The leader of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, a self-governing region of the Republic of Moldova’s Turkic-speaking minority, told media this week that increasing calls for the reunification of Moldova and Romania may push the Gagauz to declare independence. In particular, the leader, Mikhail Formuzal, cited plans to hold a Unionist march in Chișinău, the Moldovan capital, on September 16th. Previous such marches have resulted in violence between unionists and their opponents.
This part of the former Soviet empire is a region of slivers. Moldova (formerly the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic) is really just a sliver of Romania. It is the eastern portion, known traditionally as Bessarabia (though much of true Bessarabia is in modern Ukraine) of Moldavia, which was one of the three regions—Transylvania and Wallachia are the others—which made up the Kingdom of Romania that broke free of the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s. But this Christian chunk of a Muslim empire had its rough edges: its western reaches were and are ethnically Hungarian (as discussed in detail in a recent blog posting about Romania’s Magyars), while at its eastern edge there were minorities of both Slavs (Romanians speak a Romance language) and Gagauz. The Gagauz are Eastern Orthodox Christians who speak a Turkic language and are either Seljuq Turks or Turkified Bulgars who migrated to Bessarabia from what is today Bulgaria perhaps as long ago as the 13th century. The Gagauz staged a brief, disastrous, five-day-long uprising against the Russian Empire in 1906 as the Republic of Comrat, after which they nursed their grievances for generations until reasserting themselves in the late 1980s as Communism’s grip began to loosen. They have never felt Romanian.
|Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.|
Lenin still looks out over the main square in Comrat, capital of Gagauzia.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Moldavian S.S.R. declared independence as the Republic of Moldova, Romania became Moldova’s first and warmest ally; Moldovans and Romanians tend to consider themselves one nation. One would think that this would be the time to realize the dream of a united Romania. But any talk of eventual reunification is dampened by a separatist movement in Moldova that has proved intractable for twenty years: the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, also called Transnistria. This is the eastern sliver of Moldova whose ethnic population is about a third Ukrainian, a third Russian, and a third Moldovan (i.e. Romanian). The Slavic (Russian-plus-Ukrainian) majority declared this ridiculously slender shard of land a sovereign state in 1990 when the U.S.S.R. imploded, and its independence, though unrecognized by any except other Russian (or Armenian) puppet states (Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia), is maintained by the presence of thousands of Russian troops.
|This ad targeting foreign investors shows Gagauzia’s current flag in front of the Moldovan one.|
(The Moldovan flag is simply the Romanian tricolor with the Moldovan national seal in the center.)
Currently, as discussed earlier in this blog, Transnistria is a frozen conflict, and thus Romanian–Moldovan reunification is stalled as well. Romania does not want to absorb Moldova if this means that it would suddenly have uninvited Russian troops on its territory; in fact, under the rules of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Romania joined in 2004, that would put NATO on an immediate and automatic war footing with Russia, which no one in the world wants. Meanwhile, if Moldova tried to retake Moldova militarily, it would test Russia’s commitment to defending it—and, because of the NATO issue, Romania would stay out of the fight at all costs. That would mean that Transnistria would likely absorb Moldova, while the world looked on helplessly. Thus the standoff.
|The traditional Gagauzian flag. Now this is the one they should use if they declare independence, right? Though that wolf looks not quite fierce enough, and a bit like the fox from The Little Prince or something.|
So most talk of Romanian–Moldovan unification is merely nationalist bluster. Or is it? Romania is in the midst of an ugly constitutional crisis, the sort where jingoism finds its voice. Popular Romanian populist nationalism could spur Slavic anger and vice versa, ad bellum—and, indeed, Gagauzia could be part of this cycle too. Gagauz in the early years of Moldovan independence first had their unilateral declaration of an autonomous republic annulled, and did not fight that. Then they saw their support for a three-way Moldovan–Transnistrian–Gagauz federation sidelined. Finally, they benefitted when Moldova came around to granting them autonomy—without republic status, however, and with a territory that is a cluster of slivers of territory in the country’s far south (see map, above). But nationalist feelings have never gone away in Gagauz communities. Just last month, a diplomatic visit to Moldova by Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, was disrupted by a Gagauz who threw a Molotov cocktail at her motorcade.
|Angela Merkel arrives in Moldova.|
Flowers and folk tapestries now; cocktails will be thrown later.
The Gagauz would have everything to lose from Romanian–Moldovan unification, since Romania’s hypernationalists would not countenance the high degree of autonomy the Gagauz have in Moldova today, and the Gagauz would be a far smaller share of the population. They may be too isolated, put-upon, and paranoid at this point to realize that the unification talk is talk only. But if they react with true secessionist spirit, it could push Moldova to repress them to the point where separation looks genuinely appealing. And Transnistria, after all, has survived the decades since the Cold War, without apparently feeling that they would be better off Moldovan. True, Gagauzia would need Russian military and economic military support to follow a similar path, but with the right diplomacy Russia may just be willing to offer that—whether through Gagauzian unification with Transnistria as an expanded sliver of Moldova, or as its own state.
|Gagauzia’s coat of arms|
Far stranger things have happened in post-Communist eastern Europe. This is one situation to keep an eye on.
[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas. Look for it in spring 2013. I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]