But unlike the region of Transdniester, which fought a short war of independence with Moldova in the early 1990s that remains unresolved, Gagauz-Yeri managed to bridge its differences with Chisinau and now enjoys wide-ranging autonomy. Emmet Tuohy and Melinda Haring spoke for RFE/RL with the region's recently elected governor, Mihail Formuzal, about the history, current problems, and future prospects of Gagauz-Yeri.
RFE/RL: How long have you been involved in politics? What positions have you previously held?
Mihail Formuzal: For the most part, I have never been involved in politics as such, nor do I have much desire to be in the future. Instead, I consider myself to be first of all a manager and an administrator. All of the positions that I have held have been related to working with people. In the army, I served in many positions of authority, just as I have held many supervisory posts in civilian life. As deputy mayor and then mayor of the city of Ceadir-Lunga, and now as governor [baskan] of Gagauzia, I have worked and will continue to work with people. I think that not every person can boast of such a record of service and such work experience as I can.
RFE/RL: Why did you seek the position of governor? What are your priorities for Gagauzia?
Formuzal: I will try my best to answer this question without the unnecessary rhetoric that so many people use while responding to similar questions. I am fully aware of the profound crisis in which Gagauzia finds itself today -- and I am fully capable of leading Gagauzia out of it. I am a hard-working person who knows his goals. Furthermore, I am confident in my strengths and it will undoubtedly help me to achieve my objectives. As for priorities, it is clear above all that my priority is economic growth, combined with ensuring a sufficient standard of living for the people of Gagauzia.
"The wisdom of the Gagauz and Moldovan peoples demonstrated that far better results can be achieved when one is armed not with automatic weapons, but with sober minds and political will."
RFE/RL: Did you encounter any problems during the election process? Were the elections in December free and fair?
Formuzal: Of course, there were some problems. However, these difficulties lie in the past, and I do not want to recall them. Moreover, the new authorities do not under any circumstances intend to carry out any investigations, prosecutions, etc. We simply do not have time for it. Today we face much more important tasks. And as they say, let bygones be bygones. [We] have derived some useful lessons and are going to move forward.
RFE/RL:What was the role of the United States and other Western countries during the elections under which you were elected?
Formuzal: Without a doubt, the United States -- along with other Western countries -- played a very significant role in these elections. Let me remind you that the second round of elections was greatly distinguished from the first one by the far freer atmosphere that prevailed. The second round complied with all the standards of democratic elections. Above all, we link this fact to the visit of foreign ambassadors and representatives of the OSCE Moldova mission to Gagauzia. In fact, there were two visits. The first one took place on November 7. Particularly, it was this day and this visit that became a turning point in conducting fair, free, and democratic elections in Gagauzia.
RFE/RL: Does freedom of speech exist in Gagauzia? What is the situation with the mass media?
Formuzal: Once again, let's not talk about the past -- instead, let's focus on the situation we encounter today. The first step taken by new government was the reorganization of all media in Gagauzia from the state to the public sphere. This means that all journalists no longer feel the pressure of self-censorship; they can now allow themselves to write and speak in accordance with their convictions. Let me give you an example: the new director of the Gagauz television and radio company is someone who worked in the election headquarters of my opponent -- to be exact, my principal opponent. Allow me to underscore the fact that he attained his new position on my initiative -- because this person is a good professional. Clearly, I could have instead tried to promote to that post someone from my own team!
I have to say that, [since] my first day on the job, I have been receiving a great deal of criticism. I must say these critical remarks have been heard from my very first days in office. I have been working for only a month and a half. This also testifies to the fact that freedom of speech is secure. Yet, I have been entirely at ease with this criticism, since it is such an integral part of the democratic political process. It is true that such criticism sometimes disappoints me, as it is directed not at the policies and activities of my new government, but instead at me personally. Surely you will agree that this does not speak in favor of those who criticize me.
RFE/RL: To what degree is the Gagauz language protected? On what level and how often is it taught in schools? Is the Gagauz language the language of communication among the population and also in government bodies?
Formuzal: I must acknowledge that the Gagauz language is currently protected only to a small degree. The state does not allocate resources to its development. In schools, the main problem is that there are not enough books -- and, in some cases, there are no methodological materials [or] handouts necessary for studying the Gagauz language at all. In daily life, the population primarily uses Gagauz, especially in villages. Still, one can often hear Russian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian as well. However, one must admit that Gagauz society is very tolerant in this respect.
