Why does Gagauzia vote so differently from the rest of Moldova?
This is a translated and slightly adapted version of an article originally published in Romanian on November 20.
The Gagauz people, an Orthodox Christian Turkic minority with administrative autonomy in southern Moldova, voted massively for Igor Dodon in the presidential runoff on November 15. By massively we mean almost unanimously – 95% of the people in Gagauzia voted for the Kremlin-backed candidate. The latter lost the ballot nationwide with 42% of the vote against Maia Sandu’s 58%.
In Chișinău, the result of the election in Gagauzia didn’t raise many eyebrows, but fueled accusations that the Gagauz are more loyal to Russia than to Moldova, that they don’t appreciate Western aid and assistance, that they are an obstacle for Moldova’s European aspirations and so on. The ballot results in Gagauzia and the subsequent reaction in Chișinău form a vicious circle of mistrust and suspicion.
We decided to delve deeper into the issue and to find out what makes the electoral behavior of the southern autonomy so different from the rest of the country. To do this, we talked to three people from Gagauzia – a political pundit, a journalist and a writer.
Under the wing of the Kremlin
”The people of Gagauzia traditionally vote for the candidate that they think will develop stronger, deeper ties with the Russian Federation. This is a postulate of elections in Gagauzia”, says Sergey Manastyrly, director of the Balkan Center of analysis, research and forecast.
He explains that Russia is seen by the Gagauz as a historical protector – since first giving lands in southern Basarabia, then a Russian province, for the Gagauz to settle some 200 years ago to the 1990’s, when it helped them gain administrative and political autonomy within Moldova. After the breakup of the USSR, some forces in Gagauzia proclaimed an independent republic and nationalist forces in Chișinău staged a ”March towards Gagauzia” in order to quell separatist tendencies. According to Manastyrly, Russia and, to a lesser degree, Turkey are credited with preventing bloodshed and helping the Moldovans and the Gagauz to reach a peaceful settlement.
”I think other nationwide parties have no chance of establishing themselves in Gagauzia, because for the community there a single party matters – the one that is endorsed by Vladimir Putin”, says Mikhail Sirkeli, director of the Piligrim-Demo NGO and founder of the nokta.md news site in Comrat, the Gagauz capital. He stressed that even other pro-Russian parties have no chance in the autonomy unless they are openly supported by the Kremlin.
Of course, geopolitical preferences shape the vote across the whole country, not only in Gagauzia. So much that it has become fashionable for politicians of all stripes to call for an end to geopolitical debates. Yet in Gagauzia, foreign policy preferences continue to play an oversized role.
The information bubble
Mikhail Sirkeli says that Gagauzia and Taraclia, a neighboring Bulgarian-majority district that gave Igor Dodon 93% of its votes, live within an information bubble dominated by Russian media, as well as Moldovan and local Russian-language media.
According to the journalist, Romanian- and Russian-languague media are two parallel worlds. While Romanian speakers have access to TV8, Jurnal TV, ProTV, there is no similar independent Russian-language TV channel, says Sirkeli. Online, the situation is slightly better – the journalist points to Nokta in Comrat, Newsmaker in Chișinău and СП in Bălți, Moldova’s predominantly Russian-speaking ”northern capital”. Yet even so, there is less diversity than in the Romanian-language online informational landscape.
This information bubble in which the Gagauz and the Bulgarians are caught is at least partly a result of the fact that Romanian is not widely spoken in their districts. While some nationalists in Chișinău say that ethnic minorities should learn Romanian by themselves and it’s their fault for refusing to do so, a 2015 poll in Gagauzia showed that 78% of respondents thought their children should know ”the state language” (an euphemism to avoid the Romanian/Moldovan debate).
The issue is not a lack of desire on behalf of the Gagauz to learn Romanian, but a lack of governmental measures and programs to help them do it. Neither authorities in Comrat, nor those in Chișinău did much in the way of linguistic integration policies.
Moral debates focused on assigning guilt for the current situation are ultimately futile. The linguistic issue remains unsolved and the Gagauz continue to be trapped in the Russian-language media bubble.
”The problem is not the country of origin of various media content, but the accessibility of this content – can the people understand what is being said? Even TV channels from Turkey, Kazakhstan, Belarus or Ukraine have bigger audiences than ProTV or Jurnal TV”, says Sergey Uzun. If people don’t understand Romanian, they will watch only Russian-language channels.
Enter the scarecrows
The informational space in Gagauzia being so different from the rest of the country, it’s no wonder that some political messages, sometimes on the verge of hate speech, are more efficient in the autonomous region. Sergey Uzun notes that ”the Socialists’ scarecrows” are very similar to those on Russian TV – they confirm and reinforce each other.
Mikhail Sirkeli also pointed out that Maia Sandu has been the target of a ”demonization” campaign for a long time, since she was Minister of Education and the Communists – in opposition in Chișinău, but still strong in Gagauzia – criticized her for closing schools. In the autonomy, Sandu was seen as an antagonist since her political debut. Later, the Socialists fueled the Gagauz voters’ fear and distrust towards Sandu with fake news about the homosexualization of Moldova, reunification with Romania or banning the Russian language.
According to Sirkeli, the effectiveness of these scare tactics can be seen even in the people’s reaction to the election result. ”If you read forums and chats in Gagauzia, even in Taraclia, you might get the impression that for some people Maia Sandu’s presidential victory is the end of the world”.
Gagauzia’s historical ties to Russia, the linguistic barrier, the information bubble, Maia Sandu’s history as a political antagonist in the region, all these were advantages that Igor Dodon’s campaign successfully exploited in the autonomy. On the other hand, pro-European parties have traditionally been absent in Gagauzia.
