Gagauzia: Turkic, Orthodox crossroads between Moldova, Russia and Turkey

A people unsure of its origins. A land of welcome. Moldova’s last pro-Russian stronghold. Turkic language, Orthodox faith. Autonomy in a discontinuous territory. Agrarian culture. Such labels can be used to define in a few words the Gagauz people, a bridge between Turkey and Russia in southern Moldova, one of Europe’s most unknown countries.

Unlike other neighbouring peoples, such as the Romanians or Russians, who know well their origins and are aware of them, the Gagauz can only theorise about where they came from. Vera Garciu, a tourism expert from Gagauzia, explains: “We cannot determine what we [the Gagauz] have been doing for the last 500 years, but it is believed that our ancestors were the Oghuz, and we are a remnant of them.” The Oghuz were a federation of nomadic Turkic tribes living in Central Asia. One evidence supporting this hypothesis is gastronomy. Traditional preparations such as kaurma are believed to be “dishes invented by people who travelled long distances of many kilometres.” Kaurma consists of preserved meat that can be eaten for a long time, both in summer and winter.

This is not the only version of the origins of the Gagauz. Now retired journalist Anna Zhekova recalls that her grandfather “always said that we are Bulgarians.” She knows the Gagauz people well because she was the first journalist in Soviet times to work in the Gagauz language in a journal in Comrat, the territory’s capital. She explains that as an anecdote: “I don’t know how —probably by divine will— but I ended up working in a newspaper. I was just looking for a job.” Her editor, in 1969, asked Zhekova to publish at least one page in Gagauz, as well as to “bring together those who love the Gagauz language and write at least something in this language.” Her editor justified this by saying that there was no newspaper, journal, or magazine published in that language. And he said: “You will be the first.”

The future of the Gagauz people is also a topic of conversation. Officially, Gagauzia would have the right to self-determination if Moldova were to lose its independence. The most likely scenario for that to happen would be Moldova’s reunification with Romania. Gagauzia is nowadays Moldova’s only autonomy, which was achieved after Chisinau realised that it did not want a repeat of what had happened in Transnistria, where the Moldovan army fought a war (1990-1992) against Transnistrian forces. It is difficult today to put Gagauz independence on the table, but the issue could resurface if Chisinau was to consider EU membership, which is seen by some in Gagauzia as a covert attempt to join Romania. For this reason, the Gagauz have spoken out in favour of moving closer to Moscow-driven Eurasian Economic Union, which brings together Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Russia itself.

Closeness with Russia

Comrat has always had good relations with Moscow, even today. For this reason, in the last Moldovan parliamentary election, the pro-Russian parties won close to 90 percent of the vote in Gagauzia, although in Moldova as a whole they secured a mere 32 percent. Gagauzia was also the district where AUR party, which carries Moldova’s reunification with Romania as its banner, got the fewest votes —even in Transnistria the party gained more support. As analyst Dionis Cenusa of Moldovan think tank Expert Group comments, “the territory of the Gagauz autonomy had strong ties with Tsarist Russia, and more recently it has moved closer to post-Soviet Russia.” He believes that “given the anti-Russian stance of Moldovan governments over the past decade, the [Gagauz] autonomy has tried to capitalise on this politically and [through this] to gain economic advantages by building Kremlin connections.” Gagauzia’s current governor, Irina Vlah, is a member of pro-Russian Moldovan Socialist Party.

A Gagauz flag flies at the USSR's victory monument over Nazi Germany, during the 9 May holiday in Comrat. / Photo: Diego Herrera

Russophilia, however, is not only a political matter. In Comrat, Russian is the most widely used language everywhere. In the villages, Gagauz is more widely used, while in the cities, Russian is the mother tongue of a significant part of the population. Zhekova is one example. She explains that, when she agreed to write the Gagauz page in the newspaper, she felt unprepared: “I didn’t know how to think in Gagauz. I think in Russian, I write in Russian, and then I translate everything.” Romanian (also known as Moldavian in the country), a lingua franca throughout Moldova, is but a mirage in Gagauzia. The lack of its knowledge is such that Russian is often used as an auxiliary language. Garciu says: “Often, our students are not fluent [in Romanian], and thus it will be difficult for them” to study in Chisinau. For this reason, many young Gagauz “go to study in Transnistria instead, where Russian is spoken.”

This does not prevent Gagauzia and the rest of Moldova from having a relatively good relationship despite linguistic differences. According to Garciu, “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 peoples she mentions are not random, as all of them can be found in Gagauzia to a greater or lesser extent. To date, no political parties seek greater autonomy or independence for Gagauzia.

The Gagauz language, a member of the Turkic family, also helps understanding with Ankara, with whom the Gagauz have established trade relations. Turkey’s is one of the few consulates in Comrat. This rapprochement, a logical outcome for Turkey as it seeks good relations with all Turkic-speaking countries and peoples, worries Moscow and entails a conflict of interest between both countries. With the Turks, the Gagauz share their language and some traditional clothing; with the Russians, a historical background and the religion.

Three girls learn Gagauz traditional carpet weaving in the village of Gaidar. / Photo: Diego Herrera

Orthodox faith with a pagan touch

The Gagauz are part of the Orthodox Church. Although their ancestors were not Orthodox as they are believed to have embraced Tengrism —an ancient faith of Turkic and Mongolian peoples—, in recent history the Gagauz have always been Orthodox, to this day. They share that faith with both Moldova and Russia. As in many other former USSR territories, the religion has been revived, and temples have been rebuilt or newly made.

In addition, as it happens in many other peoples, remnants of ancient beliefs remain. Garciu explains that “now in the 21st century, pagan aspects are still used in our culture.” She gives several examples, such as the “rain ritual” or the “wolf worship.” “We have festivities that we dedicate to wolves: we simultaneously fear and respect them.” During those holidays, no mowing, harvesting, or any other work in the fields is allowed. Considering that nearly 70% of the region's GDP comes from the primary sector, these celebrations are days of total halt. A wolf was depicted as a central element in the first Gagauz flag, which was created in the 1990s.