Regarding the use of Gagauz in government bodies, unfortunately it is rarely heard.
I know that the European Union has a great number of programs that provide assistance to national minorities. The new administration will work hard to get involved and to cooperate with these programs. We also would like the EU to devote attention to developing the Gagauz language. During the past century, 70 nationalities vanished from the face of the Earth. The world thus lost 70 languages, 70 cultures, and 70 [sets of] customs and traditions. The world has become poorer in terms of cultural heritage -- and we do not want the Gagauz people to become the next in this sorrowful list. Since after all, we are not numerous, there being only 150,000 of us in the world. The Gagauz people are unique, since the language itself belongs to the Turkic language family, while the overwhelming majority of citizens are Orthodox believers. We want this language to be preserved and secured.
RFE/RL: What is Turkey's role in supporting and promoting the Gagauz ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity?
Formuzal: It is difficult to overestimate the role of Turkey in these issues. We believe that the existence of our autonomy was made possible thanks to a great deal of support and assistance given to us by the Turkish Republic. It is Turkey that played a decisive role in acknowledging Gagauzia as autonomous, and in resolving this international conflict peacefully. So I do esteem Turkey's contribution.
RFE/RL: To what degree does Turkey support Gagauzia economically?
Formuzal: More than any other state, Turkey has granted us economic assistance. Since the founding of our autonomy, our Turkish friends have worked to help us solve economic problems, and have provided valuable assistance in the social sphere. For example, the principal credit in providing the water supply system of Gagauzia also belongs to Turkey. Our nation will always appreciate and remember this help and attention. However, this economic assistance is not a one-way cooperation. On our part we are trying to create a favorable investment environment so that the Turkish side can invest funds in the economic development of Gagauzia as well as create new places of employment. For this purpose, we have freed them from all kinds of taxes for five years.
RFE/RL: Does Greece play an active role in Gagauzia?
Formuzal: Greece holds a certain interest for us, and for this there are natural reasons. As you know, in Greece, there are many communities and villages where the residents are Gagauz or Greeks of Gagauz origin. In some villages, people...still speak Gagauz. Here in Comrat, there is an active Greek-language study program established with the direct assistance of the Greek government. Greece is financing a number of social projects in Gagauzia. Quite recently we finished the implementation of the first stage of our cooperation, regarding constructing a number of infrastructure improvements. Greece has been very helpful to us.
RFE/RL: How close are your ties with Gagauz communities outside of Gagauzia, especially in Ukraine?
Formuzal: With other Gagauz communities, including that of Ukraine, we enjoy close relations. We are always glad to receive visits from our brethren who live in other countries. Our doors are always open to them. We try to maintain close relations with overseas Gagauz communities in the fields of education, culture, and economics. These are three primary vectors of our cooperation. Practically all our intellectuals maintain close contact with that of Ukraine and these relations are extremely strong and lasting.
RFE/RL: Many have argued that Gagauzia is a model for conflict resolution elsewhere, particularly for the Caucasus, the Balkans, and Transdniester. What, in your view, are the most important lessons for other contested territories?
Formuzal: Indeed, in the middle of the 1990s, Gagauzia and Moldova served as an example to the entire world. At that time, the wisdom of the Gagauz and Moldovan peoples demonstrated that far better results can be achieved when one is armed not with automatic weapons, but with sober minds and political will. For many, it was an important lesson. The leaders of many so-called separatist republics realized that it was not a losing move to undertake dialogue at the conference table -- instead, it's simply a different strategy, one that is often a more effective way of protecting their own interests.
However, the positive achievements of the talks today are being lost to a significant degree.Unfortunately, in recent times we have had cautious relations with Chisinau that lacked trust. These relations were expressed most notably by the center's continuous fear of losing control over Gagauzia and, as a result of this fear, by its constant striving to thrust a leader upon us.It is superfluous to say that such behavior of the central authorities had a reverse effect, and contributed to inflaming tensions in the autonomy itself. However, it is possible to return to trust-based relations. Today, the new leadership of Gagauzia has taken several steps to meet Chisinau halfway. We have clearly announced that we are ready for open, honest, and constructive dialogue.
