What happens in Gagauzia rarely makes news. But, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the small region of Gagauzia in southeastern Moldova can signal easily missed changes in Moldova’s path to European integration.
What happens in Gagauzia rarely makes news. But, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the small region of Gagauzia in southeastern Moldova can signal easily missed changes in Moldova’s path to European integration. On March 22, the Gagauz Autonomous Region of the Republic of Moldova held elections. Irina Vlah, pro-Russian member of the Moldovan parliament since 2005, became the new governor of Gagauzia. She came in first out of ten contestants (all independent candidates) with 51.11 percent of the votes. Voter turnout was lower than it was a year ago in February 2014 (58.21 percent versus over 70 percent) when Gagauz authorities organized a referendum in response to the central government in signing of an Association Agreement with the EU. In the referendum, 98.4 percent of Gagauz voters expressed a preference for closer relations with the CIS Customs Union, and 98.9 percent of voters supported Gagauzia's right to declare independence should Moldova lose or surrender its own independence – presumably to Romania through EU integration. In a separate question, 97.2 percent of the Gagauz population opposed getting closer to the EU.
At the time, the referendum seemed to evoke the Crimean scenario and was deemed illegitimate by authorities in Chisinau. But the message was loud and clear about the pro-Russian affinities of the Moldovan Gagauz and about where a further stumbling block for EU integration might arise.
The Gagauz elections come against a complex political background. The new Moldovan prime minister, Chiril Gaburici, was officially nominated by Moldova’s president on February 14, 2015, three months after the November 2014 general elections, and he was voted in by a weak coalition composed of two pro-European parties and the communists. Gaburici’s government has not been spared scandals, dug up by the local press, and is seen as vulnerable to the political whims of the coalition. For Vlah, this was a perfect opportunity to make her case in the elections –with support, of course, from Moldova’s notoriously pro-Russian Socialist Party. In January, she left the Communist Party as a result of its negotiations with the pro-European parties, which she sees as a threat to the pro-Russian leanings of the Gagauz population.
Both the OSCE and the EU have recommended that Moldova change its constitution and move more decisively toward regionalization, reforms that are thought to better address the issue, among others, of national minorities such as the Gagauz. However, changing the constitution is not an easy endeavor in Chisinau, where the majority coalition is not aligned on every important issue and opening a debate about a constitutional reshuffle might prove to be a Pandora’s box.
A coherent and decisive coalition is needed in Chisinau if commitments made to the EU and, indeed, to Moldovan citizens – including those in Gagauzia and Transnistria – are to be fulfilled. The most recent EU progress report on the implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in the Republic of Moldova, published on March 25, is not a congratulatory one. The report notes that progress has slowed and corruption still has not been addressed effectively. Economic issues and the financial sector crisis are also singled out as serious shortcomings that will require much more resolve on the part of Moldova’s leaders. This dissatisfaction with government performance is also likely to translate into people’s sentiments toward the effectiveness of pro-EU parties (as seen in the elections last year) and in a broader sense toward the attractiveness of the European model of governance.
The results of the Gagauz elections also reconfirm the social and political complexity of former Soviet countries, where – unlike in Central Europe – the decision to join the EU had very few and feeble challengers. It is still unclear whether the West has fully understood the dilemma faced by nations like Moldova and have worked toward the best ways to approach it. Part of this dilemma might seem quite simplistic, but it has to do with whether people are going to see an improvement in their personal well-being as a result of moving closer to the EU rather than to Russia. This will depend in part on the EU’s commitment to stay fully engaged in Moldova, but mostly on Moldova’s resolute orientation toward reform. Any other course of action should seem inconceivable.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Photo: Public Domain
03 April 2015