Author: Emanuel Pietrobon – 18/09/2020
The bilateral relations between Moldova and Turkey have never been so intense and fruitful as they are in the recent times. As of today, Turkey is Moldova’s seventh investor and trade partner and it contributes significantly to the production of national wealth with about 1,200 firms operating in its territory.
During the pandemic’s most acute phase, Turkey has played a primary role in the provision of humanitarian aid to Moldova, positioning itself third in terms of overall engagement, behind Russia and China, but ending up first in one region: Gagauzia.
But what is Gagauzia and why is so important? We are used to hear about Transnistria but Moldova’s real geopolitical dilemma in the next future is likely to be Gagauzia.
We are speaking of an autonomous region within the Moldovan republic which is inhabited by the Gagauz people, a Turkic people which moved to this area between the 12th and the 13th century. Curiously, it was Gagauzia to start the separatist season that threatened Moldova’s territorial integrity soon after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the Gagauz authorities declared independence on August 1991, that is one month earlier than Transnistria, but they later abandoned their secessionist agenda in exchange for great concessions in terms of autonomy.
We are speaking about Gagauzia because something very important took place here this late summer. Indeed, Turkey’s powerful Foreign Ministry Mevlut Cavusoglu came to Moldova on late August but it can be said that his true goal wasn’t the mere improvement of bilateral relations with Chisinau, he was seeking to improve the trilateral relations with Chisinau and Comrat.
In Chisinau, Cavusoglu participated in the first meeting of the Joint Group for Strategic Planning, a dialogue platform born out of the Council for the High Level Strategic Cooperation. The latter was established in October 2018 by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Igor Dodon and improved dramatically the bilateral relations: now the two countries are tied by a strategic partnership.
The meeting ended up with the promise to arrange Erdogan’s visit to Moldova after the pandemic, to strengthen the relations and to keep the efforts on against Fetullah Gulen’s terror network. After the event, Cavusoglu traveled to Comrat where he participated in the much-waited inauguration of the Turkish consulate, whose building has been requested by the locals and it must be seen for what it truly is: the best evidence of Turkey’s ever-growing cultural and diplomatic influence in the region.
Gagauzia has been for long a Russian enclave equally to Transnistria but the situation changed drastically since Erdogan decided to give Gagauzia priority within its foreign agenda. He ordered the Turkish Agency for International Development and Cooperation (TIKA) to reshape Gagauzia’s image: new roads, new services, new buildings, better infrastructures. In Gagauzia, Tika built new schools, new hospitals, it has been renovating entire neighbourhoods and it has been contributing to raise the population’s living standards by giving to it access to water and power.
Last but not least, Tika has been given impetus to a re-nationalization process of the masses based on the promotion of cultural exchanges, scholarships, festivals, and on the funding of cultural centres teaching people their native language. Today, more than ever before, the Gagauzs have a national consciousness: they do know they are not Moldovans and they are fighting to enter the Turkic world.
The transition of this region from the Russian orbit to the Turkish started officially in October 2018 when Erdogan, during a much-participated historical visit paid to Comrat, communicated to the attendees his dream: he wanted to become the Gagauzs’ spokesman and he would show them the seriousness of his ambition by negotiating personally with Chisinau to convince them to give full autonomy to Gagauzia.
Since then it has been a uphill path: Gagauzia hosted for the first time ever the annual meeting of Working Group of Turkic Minorities in the Federal Union of European Nationalities, it has come out untouched by the pandemic thanks to Ankara’s massive intervention and its interests are more and more listened to by the Moldovan central government. It is no surprise then that the Gagauz asked Ankara to open a consulate in their land and that Irina Vlah, Gagauzia’s governor, during the inauguration spoke on enthusiastic terms about Turkey.
But Russia’s only reason for concern in Gagauzia is not Turkey, because other players are interested in turning Moldova away from the Kremlin’s orbit. Those players are Romania, the EU and the US.
Speaking about Romania, this is what I’ve written in a geopolitical report published by another think tank:
“ Turkey is not the only player interested in setting foot in the region. The EU as well is using culture to improve its image. In early 2000s Bucharest opened in Comrat the Mihai Eminescu High School to spread the use Romanian language. Indeed, Gagauzia is mainly Russian speaking, just like Transnistria, and only 12,5% of residents speak Romanian fluently. According to the school, the number of students enrolled is growing annually: from 100 in 2002 to 401 in 2018. Furthermore, the Romanian government funds a scholarship program for the best students enrolled in the institute which allows them to continue their studies in Bucharest. The program is supported by the EU, which considers it as a tool to “de-Russify” Moldovan youths.
Bucharest’s diplomacy is also behind the opening of a Romanian language course at the Comrat University, firstly inaugurated in 2005, which is also increasingly popular. Gagauzes are pushed to learn Romanian also by the fact that many medium- and big-sized companies from Bucharest are de-localizing in the region and prefer to employ Romanian-speaking workers. Indeed, Gagauzes are somehow obliged to learn the language if they look for better job opportunities. But the EU’s front-line engagement in the region is not limited to culture and economy. While Romania has been providing millions of euros in aid, re-building and renovation works, the EU has been focusing on agriculture, rural development, and youth-targeting awareness campaigns. 28 years later the turbulent transition to independence, Moldova’s destiny keeps being inevitably tied to Transnistria and Gagauzia.”
Emanuel Pietrobon, University of Turin (Italy)