Sergey Manastyrly says that the PAS leader ”almost paid no attention to the region, did not mention any of the autonomy’s problems in her speeches, barely had any meetings with voters, lacks local party structures”.
The inactivity of pro-European parties in the region – both during and between elections – was also pointed out by Sergey Uzun. The writer thinks that unless pro-European parties make some efforts to establish themselves in Gagauzia, with local offices and staff, attempts to connect the autonomy to the rest of the country through linguistic and informational integration will likely fail.
”I think that the political agenda is determined by politicians, because they still are the only ones to profit from the large number of supporters they mobilize. The latter, their majority at least, don’t get anything from it”, says Uzun. In other words, parties need to work if they want to attract new voters.
Mikhail Sirkeli is skeptical about the chances of other Moldovan parties to gain a foothold in the autonomy, but thinks regional parties could be better-suited to challenge the hegemony currently enjoyed by the Socialists and governor Irina Vlah.
For many years, Moldovan legislation effectively prohibited regional parties by requiring every party to present member signatures from at least half of the country’s districts in order to be registered. As a result, local political groups usually registered as NGOs and had to seek alliances with national parties. However, thanks to amendments approved last summer, regional parties can now gain formal recognition.
Sergey Uzun explained that the results of national elections in Gagauzia and results of local elections are two very different affairs. Even the speeches of politicians varied in both tone and content.
Most of the members of the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia are at least formally independent. Socialists with party cards come in second. Even some of the local officials who ran as PSRM candidates openly support cooperation with Romania and the EU. The most well-known example is the Mayor of Comrat Sergey Anastasov. 
Other local politicians are basically at war with Irina Vlah. Mayor of Vulcănești Victor Petrioglu, elected on behalf of Renato Usatîi’s Our Party, was suspended from office because of an anticorruption investigation. He claims the case was fabricated at the request of Governor Vlah.
In short, Dodon’s 95% in the autonomy do not reveal the diversity and liveliness of local politics there.
However, Mikhail Sirkeli warns that Gagauz politics has lost some of its competitiveness. The journalist recalls that between 2006 and 2015 three groups competed for dominance in the region: the Communists, Mikhail Formuzal’s United Gagauzia and Nicolay Dudoglo’s New Gagauzia. However, after Vlad Plahotniuc came to power in Chișinău as part of the Alliances for European Integration, he stifled real political competition in the autonomy, which allowed Irina Vlah to concentrate power in her hands. Sirkeli fears that if current tendencies are not reversed the region might become ”Irina Vlah’s feudal princedom”.
The governor is so confident that in her first public message after the presidential election did not even mention Maia Sandu, the winner, by name.
Violations in the dark
Given the lack of strong local structures of pro-European parties in the region and the powerful governor’s active campaigning for Igor Dodon, there is reasonable doubt about the fairness of the electoral process in the autonomy. Sergey Chernev, a member of the People’s Assembly, previously affiliated to PDM, told the press after the first round that the ballot was rigged.
”The Executive Committee focused only on the election. Those working in education, sports, healthcare – teachers and doctors, all have been forced to take a photo of their ballot and to show it to their superiors. Teachers from numerous towns and villages complain that many ballot papers have been thrown out”, said Chernev. 
Governor Irina Vlah called his statements ”lies meant to destabilize the social-political situation and to discredit Gagauzia in the eyes of Moldovan society”.
Political analyst Sergey Manastyrly doesn’t rule out that Gagauz authorities could have mobilized public employees to vote for Igor Dodon, but stressed that neither Chernev, nor others presented any evidence to back up their accusations.
In BBC Russia’s story, a PAS electoral observer learns from the Russian journalists that a local Gagauz channel broadcasted anti-Sandu propaganda on the day of silence, thus breaking the law. This shows that even Sandu’s campaign was not able to properly monitor the election in Gagauzia and report possible violations of the law.
Most of Moldova knows and understands very little about Gagauz politics. During each election, simmering ethnic tensions threaten to flare up, sometimes with the direct help of politicians.
The results of the presidential ballot in the autonomy angered many pro-European and right-wing voters in Chișinău. Nonetheless, Manastyrly stresses that Igor Dodon also got outlier results in Ocnița – 81%, Briceni – 74%, Dondueși - 71%, all regions without the historical, ethnic and political particularities of Gagauzia or Taraclia.
Sirkeli also notes that the number of people who voted for Maia Sandu in Gagauzia increased fivefold since 2016. Back then, she got only 748 votes, a number that rose to 3689 in this year’s election.
”Given that neither Sandu, nor Năstase, nor other center-right or pro-European politicians worked a lot in the region, considering that the Socialists had Governor Vlah on their side, as well as strong local party structures, Sandu’s several thousands of votes are by no means a bad result”, thinks Manastyrly.
There are many steps that need to be made to connect Gagauzia to the political life of the rest of the country. The order and importance of these steps are debateable, but the roadmap would certainly include: the improvement of the teaching of Romanian in the region, with more schools with dual-language teaching, a better curriculum, classes for adults and civil servants; the development of alternative Russian-language media, both locally and nationwide; the establishment of functional local organizations in the autonomy by center-right pro-European parties; the reinvigoration of local political competition and the formation of regional political parties.
The Gagauz are the victims of PSRM’s scare tactics, who threatens them with NATO tanks, civil war, the annihilation of the traditional family and so on. When people in Chișinău scorn and lambast the Gagauz for their vote, this only fuels a vicious cycle of distrust and fear. There are numerous barriers that need to be torn down: linguistic, informational, political and it will take the joint efforts of Chișinău and Comrat to achieve this.
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Исследование «Региональные партии и их эволюция в Республике Молдова», pilgrim-demo.org.md ↩︎