Wha’s like us? 3. Gagauzia

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by Paul Kavanagh

Read 1: Galicia 2: Sardinia

Mention Gagauzia and the usual reaction is a blank look.  Gagauzia is one of Europe’s smallest nations, located in a remote corner of Eastern Europe in Europe’s poorest and least economically developed state.  Few people in western Europe have heard of the Gagauz people or their country, Gagauz Yeri or Gagauzia, an autonomous region in southern Moldova, the former Soviet republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine.  Most often we hear of such small and faraway nations only when they are involved in war or civil strife.  But there have been no recent wars in Gagauzia, and although not without its problems the country is at peace.

The peaceful obscurity of Gagauzia is because this tiny nation has achieved something which is longed for by other stateless nations many times larger, far more prosperous and much better known.  The Moldovan state recognises the sovereignty of the Gagauz nation, and has signed international treaties guaranteeing the sovereign right of the Gagauz to autonomy and self-determination.

The Gagauz and Gagauzia do not have a long and glorious history.  Despite many attempts at mythologising an ancient Gagauz people, the Gagauz nation is of fairly recent historical origin.  The Gagauz speak a language very closely related to Turkish, but unlike the overwhelmingly Muslim Turks the core of Gagauz culture is shaped by their traditional allegience to Orthodox Christianity.   

Towards the end of the 18th century and during the first decades of the 19th, the Russian Tsarist Empire was locked in a struggle with the Turkish Ottoman Empire for control of the lands around the northern shores of the Black Sea.   In 1812 they succeeded in forcing a weakened Ottoman Empire to cede the lands east of the Prut river to Russia, this area contains the territory of modern Gagauzia.  

The steppe country of what is now southern Ukraine and southern and eastern Moldova was depopulated during the wars.  The old inhabitants, the semi-nomadic Bucak Nogai tribe, were expelled by the Russians to the northern Caucasus and Turkey.  The Nogai themselves spoke a Turkic language, and were Muslim like the Ottoman sultans to whom they were loyal.  In order to secure their control of these new lands, the Russians invited thousands of Orthodox Christians from the Balkans, regions still under Ottoman control, to settle in new farming communities.  Orthodox Christian subjects would be more likely to be loyal to the Tsars, and the development of farming communities would deprive the troublesome nomadic pastoral tribes of their vital grazing lands.

Tens of thousands of Orthodox Christian peasants from what is now Bulgaria and Serbia took the Tsars up on their offer.  The great majority were Bulgarian speakers, but amongst them was a large group of Turkish speakers.  Although the question of ethnic origins and early history is a heated and highly politicised topic in the Balkans, in the main these Turkish speaking Christians descended from Bulgarians, Slavic Macedonians, Greeks, Serbs and other Balkan peoples who had assimilated to the Turkish language of their Ottoman rulers, but had retained their Orthodox Christian religion.  Although disputed by many modern Gagauz it seems others were Muslim Turkish landless peasants who converted to Orthodox Christianity in order to take up the Tsar’s offer of some land of their own to farm.  

Another group who probably went into the make up of the Gagauz people were members of a clan of the Oghuz tribe of Turks who settled in eastern Bulgaria and converted to Christianity in the Middle Ages during a period of internecine warfare with other Turkish clans in Anatolia.  The name of this clan, the Gök-Oghuz ‘Sky Oghuz’, is probably the source of the modern name Gagauz.  

Many amongst the Gagauz claim that they are the direct descendants of the original Bolgars, a pagan nomadic Turkic tribe which conquered the region of modern Bulgaria in the 9th century where they converted to Orthodox Christianity and founded an Empire which was the foundation of the modern Bulgarian nation.  However these ancient Bolgars were soon assimilated into the majority Slavic speaking population which then adopted the Bolgar name. 1.

Whatever their origins, under the administrative system of the Ottoman Empire the Christian Orthodox religion of the Gagauz and their close association with Slavic speakers meant they were classed as Bulgarians despite their Turkish language.   There was considerable intermarriage between Gagauz and Bulgarians, and many people were bilingual.  These Turkish speaking Bulgarian Christians were the ancestors of the modern Gagauz people.  The majority migrated to Russian controlled territory in the early 19th century from the southern Dobruja region of modern north-eastern Bulgaria but small groups of Turkish speaking Christians remain in Bulgaria even today.

