Reflections on Ukraine, Russian Destabilization, Ethnic Separatism, the Gagauz People, a Voyage to Odessa and the So-Called “Bessarabian Republic”

As Vladimir Putin seeks to wrest back control over the former Soviet sphere of influence, many have focused on the smoldering conflict in eastern Ukraine. Peer further, however, and other lesser-known regions of Ukraine have received scant attention. In a previous piece, I explored the complex ethnic politics at play in western Transcarpathia, where the Kremlin seems to have conducted efforts at sowing dissension and stirring secessionist sentiment so as to weaken Kyiv’s central control. Fortunately, however, Transcarpathia never succumbed to Russian intrigue and for now the diverse ethnic population has learned to live in peace.

Though Transcarpathia’s history is highly complex if not outright Byzantine, this region is nothing when compared with the turbulent area known as Bessarabia, another delicate ethnic enclave which represents a decidedly tempting target for the Kremlin. “Bessarabia” only existed very briefly as an independent state, and the territory has changed hands a whopping nine times in just over 200 years. Currently, the territory is physically split between Moldova on the one hand and Budjak or Ukrainian Bessarabia, on the other. It’s a situation which Moscow may be primed to exploit, since Moldova, having only achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is a relatively recent and weak state. Furthermore, Moldova has its own problems with the eastern breakaway republic of Transnistria, where an estimated 1,500 Russian troops are currently stationed. For Kyiv, Transnistria is too close for comfort as the rogue republic shares a 250-mile long border with western Ukraine.

Russia may be interested in linking up its motley and assorted territories in the wider region and stirring up trouble in Bessarabia makes strategic sense. Look at the map and it’s easy to see why: to the south lies Russian-annexed Crimea, while to the east Moscow is backing its own violent separatist movements in Luhansk and Donetsk. Traveling north from Crimea, one comes upon the cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse Ukrainian city of Odessa, where Russian separatists tried but failed to spark a secessionist movement three years ago. While it’s unclear whether Russian destabilization will prevail, Moscow may seek to manipulate ethnic minorities by playing up historic Russian ties which be stronger than, say Moldovan central authority let alone Ukraine, which similarly only achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Voyage to Odessa

Though Bessarabia never really took root historically as an independent entity, the concept is still somewhat familiar within Ukrainian consciousness. In Kyiv, I make several visits to the historic indoor Besarabsky market, located close to Maidan square. Later, while conducting interviews in Odessa, I meet with local journalist Sergei Ischenko in an effort to learn more about long-held political and ethnic fissures within the region. Bessarabia, he tells me, is a manufactured political concept which may receive some encouragement from Russia’s FSB intelligence. Nevertheless, he adds, ethnic minorities living in outlying rural villages may be vulnerable to Russian propaganda because they recall or feel a degree of nostalgia for the old Soviet Union.

Bessarabsky market in Kyiv
Bessarabsky market in Kyiv

Indeed, Russia’s cultural and political influence within Bessarabia is certainly pervasive. Even before the rise of the Soviet Union, Russian Czars wrested control over the region from the ailing Ottomans. At the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-1812, the Turks ceded Bessarabia to Moscow, and the area became an official oblast or separate province within the Russian Empire. During the nineteenth century, the Czars pushed a policy of “Russification” upon local people through government, schools, press and the church. During the Soviet period, Russification continued, with some ethnic groups living in Bessarabia adopting Russian traits and culture. Russian was taught in schools and the Cyrillic script was introduced in the 1950s. Today, local political elites speak Russian, which has become a glorified second language to many.

Contentious History of the Gagauz

One important minority subjected to Russification policy was the Gagauz, a Turkic-speaking people espousing Orthodox Christianity. Their language has been described as a “north-western dialect of Turkish with many Slavic, particularly Bulgarian and lately Russian, additions.” Today, the Gagauz live mostly in Moldovan Bessarabia though some reside on the opposite side of the border within Ukraine. Unlike the breakaway republic of Transnistria, the Gagauz enjoy regional autonomy within Moldova (the Gagauz homeland, Gagauzia, lies just south of pro-Russia Transnistria along the Ukrainian border). The Gagauz are linguistically, ethnically, and culturally distinct from Moldovans and Ukrainians and are keenly aware of their strategic importance within the wider political stakes.

One could easily write a ten-volume history of the Gagauz and their relationship toward Russians and Ukrainians; suffice it to say this ethnic minority certainly has reason to be wary of both groups. To be sure, the Gagauz succeeded in reviving their culture under Czarist rule during the nineteenth century, and the production of famous local white wines was allowed to flourish. However, Russian rule quickly became more and more oppressive, with Moscow exerting great pressure on the Gagauz to assimilate.

In tandem with other movements across Europe, the Gagauz launched a nationalist movement in 1848 which was brutally put down by Russian Cossacks. In 1905, with civil unrest spreading throughout the Czarist Empire, the Gagauz again revolted but were repressed. Two years later, the Gagauz banded together with Moldovans to spearhead a joint rebellion which was similarly quashed. Later, during the Russian Revolution, Moldova declared its independence but the area was subsequently invaded by Ukrainian nationalists and Bolsheviks.

