Analysis. The autonomous region just 160 km from Odessa is linked to its Soviet past and to modern Turkey. Only 12.5% ​​of the population speaks Moldovan. The most widespread languages ​​are Russian and Gagauz.

A picture of Gagauzia, the pro-Russian hub in the heart of Moldova

On the map of the region, which the war in Ukraine is forcing us to examine more closely, Moldova is one of the territories worth understanding better. A former Soviet Socialist Republic, it is enclosed between Ukraine and Romania. It is a plain dotted with grape vines and small rural centers made up of shabby hovels with asbestos roofs as the standard, and a bustling capital city that is trying to look towards the west: Chisinau.

Moldova has a population of just over 3.5 million, and, according to UNHCR figures, has already taken in almost 400,000 refugees from Ukraine. Although the transit of these people to other countries, mostly in the EU, happens quickly thanks to the intervention of many NGOs and institutions, the country’s efforts are huge. Although Moldovans have opened their homes and are actively participating in supporting the refugees, they are worried and well aware that they are living in a weak country, which would have very little means to defend itself from a possible attack by Putin, in case Ukraine capitulates. Many tell me they are already preparing to flee.

But it is not only the poor condition of the economy and of the army which is worrying: the linguistic and cultural mosaic is complex and potentially problematic as well. For one, there is the heavily armed pro-Russian separatist territory of Transnistria, which claimed independence in 1990, followed by a war in 1992. A thin strip of land beyond the Nistru River, where time has stopped in the Soviet age, a mix between a hotbed of illegal trafficking and a weapons depot, as some people say. What is certain is that journalists and photographers are now forbidden from entering.

But this is not the only separatist territory: in the south of the country, there is Gagauzia, an independent, Russian-speaking and pro-Russian territory. Located in an almost completely flat area of 1,832 square kilometers, it mostly covers the territory of the ancient Bessarabia, one of the regions that formed the Principality of Moldova.

Following the victorious war of the Russians against the Ottomans in 1812, Bessarabia was ceded as a reward to the Tsarist Empire. At that time, a nomadic population lived in the area, the Nogai, which were expelled as they were hostile to the new rulers, and in their place the latter invited – or deported, according to other sources – the Gagauzi, a people most likely of Ottoman and Anatolian origin, Orthodox Christians, who until then had lived peacefully between Bulgaria and Romania, and who thus came into possession, almost accidentally, of what is now their land. This fact was not politically relevant until the collapse of the Soviet Union; but when Moldova proclaimed its independence in 1991, fearful of being swallowed up by the dominant Romanian culture in the country, the Gagauzi chose to proclaim independence in the same year.

A period of tensions followed, until 1994, when the Gagauza Autonomous Territorial Entity was created within Moldova, with its own autonomous status. Its capital is Comrat, and the Assembly of the Gagauz people, composed of 35 members, has various levels of autonomy: they can pass their own laws in many areas, including fiscal, economic, cultural, educational and public security. Nowadays, the approximately 150,000 inhabitants of the region are governed by Irina Vlah, a pro-independence figure who is also, of course, pro-Russian. Here it is estimated that only 12.5% of the population can speak Moldavian, i.e. Romanian. Most speak Russian, or the third language of the country, Gagauzo, which is related to Turkish.

A statue of Lenin stands in front of the region’s government building, at whose entrance one can see a model of an educational center currently under construction, dedicated, as a plaque on the base testifies, to Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The strong presence of Turkish interests complicates the picture, a legacy of the origin of the Gagauzo people. The Turkish President Edorgan has instructed the Turkish Agency for Development and International Cooperation (TIKA) to open an office in Moldova. TIKE is very active in Gagauzia, both on a cultural level – one can find the Ataturk Library nearby, which has as one of its goals that of popularizing the Gagauz language and organizes seminars and meetings – and on an infrastructural level. The networks of electricity and drinking water in Gagauzia have also been built with Turkish funds.

Moreover, the statute of autonomy is in the process of being renewed, which could generate friction within an already dramatic overall scenario. A 2014 referendum already reconfirmed the direction of the 1994 Gagauz Autonomy Act, and hinted at some possibilities of self-determination; even more, it also rejected the Brussels Charter and called for closer ties with Russia.

The distance to Odessa is small, only 160 km, and some Ukrainian refugees have arrived here as well. Three women, Natalia, Alla and Natasha, are from Odessa; we meet them at a municipal building where a small warehouse for clothes and basic necessities has been set up. They tell us about what it was like to sleep in street clothes for nights on end, with everything ready to escape. And then, the sirens came, and the bombings that finally damaged their house, forcing them to flee. Fortunately, they were able to go by car to the home of a friend who was waiting for them here in Comrat.

Natalia says she is still very shaken by what has happened. They tell us about the journey to cross the border, which is normally a short trip of a couple of hours, but now became 30 hours of waiting. And they confirm that to get out of Ukraine you have to pay, which is why, at this point, most of the people fleeing are the rich. Some have to pay more, some less, depending on the case: for men who want to leave the country, the price has gone up to €10,000. War always brings out the monsters.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!