Russia is becoming concerned about Turkey’s growing influence over Moldova’s Christian Turkic Gagauz minority, according to a report by Paul Goble for the Jamestown Foundation on Thursday.
The Gagauz are a 125,000-strong minority in Moldova that Russia has long used as part of its efforts to hinder any attempts by Moldova, a former Soviet republic, to join NATO or the European Union. Now, Moscow is worried about the growing influence Turkey and other Turkic-majority countries have over the Gagauz in Moldova.
In an effort to counter this growing influence, Russia has begun “playing up the complicated history of the Gagauz and the Ottoman Empire and suggesting that the Gagauz should be looking to Moscow rather than Ankara as an ally and supporter,” the report said.
Moscow raises the Gagauz demands for autonomy or even independence any time Moldova pushed to reintegrate the breakaway Russian-controlled Moldovan region of Transnistria. It now fears losing that leverage.
This also comes at a time when the cooperative relationship Russia and Turkey had in recent years is declining, with the latter “having successfully asserted itself in the South Caucasus”.
“Therefore, at least in principle, Ankara seems that much more willing to act on its own rather than in concert with Moscow in Moldova,” Goble said.
He quoted an article by Vasily Alekseyev, a Russian specialist on Turkey, who argues that this “constitutes a real threat to Russian interests”.
Turkey has provided the Gagauz education and infrastructure, which Alekseyev believes is part of Ankara’s ultimate goal of taking “control of the political and social processes” of the nation, a move that threatens Russian influence.
Turkey established a consulate general and a cultural centre in Komrat, the capital of the autonomous region of Gagauzia in Moldova. Ankara also promotes investment and educational exchanges with the region.
“Moreover, there is talk of dispatching larger numbers of Gagauz students to Baku State University and to universities in the Turkic republics of Central Asia, which would give real content to Ankara’s push for the growth of a Turkic World involving both countries and nations across Eurasia,” Goble wrote.
This, Alekseyev fears, “would undermine the inclusion of the Gagauz, most of whom are bilingual in Russian, within Vladimir Putin’s ‘Russian World’”.
There are three ways Russia is presently trying to counter Turkey’s growing influence over the Gagauz. Firstly, it is reminding the Gagauz of their historic hardships under Ottoman rule. Secondly, it is trying to convince them that Russia is their best option to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. And thirdly, it has “given new prominence to Gagauz developments not only in Moldova but also in Ukraine”.
While Turkey’s growing influence does not mean that Russia won’t be able to continue using the Gagauz as a tool against Moldova in the future, Moscow’s recent moves nevertheless suggest that its position is weaker than in the past. As a result, Goble concluded, Moldova may find it easier “to deal with Russian-occupied Transnistria or even to move closer to the West in the future.”