Gagauzia’s pro-Russian people open their arms to Ukrainian refugees

Gagauzia’s pro-Russian people open their arms to Ukrainian refugees
Revellers at Comrat Wine Day in the capital of Moldova’s Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. / Haley Bader
By Haley Bader in Comrat April 20, 2022

A grizzled pensioner with a grin sells used tools on a street corner across from the cobbled main square in Comrat, the capital of Moldova’s Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. He’s got a Soviet field telephone set right on top of a crate above wrenches, chains, gaskets, knickknacks, odds and ends. 

It’s been there since at least August 2021, probably longer. I know because my partner wanted to buy the thing when we last visited Comrat. The going price in March 2022 was MDL3,000 (about €150). I said I’d pay no more than MDL1,500, at a local friend’s suggestion. The older man countered with MDL3,500. 

“It’s a Russian joke,” he said. It was good-natured needling and we continued bargaining, though I noted the sentiment. If you haggle in Russia, the person you’re negotiating with will tease you and bump the price? It didn’t seem to matter that we weren’t in the Federation.  

That’s how it goes in Gagauzia. Since first coming to Comrat in 2016, I’ve heard on many an occasion that Gagauzians have a “Russian soul”.  

A Comrat citizen. Photo: Haley Bader. 

According to Moldova’s Institute for Public Policy, in 2021 “the population's political preferences in [Gagauzia and the bordering city of Taraclia, home to a Bulgarian ethnic majority] reveal unconditional support for political forces perceived as pro-Russian.” Only 34.5%, however, consider Moldova a “part of the Russian world”, as opposed to 64.6% in 2015. 

The Gagauzians I spoke with this spring cited that between 70% and 80% of the population living on Gagauz territory now is pro-Russian. A similar percentage supposedly supports Russia’s war with Ukraine.

Ira Selezniova, a 28-year-old Comrat professional working in the non-profit sector, estimates that about 5% of Gagauzians vehemently oppose the war in Ukraine, 20% are unsure of what is happening, and 75% fully support the war. They think “it’s a special operation and people are being freed from Nazism [and] nationalists… and they wait, of course, for [Russia] to free us,” she says.

This contrasts with majority opinion in Moldova. On March 18 Moldova’s independent Russian-language news outlet NewsMaker published the results of two polls indicating that more Moldovans blame Russia for the war than they blame Ukraine.

Magenta Consulting revealed that 61% of the Moldovan population believes Russia is waging war in Ukraine; 26% thinks Russia is running a special operation; and 13% does not know or declined to answer. Another poll conducted by the CBS-AXA Center for Sociological Research and Marketing shows that 38.4% finds Russia at fault, 20.6% blame Ukraine, and 40% refused to answer or do not know.

The contrast between beliefs in Gagauzia and Moldova at large have roots in political, linguistic and historical differences.

What is Gagauzia?

Gagauzia, which declared itself independent in August 1991, has its own constitution and self-governs, although the region also depends on some financial support from the central Moldovan government. Comrat is the capital of Gagauzia and hosts the People’s Assembly, the autonomy’s governing body. The main road through the centre of Comrat is Lenin Street and there is a statue of the striding revolutionary in front of the People’s Assembly.

Approximately 3.3mn people live in Moldova according to the CIA World Factbook, and Gagauzia’s government-hosted website reports that about 155,650 people live in the autonomous region, of which 82.1% are ethnically Gagauzian. These numbers are tenuous due to high rates of migration.

Gagauzia differs from Transnistria, Moldova’s other notably pro-Russian territory, because it is partly integrated into Moldova’s governance despite its autonomous status. In the past, Moldovan and Gagauzian authorities have butted heads over unclear guidelines over who makes what policy and governance decisions.

Transnistria, on the other hand, is a breakaway region where ethnic Russians and Ukrainians outnumber Moldovans. The site of a cold conflict since 1992, Russian “peacekeeping” troops remain in the region. 

Ethnic Gagauzians make up 4.6% of Moldova’s total population although Bulgarians, Moldovans, Russians, Ukrainians and other nationalities also live there. Though the territory’s three official languages are Gagauzian, Russian and Moldovan, the majority of Gagauzians speak Russian in public, in schools and at home. In 2021, only 18% of Gagauzian residents claimed that they could both speak and read Moldovan fluently.