From 1816 the Balkan Christians were settled in dispersed communities over a large region stretching deep into what is now Ukraine.  However over the following decades the Bulgarian speakers tended to concentrate in the region south and west of the Black Sea port of Odessa, whereas the Gagauz gradually formed a compact group of settlements to the south west of the Bulgarians.  The region, nestled between the Prut and Dneister rivers, was then known as Bessarabia.  Gagauz settlement concentrated around the town of Comrat in southern Bessarabia.  Comrat soon became the cultural centre and unofficial capital of the Gagauz people.

The Gagauz came from a region of modern Bulgaria where wines have been produced for centuries and introduced viniculture to their new home, which even today remains a centre of wine production in Moldova.  The region nestled against the north eastern edge of the compact Romanian speaking area.  Local villages formed a complex patchwork of Romanians, Bulgarians, Gagauz, Russians, Ukrainians, Yiddish speaking Jews, Germans and other nationalities.  Just to the south of Gagauzia there was even a village inhabited by Italians.  

Although this is a highly politicised subject today, during the 19th century the Gagauz considered themselves Turkish speaking Bulgarians.  Gagauz children attended Bulgarian language schools.  During this period the name Gagauz was used by Bulgarian speakers to refer to Turkish speaking Bulgarian Orthodox Christians, but the Gagauz perferred to call themselves Hasli Bulgar ‘True Bulgars’ or Eski Bulgar ‘Old Bulgars’.  Until 1870, the Russian goverment classified the Gagauz in census returns as Bulgarians.  Even today the official position of the Bulgarian government is that the Gagauz are a Turkish speaking Bulgarian minority in Moldova.

Many Gagauz were bilingual in Bulgarian, many spoke Russian too, leading to a heavy Slavic influence in the Gagauz language.  Intermarriage between Gagauz and Bulgarian speakers and the other Orthodox Christian peoples of the region was frequent and commonplace.  Although the language difference was obvious to all, in culture and way of life there was little to distinguish the Gagauz from their Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian speaking neighbours.  There was little concept of a Gagauz nation during this period.

In the late 19th century the Tsarist government began campaigns to Russify the various nationalities of its southern borderlands.  The use of the Romanian and Bulgarian language was banned, as the Tsars sought to clamp down on the seccessionist movements breaking out across their vast and disparate Empire.  In reaction to this campaign, the minority peoples of the Tsarist Empire sought to create their own cultural and educational facilities in order to protect their languages and culture.  The first stirrings of Gagauz national consciousness date to this time.

The period was one of political turmoil and upset throughout the Russian Empire.  In 1906 a peasant rebellion led to the creation of the independent Republic of Comrat, centred on the predominantly Gagauz town of the same name.  Although not exactly a Gagauz national rebellion many local Gagauz supported the new republic, as did local Bulgarians, Romanians and members of other ethnicities.  Sources for this confused period of history vary, but the new republic collapsed within a few days and was once again brought under the control of the Tsars.  Today’s Gagauz look to the Republic of Comrat as the inspiration behind their modern claim to national sovereignty.

With the downfall of the Tsars after WWI, the entire territory between the Dneister and Prut rivers came under Romanian rule.  The great majority of the inhabitants of this area speak Romanian, it contains most of the modern Republic of Moldova, but the southern and eastern districts were inhabited by a mixture of Ukrainians, Russians, Germans, Yiddish speaking Jews, Gagauz and Bulgarians and others.  In the chaos surrounding the collapse of Tsarist Russia, the provisional council of Bessarabia voted to unite with Romania.  35% of deputies to the council, those who represented the minority non-Romanian speaking populations, abstained in the vote.   

The Romanian government, in theory, guaranteed cultural autonomy and schools for the non-Romanian inhabitants, but in practice they came under strong pressure to assimilate to Romanian language and culture.  Few amongst the minorities spoke Romanian, Russian was the preferred language for inter-ethnic communication in southern Bessarabia and many resented the new need to acquire Romanian in order to communicate with state institutions and officials.  The region was economically neglected by the Romanian authorities in Bucharest. Interwar Romania was notorious for official corruption and misuse of funds.

