Gagauzia is a largely agriculture-based region in Moldova named for the Gagauz people who inhabit the territory. The Gagauz are ethnically Turkic and speak a dialect of the Turkish language, in contrast with the Romanian and Russian-speaking Moldovan majority. The Gagauz make up just fewer than 150,000 of Moldova's population of 3.4 million and are concentrated mainly in the Comrat municipality and a few nearby communes in southern parts of the country. This territory is significant in the context of Moldova's broader strategic location between Russia, Turkey and the European Union.
Since Moldova's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Gagauzia has had strong separatist tendencies. The region declared independence from Moldova in August 1991, but after negotiations Chisinau agreed to grant the region the legal status of "special autonomous zone" in 1994. This diplomatic approach was in stark contrast with another breakaway region, Transdniestria, which fought a brief war with Moldova and achieved de facto independence with Russian military and economic support. Since then, Chisinau has struggled constantly to reintegrate Transdniestria while facing a broadly manageable political situation with Gagauzia.
However, the emergence of a Europe-oriented government in Moldova and the country's subsequent attempts to achieve closer integration with the European Union have upset the balance between Chisinau and Comrat. Following Moldova's initialing of key integration agreements with the European Union in November, authorities in Gagauzia announced plans to hold a referendum on the issue. While Moldova deemed the poll unconstitutional and tried to block it, the vote was held anyway. In addition to rejecting stronger EU ties in favor of integration with Russia, the vote (which had a reported participation of 70 percent) also showed overwhelming support for Gagauzia's right to declare independence from Moldova in the event the country cedes its own independence. Gagauzia's option to become independent was stipulated in the region's 1994 agreement with Chisinau over the special autonomous zone, so while the issue is redundant from a legal standpoint, it is nonetheless symbolic. The question also can be seen in the context of recent statements from Romanian officials on the possibility of Moldova's reunification with the country, either bilaterally or through the European Union.
There are several reasons for Gagauzia's referendum. One was to send a clear message to Chisinau that the region is firmly against EU integration and that any movement on that front could come with significant consequences. Another was to show Gagauzia's solidarity with Turkey, which has substantial influence in the region through financial assistance and various cultural initiatives. Perhaps most important, the referendum shows in a broader sense that Russia maintains a significant degree of influence and leverage in the country and that any decisions by the Moldovan government must take Russian interests into account.
Moldova is an inherently split country, both in the domestic political landscape and between rival external powers. This creates a potential for instability in the event of a major foreign policy move toward Russia or the West. The reminder to keep Russia's interests in mind is particularly important as parliamentary elections will be held in November, and the government could undergo a major restructuring, as previous elections have shown.
Beyond Moldova, the referendum demonstrates that the European Union's attempts to strengthen ties with the European periphery face significant obstacles, even if popular support for EU integration is substantial. As the situation in Ukraine shows, efforts at further integration with the EU — though supported by many — generate significant opposition from domestic elements and from Russia, with potentially volatile consequences. This is also the case in other borderland states such as Georgia, which also has support from the government on EU integration but faces significant obstacles from its own breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Therefore, as integration efforts between these countries and the European Union intensify, opposition to these efforts will likely grow as well. In the case of Ukraine, and possibly in Moldova and Georgia, geopolitical constraints make it extremely difficult for either the West or Russia to convincingly sway the country into its camp. This not only impedes prospects for further integration but also can destabilize each country as competition for influence intensifies.