Our degree of readiness and openness to undertake talks is exemplified in particular by our policy regarding government employees. Approximately 20 percent of the members of our Executive Committee are Moldovans, and among them are high-ranking officials and members of the ruling councils of Moldovan political parties. We do not differentiate among people in terms of their nationality or political affiliation. Examples are not hard to find. The finance minister is an ethnic Moldovan, as is the interior minister. Two weeks ago we approved the candidacy of the Communist Party representative for the position of deputy head of the regional administration, which is a rather high position -- even though I am not a Communist supporter.Our main criterion is professional aptitude. And in this respect we would like Gagauzia to become a place of innovation where the benefits of this approach can be exemplified. It goes without saying that we are waiting for an adequate reaction on behalf of Chisinau. We would like the higher leadership of the country to understand that they can work more effectively with us than with the previous government. There is only one principal condition: that Chisinau get rid of its harmful political phobia regarding the alleged "separatist republic" of Gagauzia.
RFE/RL: Some have argued that Gagauzia lacks real autonomy and that Chisinau calls the shots. Is this true? How is power divided between Comrat, the capital of the Gagauz-Yeri autonomous region, and Chisinau?
Formuzal: We do have the full legislative basis necessary for the existence and functioning of the autonomy. Insofar as the autonomy does not exercise its full powers, it is first of all our fault and only then the fault of Chisinau. From time to time, Chisinau causes some complex difficulties for us, but this is quite understandable. The actions of the central authorities are dictated by the same obsessive fear of losing the southern region of the country. However, the very fact that we in Gagauzia are letting others restrain our own autonomous rights can neither be justified nor explained. We ourselves have not [yet] enjoyed those possibilities provided by our law.
There is no distinct division of powers between Chisinau and Comrat. This delimitation is partially provided by the Constitution of the Republic of Moldova, the Code of Gagauzia, as well as the Law on the Particular Legal Status of Gagauzia. There do exist certain discrepancies between Moldavian and Gagauz legislation. Yet, we hope that in the near term the bilateral Moldovan-Gagauz commission established to eliminate these inconsistencies will [remedy] this problem.
RFE/RL: How would you characterize Russian-Gagauz relations?
Formuzal: Gagauzia has always enjoyed friendly and close relations with Russia. Throughout its history, our people have experienced many reversals of fortune, and fate has led us to live among many different nations. With the Russian nation in particular, we have been very closely connected. Above all, we are thankful to Russia for the land on which we continue to live to this day. We are also grateful for the education that the majority of our nation has obtained. Today, we continue to receive valuable interest, attention, and support from Russia.
RFE/RL: What was the effect on Gagauzia of the growth of tension between Russia and Moldova? How did Russia's ban on Moldovan wine imports affect the region's economy?
Formuzal: The worsening of Moldovan-Russian relations has affected us in the worst way possible. Our economy -- which, even before the ban, was underdeveloped -- was practically paralyzed after [ the ban was enacted.] After all, our region's earnings from the most part come from wine making, tobacco growing, and horticulture. And I remind you that, following the ban on wine imports, there were similar bans imposed on fruit and tobacco. It is difficult to explain the upheavals that Gagauzia has experienced. All of these industries remain in dire straits. But we believe that in the short term we will be able to overcome these problems.
RFE/RL: What has the impact of increased natural-gas prices been on the Gagauz people?
Formuzal: Obviously, it has been very severe. In one sense, there was a reprieve, at least for many of our citizens, as the unexpectedly warm winter allowed them to reduce gas consumption. However, notwithstanding even this, the new gas prices are out of reach for the majority of our population. Many of our elderly are forced to freeze to death in their own unheated homes. Some elderly people have told me that they put bottles [filled] with hot water in their beds. It was certainly a severe upheaval for people. Wages and prices should certainly grow faster than energy prices. Yet for the time being, prices for services are surpassing growth in wages as well as pensions.
RFE/RL: What is the ultimate outlook for Gagauz-Yeri? Do you believe that things are getting better or worse overall?
Formuzal: Not only do I believe that things will get better -- I know it for sure! The new government will do everything in its power so that people will be able to feel positive changes within a year . Increasing people's quality of life is our highest priority. To achieve this change, we [already] have all that we need. We have fertile land, hard-working people, a professional management team, a well-developed action plan and, most importantly, a tremendous will to work for change. We do believe we can change people's lives for the better.
(Emmet Tuohy is a Fulbright Research Fellow in Kyiv, Ukraine, and assistant director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. Melinda Haring is a former Freedom House staffer who now works as a freelance writer based in Kyiv, Ukraine.)