Under the Fascist regime of General Ion Antonescu, Romania entered WW2 as an ally of Nazi Germany.  Hitler rewarded Romania with territory seized from Stalin’s Russia.  Gagauz schools and cultural institutions were closed down, activists and intellectuals were arrested and imprisoned.  The local Russian and Ukrainian population, suspected of sympathies with the Soviet Union, came under even greater pressure.  However none fared as badly as the region’s substantial Jewish population who were dispossessed of their property, rounded up and deported to death camps.  The once thriving and substantial Jewish community of Bessarabia was almost exterminated.

As the tide of war turned, Stalin’s forces captured Bessarabia and marched into Romania.  The local German population fled in advance of the Red Army.  Many Gagauz welcomed the Russians as liberators.  All the lands between the Dniester and Prut rivers were annexed to the Soviet Union.  The Soviets immediately began to manipulate the complex ethnic divisions of Bessarabia.  The southernmost region was split off from the remainder and given to Ukraine.  Most of the inhabitants of this area were Bulgarians, Ukrainians or Russians, but there was also a large Romanian speaking minority and some 35,000 Gagauz.  This area remains a part of modern Ukraine.

The remainder of Bessarabia formed the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia.  A strip of formerly Ukrainian territory along the opposite side of the Dniester was attached to it, the territory of the modern breakaway Republic of Transnitria .  This area was predominantly inhabited by Ukrainians and Russians with a large Romanian speaking minority.  

Under the Soviet policy of nationalities, the titular people of a Soviet Republic could not also be members of a non-Soviet nation.  The Soviets declared that the Romanian speakers of Moldavia were not in fact Romanian, they were a different Moldovan nation.  The Romanian of Moldavia was henceforth to be written in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, and was officially deemed to be a different language from Romanian.  The border between Romania and Moldavia was closed to ordinary citizens, cutting family ties across the new frontier.  Collectivisation was forced upon the peasant farmers of Moldavia creating widespread famine.  Political repression was severe, many were deported to Soviet Central Asia or Siberia.  Politically reliable Ukrainian and Russian speakers were encouraged to migrate to Moldavia, where they were given preference in administrative and government jobs.   

For the Gagauz, Soviet rule meant a theoretical restoration of their cultural rights.  But they came at a heavy price.   The Gagauz bore the effects of Sovietisation as much as the Romanian speakers, and were considered equally politically unreliable by the country’s new masters.  Although officially guaranteed their own educational system, in practice Russian was widely used as the medium of education in Gagauz schools and a knowledge of Russian was essential for social progress.  School books in Gagauz were few and far between, and Gagauz education was offered only in the first years of primary school.  Many Gagauz parents opted to send their children to Russian language schools instead.  Romanian, whether in its Moldavian guise or its Romanian guise, was not usually taught.  As a result of these Russification policies, today over a quarter of Gagauz report that their first language is Russian.   

After the death of Stalin, stagnation set in in Moldavia. The Republic was regarded by the central planners in Moscow as the market garden of the Soviet Union.  Industrial development was not encouraged except in the Transnitria region, which by then had a majority of Russian and Ukrainians.  

By the late 1980s the creaking Soviet system was beginning to crack wide open.  Moldovans began to assert their right to sovereignty and grew increasingly unafraid of Moscow.  In 1989 the Soviet Republic of Moldova passed a new language law declaring that Moldovan was identical to Romanian and was the official language of the republic.  The Latin alphabet as used in Romania was restored.

The Republic’s minorities viewed events with suspicion.  Few spoke Romanian, and many were worried about the impact upon their lives, especially as the Romanian speaking majority spoke more and more openly about independence or reuniting with Romania.  Elements of the Soviet armed forces and intelligence services fostered these fears, in the hope of weakening the growing challenge to their authority.

By August 1990 the situation was growing tense, in southern Moldavia armed militias controlled local villages, creating a patchwork of districts loyal to the Moldavian government and those opposed to it.  The Gagauz proclaimed their autonomy, although the borders of their territory remained vague and ill-defined.  The Moldavian authorities in Chisinau refused to recognise the new Gagauz council and annulled the declaration.

