Who Are the Gagauz, Where Is Gagauzia, and Why Are They in the News?

The “Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia,” located in southern Moldova, rarely makes the news. On September 25, 2023, however, the New York Times ran a full-page article on the region under the vague title “Fugitive Oligarch Gaines Surprise Foothold in Moldova.* The article describes Gagauzia as an “enclave” within Moldova. That is not technically correct, as a geopolitical enclave is part of one country that is surrounded by the territory of another, whereas Gagauzia is merely an autonomous region of Moldova. Fear of losing that autonomy lies behind the ethnic tensions that have given this obscure region international attention.

The New York Times article focuses on the shady activities of Ilan Shor, a disgraced financier who was “convicted in 2017 for his role in ransacking Moldova’s banking system.” In the summer of 2023, a follower of Shor, Evghenia Guțul (Yevgenia Gutsal), was elected governor of Gagauzia, allowing Shor to gain considerable power in the autonomous unit. This victory was internationally significant because Guțul and Shor support Russia and oppose the E.U. The United States accused Shor in 2022 “of working with ‘Moscow-based entities’ to undermine Moldova’s efforts to join the European Union and engaging in ‘persistent malign influence campaigns on behalf of Russia.’” (Note: direct quotes in this paragraph are from the Times article.)

The description of Gagauzia in the New York Times’ article is minimal. It notes only that Gagauzia is a “Russian-speaking region wary of the largely Romanian-speaking authorities in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital,” and that “the enclave, with around 140,000 people, mostly members of the small Turkic community of Orthodox Christians, remained out of step with the rest of the country.” Although largely accurate, this depiction is not adequate for understanding the tensions in the region. One might wonder, for example, how Gagauzia can be “Russian-speaking” when its majority ethnic group, the Gagauz, are “Turkic,” indicating that they speak a Turkic language. Yet both assertions are essentially true. The Gagauz tongue, the territory’s official language, is indeed in the Turkic language family, but its use is rapidly declining, especially in cities and towns, in favor of Russian, long used as Moldova’s main language of inter-ethnic communication. While the Gagauz are turning to Russian, they are also rejecting Romanian (or “Moldovan,” as it is often locally called), their county’s official** language. Such attitudes do not augur well for Moldova’s national future.

The origin of the Gagauz people is obscure, owing in part to their combination of speaking a Turkic language and following Eastern Orthodox Christianity. As the Wikipedia article on the Gagauz notes, “In the beginning of the 20th century, a Bulgarian historian counted 19 different theories about their origin. A few decades later the Gagauz ethnologist M. N. Guboglo increased the number to 21.” The most intriguing, if highly unlikely, theory is that they are descendants of the original Balkan Bulgarians, who were a Turkic-speaking people who conquered the area now known as Bulgaria beginning in the late seventh century. The Bulgars subsequently adopted the Slavic language widely spoken in their new kingdom, which became known as Bulgarian, and also converted to Christianity under influence from the neighboring Byzantine (East Roman) Empire.

Whatever their origins, the Gagauz stress their affinity with the Bulgarians. In early times they generally called themselves “Hasli Bulgars” (True Bulgarians) or “Eski Bulgars” (Old Bulgarians), Under Russian Empire, they were usually called “Turkic-speaking Bulgars,” as the term “Gagauz” was at the time often considered offensive. Most Gagauz today live near Bulgarian-speaking settlements in southern Moldova and the adjacent Ukrainian region of Budjak, as can be seen on the map posted below. (Since I cobbled this map together from separate and questionable language maps of Moldova and Ukraine, its accuracy is probably not very high.)