On March 22, 2015, Gagauzia elected the pro-Russian governor Irina Vlakh to lead the People’s Assembly and represent Gagauzia in national politics. Russia sent delegations to Gagauzia to participate in her election campaign that year. 

The day after winning, Vlakh stated that her priorities were not only to revive Gagauzia’s economy and work constructively with Moldova’s central government, but also to “strengthen regional ties with [regions] of the Russian Federation.” Vlakh was re-elected for her second and final term on July 30, 2019.

Pro-Russian leanings in Gagauzia

If 70% or 80% of Gagauzians are pro-Russian, Selezniova says, it is in part because those who remain in Gagauzia are either the older Soviet generations or those in the countryside, who often have less access to education and tend only to watch Russian television for news. This is Gagauzia’s electorate, she explains.

The year after Moldova initiated an Association Agreement with the European Union, Gagauzia held a referendum on February 2, 2014 to determine whether residents would prefer Moldova’s integration into Russia’s proposed Eurasian Customs Union. With a turnout of over 70%, 98.4% voted for closer relations with the Customs Union; 98.9% supported Gagauzia’s right to declare independence if Moldova were to lose or give up its own (meaning to unite with Romania); and 97.2% rejected greater integration with the European Union.

The younger Gagauz generations, which are more apt to be accepting of western values, tend to leave and find work opportunities in other countries without intending to return. Young people also tend to stay silent about such views at home to avoid conflict, a relative of my Gagauzian host mother says. 

Selezniova clashes with her own family for such reasons. Her Russian-speaking relatives may trust her less than what they see on television. “Where did you get this information — on the internet or something?” they might ask. 

Comrat Wine Day. Photo: Haley Bader. 

Language is one of three general links to Russia that reinforce Gagauzians’ affinity with Russia. People in Gagauzia often talk about how Russians and Gagauzians speak with “one language”, Selezniova explains, and “it automatically creates a kind of loyalty”. Gagauzians grow up on Russian films and Russian music. “If there weren’t Russian channels, what else would people watch?” Selezniova asks. 

Shared language also creates opportunity. Gagauzians find much better work in Russia, where they can establish stable careers and a higher standard of living. A Gagauzian in Russia can be a director of an organisation, for instance, but in European countries he or she would have to learn the language first, and even then opportunities might be limited to janitorial or domestic work.

Secondly, Gagauzians often recall how Russian tsars resettled Gagauzians and Bulgarians to the territory of Bessarabia (now split between Moldova and Ukraine) from the 1780s to the late 1870s, when the Ottoman Turks were persecuting Orthodox Christians in conquered territories, according to Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. The tsars “proclaimed themselves defenders of the Orthodox people in the Balkans,” writes Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa.

A third factor is Soviet nostalgia, in large part connected to the educational and economic development the Soviets brought to the region. Katchanovski writes that Gagauzia was “one of the least educated and [most] impoverished groups during Romanian rule in 1918-40 and 1941-44” and experienced severe discrimination in contrast with Moldovans, who were considered ethnic Romanians. 

My host mother’s relative told me a story about her grandmother who was alive when the Soviets first came to Gagauzia. People were starving during that period, she said, and babies were dying because mothers did not have enough milk in their breasts to feed them. Their fields were filled with cattle, but they did not know enough to give their infants the cow’s milk to save them. The Soviets brought them this knowledge and modern medication.

People in Gagauzia also recall traveling to other parts of the Soviet Union, which they cannot afford now, as well as the lower prices of produce; one common comparison is the cost of a dozen eggs.

These stories still run very deep in the consciousnesses of the Gagauz people. “Now they are pensioners, it’s difficult to live, and there’s not enough money,” Selezniova says. “For them, Russia is still the Soviet centre that can somehow rebuild things, and they are probably living in these dreams.” 

Many Gagauzians also have Russian passports and citizenship, says Maria Arjintari, a 29-year-old Comrat resident and teacher in one of Gagauzia’s villages. She believes that if Russia comes to Moldova, maybe 70% of the Gagauzian population “would be happy”. Selezniova agrees that “a large part” of Gagauzians would welcome Russia.

Russian influence in Moldova today?

