In open fields to the west of Moldova’s border with Ukraine, a red, white and blue striped flag bearing three stars fluttered over thousands of Turkish and Russian-speaking Gagauzians.
The 160,000-strong Orthodox Christian minority from south-eastern Moldova was celebrating Herdelez — St George’s Day — and the beginning of the pastoral year. But although horse races, local foods and games offered a distraction, the May 6 festivities were overshadowed by war — and officials in the Moldovan capital Chisinau were fretting about the region’s pro-Moscow sympathies.
With Ukraine visible on the horizon, this traditionally Turkic-speaking but now largely Russophone people is anxious about what the coming months could bring.
“My mum forbade me from coming to the festival, she doesn’t want me to be around crowds as you never know what can happen these days,” said 16-year-old Cristina from Ciadir Lunga, the region’s second-biggest town and a hotbed of pro-Russian Gagauzian separatists as the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago. “I came anyway because I don’t even want to think about the war, it’s too scary.”
Moldova’s southern Gagauzia region is one of the least developed areas of Europe’s poorest country. A southern part of historic Bessarabia, the region flipped in the 19th century from Ottoman to Russian then Romanian rule before falling under Soviet control after the second world war. It is emblematic of a corner of Europe shaped by a patchwork of ethnic identities, shifting borders and competing allegiances that have recently been amplified by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
Turkish involvement in the region goes back centuries, but in recent times Gagauzia has leaned towards Russia. Unlike Transnistria, the breakaway Moldovan enclave that fought a bloody separatist war in 1992 with backing from Moscow and has hosted Russian troops ever since, Gagauzia has avoided confrontation with Chisinau and settled for regional autonomy within Moldova.
But as US and Ukrainian officials warn Russian president Vladimir Putin could try to open a new front in Transnistria, Moldovan officials are also concerned about Gagauzia.
“The local assembly is divided and still influenced by Russian narratives, which cause anxiety across Moldova. There are politicians who try to incite and divide,” said Iulian Groza, a member of the Moldovan Supreme Security Council, which advises the president on security strategy.
Charles King, an academic who has written a book on Moldova, described the Gagauzians as a “largely forgotten minority within an overlooked republic”. He counted as many as 19 explanations for the Gagauzians’ ethnic origins, the most common being that they are descendants of Christianised Turks. But he also noted that no other group in Moldova speaks Russian as widely.
“In Comrat [the regional capital] we mostly speak Russian, we use Gagauzian mostly for jokes, as it is spoken more widely in smaller villages and towns,” said 39-year-old Vitali Barbarica, who formerly drove buses to and from Moscow and is now a driving instructor. “Russia is just closer to our way of thinking.”
As in Transnistria, Gagauzia has kept its Soviet-era statues of Lenin, with one standing in front of the regional authority headquarters. In the region’s 2015 elections, Irina Vlah, the governor, campaigned under the slogan being “Together with Russia”.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the start of its war in eastern Ukraine, Gagauzians voted in a local referendum deemed illegal by Chisinau for the region to develop closer ties with Moscow rather than with the EU.
Earlier this month, a report in Romanian language newspaper ZDG based on extensive video interviews suggested many Gagauzians believed that if Putin had not started the current war, Ukraine would have invaded Russia.
Tensions rose briefly in the run-up to Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on May 9, when local officials said they would ignore a central government ban on Soviet symbols largely seen as pro-Russian, among them the Ribbon of Saint George, as well as the “Z” and “V” marks displayed by the Russian army during its invasion of Ukraine. The government deemed displaying the symbols was tantamount to celebrating Moscow’s invasion.
Sergiu Litvinenco, Moldova’s justice minister, called the pledge by local authorities to defy the ban “an illegal act that must be erased” , while Russia’s foreign ministry warned of a “painful” response by Moscow.
Local government attempts to rescind the ban were overturned by a Moldovan court, although escalation was avoided through “intensive dialogue”, Groza said.
Some Gagauzians are conciliatory. “We don’t want conflict, we’re living in the republic of Moldova. We have a good country, perhaps not the best in the world, but it’s a very good country,” said 58-year-old Sergey Anastasov, Comrat’s mayor.
But mistrust towards Chisinau remains. Ina, a 40-year-old teacher from the city of Cadir Lunga, criticised the central government’s ban on Russian symbols ahead of May 9 and said Moldovan media did not fairly reflect Russia’s war in Ukraine. “We need to look for our own sources to get a fair coverage,” she said.
Many people celebrating the Herdelez festival were reluctant to discuss politics. Georgie, wearing a traditional Gagauzian hat, noted that Moldova and Gagauzia were powerless in the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. “Nobody wants the war, we don’t want the war, but what can we do?” he said.
Anna Statova, the owner of a traditional Gagauzian restaurant that had just won a prize at the festival, added: “We are just hundreds of metres from Ukraine, so it’s hard not to feel their pain.”
This story has been corrected to note that Sergiu Litvinenco is Moldova’s justice minister and that he described the pledge by local authorities to defy the ban on displaying Soviet symbols as illegal.