It might be surprising that so many Bulgarians live in southern Moldova and southwestern Ukraine, considering how far this area is from Bulgaria. Before population exchanges in the early twentieth century, however, many Bulgarians lived in the intermediate coastal region of Romania, thus forming a nearly continuous swath of settlement in an admittedly highly mixed area (see the first map below). The language map of the Bessarabia Governorate of the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century, posted below as well, is also revealing. Bessarabia, which included what is now Moldova, the Budjak region, and a small section of northwestern Ukraine, was highly ethnically mixed. Note the sizable German-speaking area and the prominent positions of Jews in the towns and cities (visible in the pie charts). Today there are probably fewer than 20,000 Jews in Moldova, and its German population is negligible.

The Gagauz in Moldova identify with Bulgarians and Russians rather than with ethnic Moldovans in part because they are concerned about cultural domination by Romanian-speaking people. When the Soviet Union began to fracture in 1990, Gagauz leaders declared the formation of a Gagauz Republic, which gained de facto independence when the Soviet system collapsed in the following year. A similar situation emerged in eastern Moldova, where the heavily Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking region called Transnistria also separated from the rest of the country. Unlike Transnistria, however, Gagazia was peacefully reunited with Moldova in 1995 after its people accepted limited self-rule within their own spatially reduced Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (see the map below). Importantly, the Gagauz were promised that if Moldova were ever to unite with Romania, they would be able to opt out of the union. Unification with Romania, however, has little support in Moldova; in the country’s most recent parliamentary election, the pro-unification party AUR (Alliance for the Union of Romanians) received less than one half of one percent of the vote. In Romania, in contrast, AUR got over nine percent of the vote in the most recent election, finishing in fourth place.

But if union with Romania is unlikely, the Moldovan government has still been emphasizing the use of the Romanian (“Moldovan”) language and deemphasizing that of Russian. In protest, as noted in a Balkan Insight article, “Gagauzia adopted a regional education code that implied a greater use of the Gagauz language in school, as well as a more detailed study of Gagauz history and culture” in 2016. The Moldovan government, however, declared this new policy to be “unconstitutional and provocative.” Today, a more immediate concern of the Gagauz is Moldova’s quest to join the European Union (official candidacy was gained June 2022). If that were to happen, Gagauzia could lose its autonomous status. To guard against this possibility, Gagauz leaders have been seeking support from Moscow, a dangerous gambit indeed.

Reports on feelings of national identity in Gagauzia are mixed. One recent article cites a Gagauz informant as stating that “anyone who lives in our autonomy feels like a citizen of Moldova, because the Gagauz have no other homeland. For example, Bulgarians can go to Bulgaria, Greeks to Greece, Russians to Russia… But the Gagauz have no other homeland.” The same person also stated, however, that few Gagauz students seek higher education elsewhere in Moldova, preferring to study instead in the break-away statelet of Transnisria, where Russian is the main language of instruction. Other sources, moreover, claim that anti-Moldovan sentiments are so pronounced that most Gagauz do not even want to learn Romanian, their “national” language. In response, many Moldovan observers fear that the autonomous territory is planning outright secession, in concert with Russia.

In the Ukrainian region of Budjak, Bulgarian and Gagauz speakers have generally supported Russia-friendly candidates over their Ukrainian nationalist rivals. As can be seen on the paired maps posted below, in the first round of the 2019 election, Ukrainian-speaking areas in Budjak generally supported Volodymyr Zelensky, whereas the Bulgarian- and Gagauz-speaking areas supported Yuriy Boyko. Boyko’s party, Opposition Platform – For Life, has been banned by the Ukrainian government for its pro-Russian leanings. But as the Wikipedia article on Boyko notes, after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine he reversed most of his pro-Russian stances and now supports Ukraine’s proposed ascension to the European Union. Not surprisingly, the political environment of Ukraine changed much more dramatically than that of Moldova after the 2022 invasion.

* That is the title in the print edition. In the on-line edition it isCash, Mules and Paid Protests: How a Fraudster Seized an Ethnic Enclave”

** Moldova also recognizes Belarusian, Bulgarian, Gagauz, German, Hebrew, Polish, Romani, Russian, and Ukrainian as minority languages