Kremlin’s Gambit: Karpov backed pro-Russian candidate wins run for Gagauzia

26.03.2015 | By Sabin Pandelea

Irina Vlah wins the elections for the head of the Moldavian autonomous region of Gagauzia, after running a pro-Russian platform backed by the Socialists’ Party. Moreover, her campaign was marked by the presence of several Russian important figures, including members of the State Duma, world boxing champion Nikolai Valuev or former chess grandmaster Anatoly Karpov.

Crucial elections for Moldavian integrity

Gagauzia is the second autonomous region of Moldova (after the self-proclaimed Priednestrovian Moldavian Republic – or Transnistria), and it is located in the south-Western part of the country. It is inhabited mainly by the Gagauz people, a Turcik ethnic group of Ortodox denomination that moved here in the XIX century from different regions of the Ottoman Empire.  Politically speaking, it exists from 1990, when, during the Moldavian struggle for independence and openness towards Romania, the Gagauz leaders showed their desire to form a different entity that would remain part of the USSR. Subsequently, a referendum confirming this plan was organized in March 1991. Paradoxically, almost one week before the Soviet parliament in Chisinau voted on Moldavian independence, they declared their own independence. Nevertheless, this had not legal consequence, yet leading to a more moderate attitude of the new Moldavian authorities regarding minorities’ rights.

Most of the initial pro-Russian and pro-independence Gagauzian strive can be explained, on behalf of the people, by the fear of Moldova rejoining Romania, which was remembered for the Second World War atrocities, overemphasized by the Soviet propaganda. Nonetheless, given the strong Russian interest in keeping Moldova unstable, one can look at the Gagauzian case as at a second Transnistria. This is confirmed by the continuous attempts to gain independence, the most recent one being the 2014 referendum. Then, with one month before the Crimean referendum and without the central government’s approval, the autonomous authorities asked the population about independence, integration into EU and into Russian-led Customs Union. The results need no further interpretation and are very telling for the existing relation between Chisinau and Comrat: 99% voted for independence, 97% opposed EU integration whilst 98% supported a future integration in the Customs Union.

Open Russian support for Vlah

Irina Vlah, a former Communist MP who turned independent after her party voted the pro-European government last month, managed to win the elections from the first round, with over 51% of the votes. Her campaign promoted closer economic ties with Russia and was strongly supported by Igor Dodon, leader of the Socialists’ Party which won the November legislative elections and a former Communist himself. As Vlah, Dodon is a declared pro-Russian politician and is in favor of Moldavian federalization as a solution to the Transnistrian conflict – a solution agreed by Kremlin. The duo invited several members of the Russian State Duma and even signed a trade, economic and cultural collaboration agreement between Comrat and Moscow, albeit the vocal opposition of the president Timofti who proposed a general ban on Russian MPs’ private visits. Although this never materialized, several Russian journalists who were going to cover the elections were not allowed to enter Moldova.

Moreover, Vlah and Dodon invited several Russian artists, together with the former world boxing champion, Nikolai Valuev, and former chess grandmaster and Russian MP Anatoly Karpov. The two sportsmen did not officially backed Vlah, yet they took part in campaigning events, their involvement being representative for how important these elections are for Moscow.

While the Russian MPs see in supporting Vlah a chance for improving the relations between Chisinau and Kremlin, a strong pro-Russian governor doubled by a pro-European Moldavian government will most probably lead to a tensed relationship not as much between the two above mentioned countries, as between the autonomous region and the central authorities. Thus, the Russian direct support for a specific candidate opens the door for further internal instability that could lead not just to political deadlocks, but also to conflicts. By using this strategy, Moscow managed to strengthen its influence in Moldova, blocking in the same time the possible European future of the country. Consequently, the Gagauz authorities could threaten at any time to officially ask for independence, using the 2014 referendum for legitimacy, if Moldova will take concrete steps towards European integration.

This was not the only controversy around the elections. The Moldavian Central Electoral Commission and the Gagauzian Electoral Commission reported different figures for the electoral lists. Thus, the autonomous authorities declared the existence of 103 000 citizens with voting right, compared to 130 000, the number officially registered by the Central Commission. Albeit Comrat claimed that the difference is made by those emigrated to find better jobs, many commenters see in this a tactic to avoid a possible invalidation of the electoral process due to low turnout.

A test for the national parties

After leading his party to victory in the legislative elections last autumn, Igor Dodon open and active support for Vlah can be regarded as a covered Socialists’ campaign. Thus, we can argue that Dodon’s party has used these elections as an opportunity to strengthen its position locally, as the forthcoming local elections will take place later on this year.

On the other hand, the two pro-European governing parties seems to have lost the chance, its leaders not being capable of jointly supporting a strong contra-candidate. This comes to further fuel Moldavians disappointment in the pro-European parties, as they are almost synonym to inefficiency and corruption, due to scandals around the banking system crisis or the prime-minister’s fake resume. Therefore, after being forced to ask Communists’ help, the two coalition parties continue to show weaknesses and incapacity to work together on specific issues. This situation can prove particularly dangerous for the future of Moldova, the citizens starting to lose confidence in a European Union which seems to support a less and less popular coalition. Virtually, the pro-European parties were totally absent from these elections: it is of no wonder that the Gagauz Moldavians are not interested in their political offer.

Nevertheless, albeit the apparent lack of interest in the Gagauz region, the governmental parties will have to listen to what Vlah has to say, as the governor of Gagauzia has a ministerial seat.


About Author

Sabin Pandelea

M.A. student in Comparative Politics at the University of Bucharest, holding a B.A. in Political Science. Erasmus scholarships at University of Wroclaw and Nova University of Lisbon. Interested in democratic accountability, clientelism and patronage in CEE. Former intern at the Romanian Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and Romanian Diplomatic Institute. Speaks Romanian, English, French and Portuguese.