Despite Gagauzia’s long-standing pro-Russian leanings, it is hard to predict how Russia might now play on such sentiments in Gagauzia or Moldova more broadly. In a March 18 article, NewsMaker reported that the Russian embassy in Moldova invited Russian citizens or “compatriots” to complain about discrimination in Moldova.

The embassy’s post, which is now no longer available but recorded in screenshots embedded in NewsMaker’s article, suggested that those who felt threatened "in connection with the increasing cases of discrimination on national, linguistic, cultural, religious and other grounds, as well as the committing of acts of a violent nature or actions that pose a threat to life and health, contact the embassy's email address”. 

The post gained over 800 comments and the majority of those who responded said that they experienced no discrimination, and furthermore insisted that Russia should not come to Moldova to “save” them. One cheeky commenter proposed that someone organise “a flash mob and bring oars to the Russian embassy so there would be something to row in the direction they’ll be sent to”.  

At the government level, Gagauzia has taken no sides. While Vlakh made a statement condemning the war on February 25 in a video she posted to Facebook, she maintained political neutrality. 

Vlakh cautioned against blaming or seeking justifications for one side or another, which would “only add aggression to an already excessively heated atmosphere”. Rather, “the best option now is to call on leaders who can influence events to sit down at the negotiating table,” Vlakh said. “Dialogue is the only suitable way out of this dangerous situation.” 

She lamented that these “people of all nations” have not yet “learned from the past” and become “one global family”. 

On March 9, Tudora Arnaut, a board member of the Gagauz society in Kiev, called on Vlakh to support the Gagauzians living in Ukraine in wartime. “Why did you, as the bashkan [governor] of Gagauzia, not once in 12 days ask or express your support for the Gagauzians of Ukraine during the hour of the war in Ukraine?” Arnaut wrote on her Facebook page.

“We are not angry with you, and we are not offended ... just, bleeding in our souls, we waited for only one sentence: ‘Gagauzians, there is a war in Ukraine, you were attacked, and we are one people, we are with you, no matter what’,” she appealed.

Vlakh did not respond to Arnaut. She spoke again on Gagauz television on March 23, when she stressed the troubling uncertainty of the situation and repeated that all sides must “sit down at the negotiating table”.

Photo: Haley Bader. 

Gagauzian views on war

Like Vlakh, Arjintari evokes the multi-ethnic status of Moldova when she explains why she thinks her country should remain neutral. “We are a multi-national [and] multi-cultural country, and we have people who don’t like Russia, but at the same time we have a lot of people who do like Russia,” she explains.

At the same time, she thinks Moldova “should silently help the people of Ukraine and interfere [politically] because we are a small country”. Her country already has so many of its own problems, she believes, and would prefer that Moldova “stays independent” to take care of them.

While teachers in Arjintari’s school would once would begin their days with the ‘ritual’ of complaining about Moldova’s pro-European president Maia Sandu, “every morning it now starts with the war situation in Ukraine, with the discussion of who is right, who is wrong.”

“A lot of people here take the side of Russia because they think that this conflict actually [has been going on since] 2014, from the revolution [in Ukraine] and then the conflict in Donbas,” Arjintari says. Many Gagauzians do not understand why the world now supports Ukrainians against Russia when there was no panic before.

Selezniova explains that Gagauz opinions tend to break down into three camps.

“There are people who very harshly criticise everything that is happening, they express that they don’t agree with the war. They repost all these terrible events and pictures, they try to expose networks and fakes that come from the Russian side,” she says. 

“There is another part that speaks about it quietly, [they believe] it’s not simple,” Selezniova continues. “‘Look, yes, war is very bad’, they might say, but ‘there’s not only one side that is guilty’.”

The majority, she says, support Russia. She thinks this is because “they are completely dependent on the media that is produced in Russia. They are, one might say, even living in another country.”  

Selezniova noted that there are Gagauzians who believe the news coming from Bucha, the town outside of Kyiv where there has been evidence of brutal civilian deaths, is manipulation. Nokta, Gagauzia’s independent media outlet, posted a video to Instagram where locals shared their opinions on the Bucha revelations. 

One man said it was a “provocation”, another responded that he had heard people died but could not say who killed them because there was “little information”. Another man claimed “it cannot be the Russians” and said that the Ukrainians are doing it to themselves but “blaming it on the Russians”. He paused, then qualified he did not know: “Maybe it’s the Russians.” Yet others said it had been faked, some blaming the West.

