Election in Gagauzia Has Potential to Undermine Moldova’s Stability

Victory by one of the pro-Russian candidates in the restive territory that leans towards Moscow would add to the pro-EU government’s woes, according to a news analysis published by Balkan Insight

Monument in Gagauzia saying Glory to work / Foto: SINOPSIS

On April 30, citizens of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia in southern Moldova will head to the polls to elect a new Governor, known locally as the Başkan.

The Governor is elected for a five-year term and serves as the head of Gagauzia’s executive branch, as well as being an ex-officio member of the Moldovan cabinet.

Eight candidates are competing for the coveted office. As it stands, there are three frontrunners: Dmitrii Croitor, Viktor Petrov, and Yevgenia Hutsul.

Croitor is the most moderate and experienced of the three. He served as Governor of Gagauzia from 1999 until 2002 and has also served as Moldova’s ambassador to Turkey since 2020. This point is particularly important, as although they have been heavily Russified, the Gagauz are a Turkic ethnic group, and Istanbul has invested heavily in the autonomous region.

For several weeks, Croitor has toured the region under the slogan “Believe in Gagauzia! Choose the Future!” On his campaign tour, Croitor has promised to address the region’s most pressing issues, such as rising energy prices, the mass exodus of young people and poor infrastructure.

Unlike Petrov or Hutsul, however, Croitor has addressed these issues without criticizing Moldova’s current pro-European government, or calling for closer relations with Russia. For example, when addressing rising energy prices, Croitor did not propose improving ties with Russia to secure cheaper gas, as Petrov has. Instead, he promised to invest in solar energy.

Petrov differs considerably from Croitor. Petrov is the chairman of the People’s Union of Gagauzia and serves as a deputy in the region’s legislature, the People’s Assembly. Founded by Petrov in June 2022, the People’s Union of Gagauzia is a pro-Russian populist group that utilizes Soviet-era propaganda to appeal to Gagauzia’s aging population.

Under Petrov’s leadership, the People’s Union has campaigned against Moldova’s pro-European government. Petrov and his group regularly accuse it of discriminating against the minority populations and protest over the dismantling of any Soviet-era monuments.

Petrov has accused the Moldovan government of adopting a hostile position towards the Kremlin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In an interview posted on his Telegram channel, he questioned whether Russian forces were the real perpetrators of the Bucha massacre in Ukraine and criticized the government for taking sides before anything was “definitively proven”.

More recently, the People’s Union backed allegations made by the Kremlin that Ukraine was planning to attack Transnistria, issuing a statement condemning Ukraine for preparing “armed provocations against Moldova”.

Petrov has used the People’s Union and his position in the People’s Assembly to increase his visibility in the lead-up to the elections. Local branches of the People’s Union, active in towns and villages across Gagauzia, have been campaigning on his behalf. Petrov also joined a delegation sent by the People’s Assembly to visit Russia’s ambassador to Moldova, to discuss how Russia and Gagauzia could “improve bilateral relations”.

Under the slogan “Gagauzia of my dreams”, Petrov has promised to address many of the main issues impacting Gagauzia, including rising prices and underfunded medical facilities. However, unlike Croitor, he has blamed these longstanding problems on the policies of Moldova’s current government, particularly its contentious relationship with Russia. He has promised that if elected, he will restore ties with Russia, which he argues will solve many of the region’s problems. Petrov has also claimed that once in power, he will ensure that Chișinău and Gagauzia “negotiate as equals”.

Petrov has also made some vague and unrealistic promises. He claims that he will raise Gagauzia’s regional budget from 1.3 billion Moldovan lei to 5 billion over the next two years, without providing any details on how this will be achieved.

However, when it comes to making extravagant and unrealistic promises, nobody in the race comes close to Yevgenia Hutsul, a member of the pro-Russian populist Shor Party, whose leader, Ilan Shor, was recently sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison for stealing a billion US dollars from Moldovan banks in 2014.

Since last year, the Shor Party has been accused of colluding with the Russian security services to destabilize Moldova by paying thousands of protesters to regularly take to the streets of Chișinău. Recently, Moldova’s President, Maia Sandu, alleged that these protesters planned to topple the government forcibly.