Moldova’s Gagauz

In light of this contentious history, where does the small, 160,000-strong Gagauz community of Moldova stand in relation to Russia? Throughout their history, the Gagauz have oscillated between resistance to Russia on the one hand, and assimilation on the other. While the Gagauz are hardly clamoring for Moscow to annex their territory so as to relive the Czarist and Soviet eras, people here hold deep political ties to Russia. Recent developments underscore such trends: in 2014, when Moldova signed an Association Agreement with the European Union, Russia firmly objected to the measure and promoted its own non-binding referendum within the autonomous Moldovan territory of Gaugazia, within old historic Bessarabia. In that vote, a whopping 99 percent of Gagauz voted against the accord and in favor of joining Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.

In a ludicrous spiral to the bottom, however, Moldova then declared the Gagauz referendum null and unconstitutional. To complete the political pantomime, Russia struck back against Moldova by imposing an economic ban on the small nation’s products, though not surprisingly Moscow provided an exception for locally produced Gagauz wine and agricultural goods. Since the 2014 referendum, Moldova has been in a state of political limbo, with the country’s recently elected president saying he might try to scrap the E.U. association agreement in favor of closer ties with Moscow. If the president’s socialist party wins parliamentary elections in 2018, then Moldova might get its chance to do precisely that.

Ukrainian Gagauz Legislator

Just what do the Gagauz think of rising tensions which threaten to engulf them? For answers I speak with Yuri Dimchoglo, a Gagauz member of the Odessa regional council. Dimchoglo originally hails from Moldovan Bessarabia and seems a little bemused that an outsider would take such a keen interest in the Gagauz. Brash and larger than life, he gestures toward a map of the region while providing a blow-by-blow description of his people’s long and convoluted history. Originally, he says, the Gagauz hailed from the Altai Mountains of Russia, but later migrated to the Balkans where they were converted to Christianity and abandoned earlier pagan beliefs.

From there, Dimchoglo proceeds to tell his tale in dizzying detail, touching upon Ottoman religious persecution of the Gagauz and the roots of conflict between Russia and Turkey. Later, the Gagauz migrated to Bessarabia, along with other Orthodox Christians such as Albanians and Bulgarians. “Do the Gagauz consider themselves more Turkish, Russian, Ukrainian or Gagauz/Moldavian”? I ask. Dimchoglo lets out a deep belly laugh, remarking “It’s a very long story! We’re an eclectic mix of Christian Orthodox Turks! Our language is more Turkish, but we’re not Muslim. Culturally we’re a jumbled mix of Turkish and Balkan.”

Bessarabian Budjak

Dimchoglo becomes animated as he relates all the colorful details of his people’s long and tumultuous past, so after a time I seek to steer the discussion back to the present. Compared to Russia, which was the leading hegemon for about two hundred years, Ukraine and Moldova are relatively recent arrivals on the regional scene. Dimchoglo remarks that in Ukraine’s Bessarabian Budjak, older folk typically declare they are Gagauz but “born in Ukraine,” while the younger generation answers unequivocally “we are Ukrainian.” The legislator adds that he himself learned Ukrainian ten years ago and speaks the language well. Youngsters, he adds, are all bilingual Gaguaz-Ukranian while older folk speak Russian. In twenty or thirty years, Dimchoglo believes that Russian won’t disappear but the language will occupy a decidedly second tier within the Gagauz community.

According to the politician, Ukraine doesn’t discriminate against the Gagauz in Budjak. In fact, my entire line of questioning along these lines elicits amusement from Dimchoglo, who points out that Ukrainians actually make up the minority in some areas of Bessarabia. Statistically speaking, Ukrainians themselves don’t even account for 50% of Budjak’s 570,000 people, with Bulgarians, Russians, Gagauz and Albanians making up the bulk of the region’s population. “We Gagauz don’t suffer from any discrimination,” Dimchoglo remarks, adding “you might ask the Ukrainians whether they feel oppressed!” The legislator goes out of his way to praise Kyiv for displaying tolerance toward the Gagauz. The Ministry of Education, he tells me, actually encourages Gagauz villages to teach students in their native language. Ukraine furthermore prints books for children in the native Gagauz language, and by law regional authorities must answer all correspondence in Gagauz if officials receive letters written in the native language. Dimchoglo furthermore claims his people are well integrated into the civil service, with Gagauz accounting for half the police force in one local district. “The head of the police department is Gagauz!” he exclaims.

Russian Intrigue

Ischenko, the journalist, does not think Gagauz or other minorities such as Bulgarians are susceptible to secessionist sentiment, though he differs somewhat with Dimchoglo. Within Budjak, he explains, Ukrainian media is quite weak while Russian media tends to dominate. As a result of Moscow’s pronounced cultural reach, different ethnic groups within the area tend to be more pro-Russian. Poor infrastructure, meanwhile, including a lack of suitable roads, hinders Budjak’s further integration into Ukraine.