Tensions continued to rise.  In December 1990 violence broke out between pro-Russian and pro-Moldavian supporters in the city of Dubasari.  The violence spread to Comrat, where Gagauz nationalists faced off against the Moldavian police force.  A stand-off ensued, but no progress was made toward resolving the dispute, eyes were focussed on wider events across the Soviet Union which continued its path to disintegration.  On 18 August 1991, the Gagauz attempted to forestall events by declaring independence from Moldavia.  Moldavia refused to recognise the declaration.  

The event was entirely overlooked by the world’s media.  That very same day hardliners in the Communist party set into effect their coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev which saw tanks take to the streets of the Russian capital.  The failure of the coup spelled the end for the USSR.

Transnitria also declared independence from Moldavia in 1991, setting off a civil war which ended in stalemate.  The Transnitrians were supported by elements within the Russian army. Fears grew that war would also break out in Gagauzia.  On August 27 that year, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia declared its independence from the Soviet Union as the new Republic of Moldova, reverting to an older Romanian version of the name.

The Russian and Ukrainian speaking deputies in the Moldavian parliament voted against the move, sparking off the Transnitrian War which ended in stalemate with the de-facto independence of Transnitria, an independence not recognised by any country in the world. However, much to the surprise of many amongst the Romanian speaking community, half of the 12 Gagauz deputies voted in favour, the remainder abstained.  The Gagauz recognised that the Romanian speakers had a right to self-determination, they just wanted the same right.

The vote permitted a breakthrough, and although negotiations were often fraught, a deal was struck.  Gagauzia was recognised as a self-governing autonomous region within Moldova.  At this time many still believed that Moldova would unite with Romania, the Gagauz insisted that a clause be inserted in the agreement stating that should the status of Moldova as an independent country ever change, the Gagauz would have the right to self-determination.

The agreement also set the framework for the territorial extent of Gagauzia.  All districts where more than 50% of the population were Gagauz were automatically to be included.  In areas where the Gagauz made up between 40% and 50% of the population, a popular referendum was to be held.  The new Gagauzia is made up of two main blocks of territory, with two much smaller districts between them.  Most of the inhabitants of the surrounding area are Bulgarians.

Gagauzia still has many problems.  Corruption is rife, but this is a problem widespread throughout the region, it’s not specific to Gagauzia.  The economy remains underdeveloped, and political instability continues to plague the country.  In 2002 the president was removed from office by the High Court amidst accusations of corruption.

Progress has been made, tiny Gagauzia has its own national public television and radio broadcaster Gagauzia Radio Televizionu, something Scotland has yet to achieve.  The college in Comrat was elevated to the status of university, although most of the courses are taught in Russian.  Many Turkish companies have taken an interest in the area due to the similarity in language.  The Turkish government donated US$35 million to improve the region’s road network.  But change is slow.  Suspicions remain amongst many that Gagauzia gets a poor deal from the Moldavan government in Chisinau.  But the Gagauz know that for the first time in their history they have achieved self-government, and they have no intention of giving it up.

The accusation that Scotland is too poor, too wee and too stupid to be independent is the stereotypical slur of the dyed-in-the-wool Unionist.  Yet of all the countries in Europe the Gagauz are perhaps most susceptible to being subject to this insulting characterisation.  They number a mere 170,000 in total, smaller in population than the city of Aberdeen in an area of approximately 1,800 km2,  only slightly larger than the old county of Banff.  The Gagauz inhabit the poorest country in Europe.  Gagauzia has no oil, coal, gas or mineral resources, it has almost no industry to speak of and no mineral resources to exploit.  Gagauzia didn’t even possess a university until relatively recently.  Yet when they saw a real chance to attain the autonomy and self-government that many had longed for, the Gagauz leapt at it, and succeeded peacefully in gaining what they wanted.

There’s another important lesson to be learned from the Gagauz.  It doesn’t really matter about ancient history, it’s who you are now which is important.  The Gagauz may not be a people with a long past, but they are very much a nation now – and will continue to be so.

1. Although popular amongst the Gagauz, the theory of Bolgar origins is unlikely to be true.  The Bolgar Turkic language was only distantly related to the other Turkic languages, its closest living relative is the Chuvash language of the central Volga region.  Chuvash differs substantially from other Turkic languages.  The modern Gagauz language is far more closely related to the Turkish of modern Turkey and is mutually intelligible with it without too many difficulties.  Modern linguists classify the two as belonging to the same Oghuz sub-group within Turkic.