later, Gagauzia’s relationship with the central government in Chișinău remains tense. In a dispatch for The Beet, Moldovan journalist Paula Erizanu reports on how this autonomous region, which was established to safeguard the Gagauz language and culture, has retained its Soviet-era Russification and Moscow’s political influence. 

This article first appeared in The Beet, a new email dispatch from Meduza featuring original reporting on Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get our next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

As I arrive in Comrat, the capital of the autonomous Gagauz Yeri region in southern Moldova, I see a boutique near the bus station advertising consultancy services for getting Romanian citizenship — in Russian, the lingua franca of the region. Most of the ads posted on pillars around town offer job opportunities in the European Union. 

Like all state institutions here, the town hall has three inscriptions, written in Gagauz, Romanian, and Russian (the region’s official languages). A granite monument out front informs passersby about a 250,000-euro ($245,000) EU project that created a tourist information office inside the multipurpose building. (The office is empty, as the person who runs it is on holiday, according to the person in charge of the legal consultancy office next door).

A 77-year-old woman is resting in the hallway. “How am I supposed to live on a 2,300-lei [$118 monthly] pension while prices are skyrocketing?” Vasilisa asks with tears in her eyes. The ongoing energy crisis and Russia’s war in Ukraine has led to an astonishing 34 percent inflation in Moldova. 

Lidia Ostaș, an energetic, 34-year-old woman working for Gagauzia’s education department and as a Romanian language teacher, arrives at the town hall to take me to a couple of trilingual kindergartens to observe the learning process there. I assist in two classes with children aged five to six, learning the days of the week in Romanian and Gagauz, respectively. The 20-minute lessons involve games, singing, and dancing to keep the children engaged, entertained, and learning. The kindergarten is mainly run in Russian, but children alternate Romanian and Gagauz language activities every day. 

In theory, the trilingual kindergarten program has existed since 1994, when Moldova adopted a law granting Gagauzia autonomy. “But we had no materials to work with, and no method to guide us,” Lidia recalls. Since 2021, after a four-year pilot program, all 57 state kindergartens in Gagauzia now share the same curriculum and books based on modern teaching methods. The teachers I meet are passionate about their jobs and go beyond their textbooks: they look for nursery rhymes and games online, or even translate or write new ones themselves. “While this is much better than what we had before, we can only do so much if there's no linguistic environment for them to practice their skills,” Lidia explains. 

Indeed, most people in Comrat speak to me in Russian and admit to knowing only a bit of Gagauz and even less Romanian, Moldova's official language. At her office in Gagauzia’s education department, even Lidia’s colleagues come to her for help with Romanian language documents destined for the capital, Chișinău. “There have been free programs to learn Romanian before, but they have to be complemented by career-progression incentives,” she says. “For instance, if you can't speak Romanian, maybe you shouldn't be allowed to become the head of a [public] institution.” 

‘The kids speak Russian with their families’

Despite the region’s autonomous status, the Gagauz language seems to have been dying rather than flourishing since 1994. Lidia’s mother is also a kindergarten teacher in Congazcicul de Sus, a village near Comrat. “When she first started working during the Soviet era, all the kids spoke Gagauz at home and she had to teach them Russian from scratch — ‘this is how you say hand, eye,’” Lidia tells me. “Now, the kids speak Russian with their families and she has to teach them how to say ‘hand’ and ‘eye’ in Gagauz.”

In response to the deliberate Soviet policy of Russification, the Gagauz language underwent a revival during the Glasnost era. In the late 1980s, as Romanian speakers across Moldova reclaimed their language and culture, the Gagauz also advocated for a return to their own heritage. The Ion Creangă State Pedagogical University in Chișinău launched a popular Gagauz language degree program. But in 2005, after Comrat State University successfully fought for a monopoly over the study of Gagauz, the department was closed down. Today, Gagauz is only taught there as a Master’s degree for teachers of the language. 

