COMRAT — In Comrat, the capital of the autonomous Gagauzia region in southern Moldova, time has stopped. Mud houses and damaged roads, some of which have never been touched by asphalt, make this town of 26,000 residents feel like something from the 19th century. To get closer to what resembles an urban atmosphere, visitors must travel to Lenin Boulevard in the town center, where there are Russian billboards, an Orthodox church, a few shops, a junk store and a statue of Lenin that watches over this eerie place.
Ever since Moldova, a small country between Romania and Ukraine, signed a European Union Association Agreement on June 27, a wave of panic has swept over Gagauzia. This forgotten land, with a population of 160,000, has significant autonomy within Moldova and wants to stay faithful to Russia rather than create ties with the EU.
"No one asked us for our opinion concerning the Association Agreement with the EU," explains Deputy Governor Valeriy Janioglo, whose office is located just above the statue of Lenin. "The EU has very advanced technologies in farming, which allows it to sell its products for lower prices than we can. Our agriculture, which is our main source of wealth, is going to be annihilated, and the Gagauz people will lose their jobs. For us, rejecting the EU is a question of survival."
Lots of autonomy
Moldova became independent after the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, but it remained in the Russian sphere of influence until 2009, when a pro-European coalition government took control of the country. Tensions between the Romanian-speaking population, who represent the majority, and the one-third of the country that is Russian-speaking intensified with the Ukrainian crisis. Russia has no intention of conceding its influence on this territory, where it has leverage to maintain its control: Transnistria and Gagauzia.
Transnistria, the eastern part of Moldova, seceded in 1992. Moscow has more than 1,000 soldiers there and refuses to withdraw them, based on the pretext of defending the Russian minority that represents a third of its 500,000 inhabitants. Gagauzia, which was granted a large amount of autonomy within Moldova in 1994, is the second pawn that allows Russia to fight Moldova's pro-European aspirations.
The Gagauz are originally Turks who refused Islam and converted to orthodoxy. They settled themselves in southern Moldova in the 18th century at a time when this Romanian-speaking territory had a certain amount of independence within the Ottoman Empire. In the Soviet era, Russian was established as a second language in this Turkish-speaking enclave, and attachment to Russia remains persistent, especially among older people.
"It used to be much better," says Elena Ceachir, a 73-year-old farmer living in Besalma, a small village near Comrat. "We're going to lose everything in the European Union. Russia is like our second home, and it is going to help us."
Moldovan wine embargo
Ceachir repeats what she hears every day on Russian television, which praises Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her three children have been working in Moscow for the past 12 years, and they send her money to supplement her monthly 70-euro pension.
The Gagauz people overwhelmingly approved a Feb. 2 referendum for entry into the Eurasian Union (Russia, Kazakhstan and Belorussia), which was offered by Moscow in case Moldova kept moving closer to the EU. Like 98% of her compatriots, Elena voted "yes."
As is the case in Transnistria, Russia presents itself as the savior of the population that has stayed faithful to Moscow. It intends to influence Moldova's November general elections. A potential collapse of the pro-European government and the return of Communist Moldovans to power should ensure better control of Moldova for Russia.
To punish the country, since September 2013 Moscow has imposed an embargo on Moldovan wine, with the exception of the Transnistrian and Gagauz wineries. On July 21, the ban on exports also hit Moldovan fruits and vegetables, except, again, for those from the two Russian-speaking enclaves.
"Russia buys our products, Russia provides us with gas, and we share the same religion," the Deputy Governor Valeriy Janioglo says angrily. "What does the EU give us, apart from lessons in democracy and sexual freedom? We don't want that here."