Hutsul announced her campaign in Comrat, Gagauzia’s regional capital. The announcement was a spectacle. A large stage and screen were set up in the city’s centre. Hutsul and other and other members of the Shor Party, including Marina Tauber, who is also accused of corruption, addressed the crowd.

Shor himself appeared in a live video message and promised that if Hutsul were elected, the Shor Party would invest 500 million euros in Gagauzia, create 7,000 new jobs and open a representative office in Moscow. This latter pledge is very controversial, as a representative office would theoretically open bilateral relations between Gagauzia and Moscow. In 2017, there was international outrage when Transnistria, a separatist region in the east of Moldova, opened its own representative office in Moscow.

Hutsul’s campaign announcement was accompanied by a video that showed how Comrat would look if she were elected. The relatively impoverished city was transformed in the video into a futuristic capital with its own airport, rail service, modern apartments, and a transformed centre, complete with a statue of Hutsul.

Hutsul has received Russian support in the election. Leonid Slutsky, the Chairman of the Russian State Duma, openly endorsed her campaign. Several popular Russian singers in Gagauzia have also endorsed Hutsul’s election, claiming that she can turn “Gagauzia into the land of dreams”.

Hutsul has travelled across Gagauzia, organising rallies, screening her promotional video, and having Shor address the audience live. Obviously, such an intensive campaign costs money. However, as noted by Moldovan news outlet Nokta, in her financial report submitted to the central election committee, Hutsul claims she has received no money to support her campaign. The Shor Party has been accused of taking large sums of money from the Kremlin. Hutsul is likely hoping to avoid questions about where her campaign funds come from.

Moldova’s government will undoubtedly follow the upcoming elections closely. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, relations between Chișinău and Comrat have continuously deteriorated. Attempts by Moldova to distance itself from Russia have frustrated the mainly pro-Russian population of Gagauzia.

The People’s Assembly is currently dominated by pro-Russian deputies who are heavily critical of the country’s pro-European leadership. While tensions have remained high, these pro-Russian deputies have generally been restrained by the incumbent Governor, Irina Vlah, who has presented herself as a moderate figure. However, the election of either Hutsul or Petrov would mean that Gagauzia’s executive and legislative branches are controlled by openly pro-Russian forces.

Petrov and Hutsul have made it clear that they are unwilling to cooperate with the pro-EU government and have promised that, if elected, they will improve relations with Russia. With relations between Moldova and Russia at an all-time low, either candidate’s election would further strain relations between Chișinău and Comrat and likely further destabilize the fragile country.

Government officials and media analysts have acknowledged that the stakes are high in the election. Moldova’s Foreign Minister, Nicu Popescu, recently noted that Gagauzia was particularly susceptible to Russian propaganda and said the Kremlin hoped to exploit the region to further its goal of establishing hegemony over the Black Sea region.

Neither the ruling party, the Party of Action and Solidarity, nor President Sandu has openly endorsed any candidate. When questioned, Sandu claimed that she only hoped the next Governor would work in the interests of Gagauzia, not Russia. However, it is hard to imagine that Chișinău is not hoping Croitor wins and they have likely refrained from endorsing his campaign due to the current government’s unpopularity in Gagauzia.

Attitudes towards the three candidates vary in Gagauzia. More moderate forces within the region support Croitor. One of the region’s largest online outlets, Gagauzinfo.md, which generally supports moderate figures, initially backed Croitor. The website generally gave positive coverage to Croitor and the website contains a link to his official Facebook account, where he provides updates on his campaign. However, over the past few days, Gagauzinfo.md has increased its coverage on Hutsul, providing updates on which Russian celebrities or politicians have endorsed her campaign.

Information concerning Petrov’s campaign can only be found on the People’s Union’s website, or the pro-Russian telegram channels Gagauznews, whose website was removed for encouraging hatred, and on Gagauz Republic.

Governor’s elections are always important in Gagauzia. However, this year’s election is particularly significant because of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the continuously deteriorating relations between Chișinău and Moscow. The outcome will not only determine the course of relations between Chișinău and Moscow for the next five years but will also likely impact Moldova’s stability.

The election of an unapologetically pro-Russian candidate will not only further strain relations between Chișinău and Comrat – but also give Moscow another avenue to destabilize Moldova.

Dr Keith Harrington / BIRN

Dr Keith Harrington is a lecturer at the School of History and Geography at Dublin City University. The opinions expressed are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN

SHOWHIDE Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.