Understanding Moldova’s ethnic dynamics: Minority rights, external influence, and pathways to unity

Moldova is a country with a rich tapestry of multiple ethnic identities and linguistic traditions, where policymakers have long grappled with the complexities of preserving minority rights, fostering national unity, and addressing regional autonomy through engagement with the Gagauz minority (Tudoroiu, 2013, p. 375; Ciobanu, 2013; Deen & Zweers, 2022). The following analysis aims to view these issues from the perspective of the minority’s susceptibility to external political influence. Within the frame of the study, I interviewed 20 local Gagauz and Moldovan experts, including journalists, political activists, educators, and university students. Based on the data obtained during those in-depth interviews, I offer insight into the primary tension points between the Gagauz community and the central Moldovan government that are being exploited by Russian state-sponsored propaganda; based on my conclusions, I aim to influence the local political landscape and offer a range of policy solutions that can bridge the gaps in the country’s ethnic makeup while building resistance to external influence and propaganda. These solutions are centered around supporting educational initiatives, enhancing the quality of local media, and encouraging inter-community dialogue that recognizes the inherent value of linguistic and cultural diversity while also nurturing a shared national identity that transcends ethnic differences.

Gagauzia’s historical legacy

Gagauz-Yeri (Gagauzia) is an autonomous region in the south of Moldova with a predominantly Gagauz (a Turkic ethnic group), Christian Orthodox, but heavily russified population. The region gained its autonomous status in 1994 as a result of negotiations between the Moldovan government and the Gagauz leadership following tensions and conflicts between the two sides in the early 1990s. However, for the past 30 years, the implementation of autonomy has been fraught with legal and social challenges, with debates over the distribution of powers and competencies between the central government and the autonomous region (Thompson, 1998, pp. 128-147; Wöber, 2013, p. 14; Deen & Zweers, 2022, pp. 32-33). The majority of the Gagauz community perceives the central government’s actions as a continuous assault on their autonomy rights, eroding them through a range of executive and legislative actions that affect tax, penal, and security policies (Nitup, 2018; Garciu, 2022; Monitorul Official, 2023; Parlament.md, 2023; Yarovaya, 2023), and where the central government raises concerns about preserving national unity and preventing separatist inclinations (RFE, 2014; Yarovaya, 2023). Within this context, the role of Russian media propaganda and the susceptibility of the Gagauz community to its influence is frequently discussed. (Deen & Zweers, 2022, pp 32-33; Title VIII of the MEI Black Sea Program interviews, Chișinău, Comrat, June-July 2023).

Gagauz-Yeri, shaped by its historical, cultural, and linguistic journey, has traditionally maintained a strong alignment with the Russian Federation, translating into Russian influence over societal, political, and economic trajectories in the region. Rooted in cultural and historical foundations, Gagauz identity is linked to memories of being embraced by the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, in contrast to a history of enforced assimilation during the Romanian kingdom. This perceived historical context has engendered the Gagauz’s connection with the “Russian world” — a concept actively popularized by Russian propaganda that claims the existence of a shared transborder identity held together by usage of the Russian language or common culture (Kosienkowski, 2021). Within this context, the vast majority of the interviewees in my study expressed concerns about the negative impact that rebroadcasted Russian state media has on Gagauz internal affairs. According to the 2022 Ethnobarometer survey, 73% of local respondents who identify as ethnic Gagauz and 47% who identify as Moldovans consume Russian state-controlled media (Ethnobarometer, 2020). Russian media influence extends to public opinion within Moldova, intensifying existing tensions, framing issues in a way that serve Moscow’s political interests, and fostering favorable sentiments among the population by advocating for closer ties with Russia that allegedly will offer greater benefits for the Gagauz community and Moldova as a whole (McGrath & Jardan, 2022). Most respondents noted that specific tactics encompass discrediting the Moldovan government by depicting it as ineffective, corrupt, overly liberal, or indifferent to minority language rights (Haines, 2015; Perevozkina, 2023, Title VIII of the MEI Black Sea Program interviews, Chișinău, Comrat, June-July 2023). Such portrayals reportedly generate skepticism among Gagauz regarding the government’s policies and add complexity to the existing challenges, making it even more important for the central government to engage in careful, informed dialogue and decision-making rather than ignoring the tensions or acting in a heavy-handed manner (Deen & Zweers, 2022, p. 32).

