Pro-Russian candidate wins Gagauz election, demands increased autonomy from Moldova

Russian-backed Irina Vlah wants new powers over foreign affairs, trade · Gagauzia distrusts Moldovan way towards EU integration, fears it will harm its economy · 98% of Gagauz voters supported in 2014 closer links with Russian-led Customs Union

Voters reaffirmed on Sunday Gagauzia's bet to strengthen ties with Russia and to get more leeway from the Moldovan government. Backed by Russia and by the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), Irina Vlah (left picture) was elected as Gagauzia's new governor, or bashkan, with 51% of the votes. This was a wide margin ahead of second placed Nicolai Dudoglo (19%), who enjoyed support from pro-European Democratic Party of Moldova.

Gagauzia is Moldova's only autonomous territory. Since 1994 it has had a president, a parliament and a government of its own. 82% of the inhabitants there belong to the Christian Orthodox, Turkic-speaking Gagauz people. Unlike the Moldovan government, which favors EU integration, the Gagauz authorities pursue a pro-Russian orientation resulting in a difficult political coexistence between both executives.

More Russia, more autonomy, and an offer to Chisinau

Vlah's manifesto vows an explicit rapprochement to Russia. In a 2014 non-binding referendum, 98% of Gagauz voters said they preferred closer links with the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union than EU integration. The new baskhan's program goes on to state that Russia "is the guarantor of Moldova's statehood and of the autonomy of Gagauzia."

Gagauz interest towards Russia has quite to do with economy and trade. The wine sector accounts for 60% of Gagauzia's industrial production, and many Gagauz families own wine business, even if small ones. 45% of Gagauz wine exports were sent to Russia in 2013. That same year, two months before Moldova initialed the Association Agreement with the EU, the Kremlin imposed a ban on Moldovan wines and other products. But several Gagauz wineries were exempt from the veto, and thus were able to continue to trade with Russia. Later on, Russia also agreed to lift the ban of Gagauz apples.

Moreover, the government of Gagauzia fears that an eventual EU integration will harm Gagauz interests. On the one side, Gagauz leaders fear their products will not be competitive in the EU market -this argument is shared by pro-Russian Moldovans. On the other, Gagauz authorities do not want their citizens being blocked from access to the Russian labor market. Without strong industry or a developped service sector, emigration to Russia -and to Turkey, Gagauzia's other main foreign partner- continues to be an option for some Gagauzians.

This explains why Gagauzia is seeking more leeway in economy and foreign relations. Vlah's manifesto calls on Moldova to grant Gagauzia new powers over foreign affairs and foreign trade. For Gagauzia, this could be a way to carry out its own political relations with Russia and Turkey without needing to rely on Chisinau. Many analysts point out that Russia is also interested in partnering with Gagauzia because, they argue, it makes it easier for the Kremlin to have leverage on Moldova's geopolitical orientation from within.

Still, Vlah will need to balance her stance. At least, in the short term. 50% of the Gagauz budget is guaranteed by the Moldovan state, so the new baskhan will be able to exert pressure on Chisinau just to a certain limit. In an interview after having won the election, Vlah offered "peace and good relations" to the Moldovan government in exchange for eased relations with Russia. In any case, the ability of the bashkan to negotiate with Chisinau from a position of strength will greatly depend on how much political and economic support Moscow is willing to give her.