A relative of my host mother who was raised and educated in the Soviet Union confirms, despite agreeing that a war is being waged in Ukraine, that it is difficult to accept that Russia can commit such atrocities.

During the Soviet Union, people were raised with the idea that the Soviets defeated the German fascists and stood solely for peace. This kind of messaging was everywhere — repeated in schools, during holidays, and on March 9 or Victory Day, the annual celebration of the Soviet Union’s triumph in World War Two. 

Selezniova thinks Gagauzians are apt to believe that the Bucha atrocities are fake, in part, because it is simply “too cruel” and so “people cannot wrap their heads around it”. 

Supporting refugees despite political dissonance

Despite posting pro-Russian information about the war on social media, Selezniova observes, many Gagauzians are also fully ready to help refugees from Ukraine. She finds this activism to be dissonant, because while Gagauzians claim to “empathise with the people in the war,” they also believe that “what [the Russians] are doing [in Ukraine] is saving them”.  

NewsMaker reported on March 14 that government-supported centres host refugees in the Gagauzian villages of Congaz and Kirsova. In the city of Ceadîr-Lunga, a Baptist church has also opened its doors to refugees. 

Many others volunteer. Over fifty Gagauzian families are hosting refugees and more than 2,500 people have joined the “Help Southern Moldova” chat group on Telegram, where concerned citizens have mobilised to provide shelter, financial and other support for Ukrainians.

Anna Statova, who is the director of the Gagauzi Sofrasi ethnic hotel in Congaz and runs the business with her children, recalls the night of February 25 when the first surge of refugees overwhelmed the hotel’s premises.

Donations for refugees at the Gagauzi Sofrasi ethnic hotel. Photo: Haley Bader. 

At 5:30 in the morning, the hotel’s security guard called Statova to request she come outside to meet guests. Statova was surprised. “If he calls me at 5:30, then it means that there’s a serious problem that my children can’t solve,” she says.

When Statova emerged, the parking lot was full. “People were crying, falling [to the ground], asking for a place to lie down.” Waves of people came for the next several days as she and other community members organised aid, distributed food and placed refugees who exceeded the hotel’s capacity in private homes. Despite a lack of government support, she has been hosting refugees, who tend to stay for only a few days then move on, in her hotel ever since.

Natasha Kirillova, a 42-year-old half-Ukrainian woman born and raised in Comrat, knew she had to act “because in Ukraine what is happening is murder, and it’s not just”. 

She first became involved when she got a call from a friend who was volunteering with a restaurant in Kirsova that was organising aid. Kirillova left her phone number with the volunteers.

She was soon contacted, and on March 3, she and her 16-year-old son welcomed three refugees, a 45-year-old mother from Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi and her two daughters, aged nine and 25. There are now “six girls and one boy” living with Kirillova, including her cat and the refugees’ dog who “compete for everyone’s love”, Kirillova laughs.

“There is no difference between my family and their family,” Kirillova says.

Korina Bezhenar is the eldest daughter of the refugee family and says that while she is eager to return home, “Natasha helps us with everything”. They cook, clean, go to the store and chat together every day. 

“In these circumstances, it’s great, [Natasha’s] company and her family and all her help,” Bezhenar said. “We now think that she’s a part of our family.” Her grandmother has even called from Ukraine to invite Kirillova to visit when the war is over.

Still, Bezhenar and her family are nervous about telling people in Comrat that they are refugees. As they were walking in Comrat’s central park after they first arrived, they noticed an eight- or nine-year-old boy wearing a jacket with the word “Russia” emblazoned on the back.

“We were shocked. It’s not the time for such messaging,” Bezhenar says. “And that’s why we don’t like to accent that we are from Ukraine.”

Still, Bezhenar knows “there are many people [in Gagauzia] who want to help just because they are good people,” she says. “Not because they have some opinion about this situation in the world, they just understand that people need some help.”

Kirillova agrees. While, like Selezniova, she has trouble understanding how pro-Russian Gagauzians wish to help refugees when they believe Ukrainians are killing their own people, “It did not matter what people thought about it, whether they supported [the war] or didn’t support it, they helped. It was marvellous! They’re just good people.”