The Russian language’s dominance comes with political implications: it means Gagauz people consume more Russian than Moldovan media and tend to have pro-Kremlin political allegiances, despite the fact that most investment in local infrastructure comes from Chișinău, Turkey, and the European Union. “Our princess,” says one corner shop vendor, referring to Moldovan President Maia Sandu, “has gone to New York to ask for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria.” The breakaway region in Moldova’s east has had some 20,000 tons of Soviet ammunition and 1,500 Russian soldiers stationed there as “peacekeeping troops” since the Transnistria War in 1992. “But they have been there for 30 years, since we were one country, [the USSR],” the vendor adds.

Like Transnistria, but unlike the rest of Moldova, Gagauzia has preserved its Lenin statue in the center of Comrat, as well as its Soviet-era street names. Three years after Moldova gained independence from Moscow in 1991, the southern region was given autonomy following tensions and clashes between Chișinău and Comrat, which the Kremlin had fueled since the Soviet Union’s final years. (According to former MPs Ion Hadârcă and Alexandru Arseni, the last head of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet Anatoly Lukyanov threatened Moldova's officials with “two autonomies” if they didn't participate in the 1991 referendum, which would have legalized the 1940 Soviet annexation of present-day Moldova.) 

The Vladimir Lenin statue in Comrat. May 2022.
Andrei Pungovschi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Speaking at Comrat State University in September, President Sandu announced a 2023 Romanian language program for adults in Gagauzia. Later that same day, during a meeting at Gagauzia’s legislature, the representatives of the People’s Assembly asked her why she calls her native tongue Romanian rather than “Moldovan” (as the Soviets called it, to promote a new national identity, separate from Romania). They also asked why she wasn’t going to Moscow to negotiate cheaper gas prices — a question popularized by pro-Kremlin political parties in Moldova, in an attempt to blame Sandu’s administration for rising energy prices and the ensuing inflation. Gagauz and Moldovan media affiliated with pro-Russian parties presented the visit as a defeat for Sandu.

A couple of weeks later, the Turkish Parliamentary Speaker Mustafa Şentop came to Comrat. He encouraged Gagauz people to learn Romanian and condemned Russia's aggression towards Ukraine. The Gagauz government-affiliated press did not report on these statements. 

‘I don’t want to lose my culture’

“In Gagauzia, all politicians are pro-Russian because Russia is financing these political projects. There is no pro-European political offer,” says journalist Mihail Sirkeli, from the independent regional media portal (In Comrat, I counted at least four billboards advertising his Russian-language political show, The Cost of Freedom.) 

Having Gagauz as a native tongue and speaking both Russian and Romanian fluently, Mihail argues that the solution is for political parties entering Gagauzia’s People’s Assembly to be subsidized by the state budget, just like the parties that make it into the national parliament in Chișinău. “We need autonomy for Gagauzia to represent Gagauz interests and help with regional socio-economic and cultural development, not in order to promote Kremlin interests and Soviet nostalgia,” he underscores. “But Gagauz people are currently not demanding this. They don't care about Gagauz language or history. Formally, we have three official languages in Gagauzia, but all the laws are adopted and published in Russian only.”

One man who does care deeply about Gagauz heritage is hip-hop artist and producer Vitalii Manjul. In the early 1990s, Vitalii discovered hip-hop on MTV and started rapping in Gagauz. “I was rapping about money, cars, authority. Now I try to use humor to speak about more important issues, like spirituality, love,” the 51-year-old tells me. For the past 15 years, Vitalii has also been collecting old Gagauz songs and reinterpreting them with modern R&B and pop elements. “Young people think these are new songs, but I tell them these lyrics are 100 years old,” he says. 

In his mission to promote Gagauz culture among the new generations, Vitalii collaborates with other young singers at his Comrat studio, called Kolay. Kolay means “easy” in Gagauz, Vitalii, who is slowly transitioning from rap to reggae, explains. “I wish for there to be no war, no national misunderstanding, I want everything to be easy,” he says, alluding to his “Rastaman outlook to life.”

Vitalii declares himself a cosmopolitan with plenty of cultural influences from across the globe, but he still feels rooted in his Gagauz heritage. “I don't want to lose my culture,” he says. “Imagine if I forget my native tongue — who will I be?”

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Story by Paula Erizanu. Edited by Eilish Hart.

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