Relations with the Moldovan state

The discourse concerning language use in the region stands as a pivotal point in the relationship between the Gagauz minority and the Moldovan state and is a key defense against external influence. On the surface, the issue revolves around the acknowledgment, utilization, and advancement of the Gagauz language, encompassing its standing in official contexts and educational institutions. Moldova recognized the Gagauz language as a minority language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ratified in 2001), taking on the obligation to protect and promote the Gagauz language’s usage and visibility in public life. However, according to a 2010 UNESCO study, the Gagauz language has been identified as “potentially vulnerable” (Garciu, 2023). All Gagauz experts and students interviewed in the course of this research project directly linked their ethnic identity with the language and expressed apprehension about their language’s potential erosion. When queried about potential solutions, Gagauz interviewees grappled with identifying the optimal equilibrium between utilizing Russian as a lingua franca, the state language, and fostering the development of their native tongue, blaming the vulnerability of Gagauz on a lack of educational and media resources, russification, and its limited economic viability beyond the region. They also noted the Moldovan state’s lack of action and interest in supporting autonomy across these domains (see also European Commission, 2022). These concerns are intricately connected in their responses to the simultaneous decades of inaction in supporting state language education in Gagauzia. The lack of Romanian as a second language curriculum, the absence of language teachers, and the dismissal of the appeals from the community for additional support in establishing alternative education channels for the Romanian language led to the proliferation of the Russian language within the region, consequently providing fertile ground for the unprecedented domination of Russian state propaganda within the community.

Recommendations

To contribute to the ongoing dialogue surrounding language usage in Gagauz-Yeri while countering external propaganda efforts, I present several policy initiatives that seek to illuminate a path toward constructive cooperation and the preservation of minority rights within the larger framework of national unity. These programs include a multilingual curriculum, summer language institutes, and in-state and foreign cultural exchange initiatives, and will represent proactive efforts to bridge the linguistic divide, encourage cross-cultural understanding, and build up community resilience.

Multilingual primary education as an implemented education strategy could allow students to receive primary education in dual Romanian and Gagauz (and other local minority languages) to establish appropriate communication patterns during preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school. This approach acknowledges the importance of both languages while ensuring that students from both communities have access to education in their native language. It is necessary to emphasize multilingualism in education instead of bilingualism, and provide Russian- and English-language education as second-language subjects, to ensure that Russian speakers among the regional population do not reject the initiative. This initiative will necessitate dedicated staffing in schools, which would enhance employment opportunities for Gagauz speakers and can be achieved by cooperation between the local and central government, building upon the vast experience of Moldovan-Turkish lyceums in Moldova (Moldpress, 2022).

Language summer institutes could serve as stress-free, immersive environments where children from diverse backgrounds can come together to learn and practice each other’s languages. These initiatives could offer a dynamic learning experience that goes beyond linguistic skills, fostering interpersonal exchange while building relationships and breaking down stereotypes. Similarly, exchange professional programs for youth and educators, such as librarians and school teachers, can facilitate interactions and create opportunities for shared experiences, cultural immersion, and the formation of lasting bonds. Having vast experience with a multilingual population, organizations from the United States could provide valuable resources, expertise, and scholarships for students and teachers.

Promoting cultural and linguistic heritage through the recognition of different minority identities is foundational to developing resilience to external propaganda. A comprehensive historical acknowledgment of traumas and reconciliation initiatives is essential for addressing grievances and fostering empathy. By establishing educational programs, seminars, research, and exhibitions as well as modifying school and university curricula that offer accurate historical representations of minorities, including Gagauz, as an essential part of society, state agencies along with local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can facilitate and popularize a nuanced understanding of minorities’ complex pasts. The integration of such narratives into education curricula can effectively build a bridge between the communities, breaking through their divide and making them less vulnerable to propaganda. The U.S., through its educational institutions and local NGOs, could encourage such initiatives and provide financial support for cultural exchange programs. Scholarships, grants, and partnerships with U.S. universities will facilitate the development of inclusive history, language curricula, and research projects. Furthermore, U.S. cultural diplomacy initiatives, such as art exhibitions, performances, and educational events, could be organized in collaboration with local communities to celebrate their uniqueness and emphasize the importance of historical acknowledgment and reconciliation.

Promoting balanced media coverage and ensuring the visibility of the Gagauz community requires a concerted effort to address linguistic, cultural, and regional diversity. Encouraging media organizations to have diverse editorial and journalist teams that include representatives from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, including Gagauz, will contribute to fostering more inclusive and impartial news coverage, leading to ethical reporting that actively combats biases and prevents the exploitation of stereotypes. Moreover, supporting the establishment of multiple local news desks in Gagauzia that focus on covering regional news, events, and minority cultural stories will ensure regular coverage of the local activities and human interest stories from the Gagauz community and will give a platform for representation, increase visibility nationally, and help foster a sense of community and pride. Publishing multilingual materials that include both Romanian and Gagauz languages as well as providing subtitles for TV and YouTube content will ensure that Moldovan and Gagauz news segments are available to the entire population while catering to the linguistic needs of the minority community — providing a viable alternative to Russian media outlets. International organizations and the state can provide grants and financial support for local actors to own such initiatives. By implementing these diverse methods, local journalists can be enabled to generate content with the potential to counter Russian propaganda, contributing to the cultivation of an informed and resilient society.

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