Sunday

19th Feb 2017

Opinion

Gagauzia: A new attack on the Eastern Partnership?

  • People gather for mass at the Comrat cathedral in Gagauzia (Photo: Guttorm Flatabo)

With world attention fixed on Ukraine, the referendum on Sunday (2 February) in Gagauzia, a part of Moldova which few people have heard of, did not get much attention.

The Gagauz - some 150,000 people, who are Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christians - voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining Russia’s Customs Union instead of EU integration.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

EU neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele had recently visited the region.

He spoke of the potential benefits of closer EU-Moldova ties, highlighting prospects for EU visa-free travel.

His intervention did nothing to change the outcome, however. As Gagauz envoys explained on a visit to Brussels last week, they want easier access to the Russian labour market instead.

Sunday’s referendum also had a question about Gagauzia’s right to declare independence from Moldova. Again, an overwhleming majority wanted the right to secede.

The referendum has no legal consequences because Moldovan courts have ruled it illegal.

But it does have the potential to revive recent protests against Moldova’s plan to sign an EU association and free trade treaty.

More dangerously, it has the potential to enflame separatist tendencies.

Moldova already has one breakaway region, which has become a de facto state and a source of long-term instability: Transniestria.

The business interests of the Transniestrian elite are becoming increasingly tied to the EU, however.

The region has no border with Russia, and it is does not depend on Russian markets or subsidies to the same extent as other breakaway entities in the former Soviet territories.

If Moldova-Transniestria relations mend, the Gagauzia referendum is an alternative source of instability.

Some pro-Russian politicians in Chisianu are already calling for similar votes in other parts of Moldova.

As a former Georgian ambassador, I can tell you that these processes can, in the worst case scenario, spiral into armed confrontation.

This is what happened in Georgia in the 1990s. Our civil wars began with autonomous regions deciding, via referendums, to stay in the USSR.

The Gagauz development clearly serves Russian interests.

There are rumours the referendum was funded by Russian oligarchs of Gagauz origin. Some low-level Russian MPs frequented the region recently and Russian media have increased pro-Customs-Union content in Moldova.

But there is no hard evidence of a Russian destabilisation campaign.

Whether or not the Gagauz vote was a spontaneous event, the EU needs to maintain a watchful eye.

It should step up its public diplomacy in Moldova, with high-visibility economic projects that benefit local people, and more high-level visits, including to local municipalities.

It should speed up preparations to sign the association and free trade pact.

It should also start a dialogue with Russia to avert the kind of crisis which unfolded in Ukraine.

Russia, which knows the nooks and crannies of its former empire better than EU diplomats do, also knows how to make pro-EU reforms falter.

It would be great if the Kremlin understood that the spread of stability, democracy, rule of law, and the prosperity they bring, are in Russia’s own interests.

But it seems we are still a long way from reaching this point.

The writer is Georgia's former ambassador to Brussels and a visiting fellow at the Centre for European Studies, a think tank

The need for global cooperation in stopping Iran

Although Trump said he would tear up the Iran Nuclear Agreement, the new administration seems to want to work on a new policy toward Iran. Let's hope European leaders will respond in kind to this approach.

A bold call for traineeship equality

The EU ombudsman's slapdown of the EU diplomatic service's unpaid internship programs offers a glimmer of hope to a future of paid internships in Europe.

News in Brief

  1. Migrants storm Spanish enclave of Ceuta
  2. Spain's princess fined for tax fraud, husband sentenced
  3. EU to invest millions in energy infrastructure
  4. Dutch data watchdog forces online vote aides to up security
  5. EU allows Lithuania to ban Russian tv channel
  6. Finland announces increase in defence spending
  7. Ex-PM Blair says Brits should 'rise up' against Brexit
  8. Nato chief says facts to prevail over fake news

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Malta EU 2017End of Roaming Fees: Council Reaches Agreement on Wholesale Caps
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Innovation House Opens in New York to Help Startups Access US Market
  3. Centre Maurits CoppietersMinorities and Migrations
  4. Salzburg Global SeminarThe Child in the City: Health, Parks and Play
  5. UNICEFNumber of Ukrainian Children Needing Aid Nearly Doubles to 1 Million Over the Past Year
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersThe Situation of Refugee Women in Europe
  7. Salzburg Global SeminarToward a Shared Culture of Health: Charting the Patient-Clinician Relationship
  8. European Free AllianceAustria Should Preserve & Promote Bilingual and Multinational Carinthia
  9. Martens CentreShow Your Love for Democracy! Take Part in Our Contest: "If It's Broken, Let's Fix It"
  10. CISPECloud Computing Leaders Establish Data Protection Standards to Protect Customer Data
  11. Malta EU 2017Landmark Deal Reached With European Parliament on Portability of Online Content
  12. Belgrade Security ForumBSF 2017: Building a Common Future in the Age of Uncertainty