Meanwhile, across the border in Moldova, Russian influence is reportedly even more pervasive. Indeed, just two years ago more than half the Gagauz population voted for pro-Russian socialist candidate Irina Vlah during a local election in Gagauzia. During the campaign, Moscow sent representatives to Comrat, the Gagauz capital, to shore up support for its candidate. Vlah was later elected governor or bashkan, thus underscoring Russian prestige and underlying anti-E.U. sentiment.

Gagauzia is currently an autonomous region within Moldova, but could the area declare independence, adding yet another Russian client-state to Vladimir Putin’s wish list? Legally speaking, such a move would be highly dubious since a 2003 amendment to Moldova’s constitution explicitly prevents the Gagauz from declaring their own state. Nevertheless, Gaugazia president Mihail Formuzal has said that while his people seek mere autonomy, the Gaugaz might be forced to secede if pro-western political forces in Moldova ultimately prevail and opt to move ahead with pro-E.U. and pro-NATO agreements. Gaugazia is an impoverished and neglected region of Moldova, and Formuzal claims the central government practices ethnic discrimination toward the Gagauz, a view which certainly provides a counterpoint to Dimchoglo’s more benign picture of life across the border in Budjak.

Bessarabia and Post-Maidan Milieu

Is there a real possibility then of ethnic or “Bessarabian” secession? There’s very little historic precedent to think so, with the exception of some brief episodes in the early twentieth century. After political unrest swept through Czarist Russia in 1905, a nationalist movement emerged in Bessarabia and the Gagauz actually declared independence. The short-lived “Republic of Comrat” only lasted two weeks, however, before it was snuffed out by the Cossacks. Later, during the Russian Revolution, a political council or sfatul țărei was declared, and Bessarabian independence was established in early 1918. Problematically, however, Bessarabia found itself within the new nation of Moldova, which had also declared itself independent of Russia. Fearing the advancing Bolsheviks, Moldova voted to unite with Romania and brought Bessarabia along with it.

Despite such fading historical memories, Russia may wish to resuscitate age-old Bessarabia to further its own interests. In the wake of the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan revolution, Ukraine witnessed a spike in secessionist sentiment and talk began to circulate of a so-called “People’s Republic of Bessarabia” in southwestern Ukraine. The Economist reported the new territory would resemble separatist republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region, with possible leaders including former Soviet army officers living in the Bolgrad district, which is mostly ethnically Bulgarian. In early 2015, the “Bessarabian People’s Rada” convened a conference in Odessa which assumed anti-E.U. and anti-NATO positions. Attendees at the conference included pro-Russia figures from Moldova and a Bulgarian politician.

Bessarabia and Fake News

Needless to say, Ukrainian authorities cracked down on the separatists, which in turn led Russian TV to denounce Kyiv’s “detention and intimidation” of local ethnic minorities. Kremlin-backed Russia Today reported breathlessly that “a popular gathering of Bessarabian residents” had elected a “People’s Governor” to protect them from Kyiv and newly appointed Odessa governor Mikheil Saakashvili. “THIS IS FAKE NEWS!” exclaims Dimchoglo in English back in his Odessa office. “It’s the same as when they claimed it was prohibited to speak Russian in Odessa, which was a sheer rumor.”

In the end secessionist efforts fizzled, which the Economist attributes to sheer psychological fear. “War in the east has dampened enthusiasm for separatism,” notes the publication. The magazine notes that an armed tragedy in May, 2014 which led to the deaths of dozens of pro-Russian activists in Odessa “has also chilled any desire for revolt against Kiev. Pro-Russian leaders have fled and opportunistic politicians have shifted towards supporting the unity of Ukraine.”

In light of recent events, what are the prospects for inter-ethnic understanding? In Odessa, Praviy Sektor or Right Sektor, a right wing Ukrainian party, has become a fixture of the local political scene. The group has targeted ethnic peoples in street demonstrations, with militants accusing minorities of fomenting Bessarabia secession. Dimchoglo laughs it all off, remarking that there’s little tension between the Gagauz and right wing Ukrainians. The legislator adds that ironically, one Gagauz man even joined Praviy Sektor. “He had been working in the Border Patrol,” Dimchoglo chuckles, “but he’s the only Gagauz in the entire group.”

Nevertheless, as the war in the Ukrainian east has worsened, ethnic minorities have been placed in a difficult position. In the local Budjak town of Izmail, support for the Ukrainian war effort is reportedly quite unpopular, and those who solicit donations for the troops have been socially ostracized. Dimchoglo says some Gagauz, Bulgarians and Albanians have been conscripted into the Ukrainian army. “The Gagauz don’t want to be in the Ukrainian army,” Dimchoglo remarks, “not because they have anything against Ukraine but because they don’t want to be in any war.” For now, at least, the Gagauz are trying to get along in Ukraine rather than seeking to revive age-old notions of Bessarabia and linking up with their compatriots across the border.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer and photographer. See his booklet, Ukraine’s Revolutionary Ghosts.

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