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Iraq: Turkomans Demand Autonomous Region

By David Nissman

Prague, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Turkomans are likely to renew later this month their long sought demand to establish an autonomous region to be called Turkmeneli near Irbil, a city in northern Iraq now under control of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The Turkmans are expected to make their case at a meeting of the Turkoman Council due to be held in Irbil later in February.

But as in the past, they face a serious problem: the current Iraqi Constitution does not recognize the Turkomans or the Assyrians as separate ethnic groups. Indeed, that document does not recognize their languages because neither group uses the Arabic script: The Turkomans use the Latin script and the Assyrians Chaldean Syriac.

According to Safin Diza'i, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Ankara, "this problem should be settled with Baghdad." But so far, Baghdad has shown little inclination to make a deal. Were that to change, there are several models for how it might behave. One particularly attractive precedent involves the establishment of the Gagauz yeri autonomous region in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

The process by which Gagauz yeri was created is detailed in a paper published by Levente Benko, "Autonomy in Gagauzia: A Precedent for Central and Eastern Europe?" in the current issue of the Internet journal "Bitig." He reviews the history of Moldovan independence, and the role played by the Gagauz within it. The creation of Gagauz yeri is not only a precedent for Central and Eastern Europe -- as Benko shows, it could also be a model for Iraq.

The Gagauz community in southern Moldova is a people of Turkic origin, the ancestors of whom had fled the continuous Balkan wars of the 18th century to Russia. They were settled in Bessarabia by the Empress Katherine the Second under the condition that they convert to Orthodox Christianity. According to official data, there are approximately 153,000 Gagauz, roughly 3.5 percent of the Moldovan population.

In 1991, when Moldova gained independence from the USSR, the Gagauz formed their own armed militias. Since Moldovan forces were fighting ethnic Russians in the Transdniester region, there were only occasional armed clashes between the Moldovans and the Gagauz militia. As a result, the death toll was very low. Moreover, the majority of the Gagauz leadership never questioned the territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova. Therefore, negotiations between Moldovan President Mircea Snegur and a Gagauz delegation headed by "Gagauz Republic Supreme Soviet" chairman Mikhail Kendigelyan began as early as September 1992.

These talks led to the passage of the Gagauz Autonomy Act of 1994. Its expressed aim "is to provide for the preservation of Gagauz national identity, the flourishing of the Gagauz language and culture, and to secure political and economic independence for this nationality." The act stresses that within the Gagauz territory all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, are considered to be equal.

The territory of Gagauz yeri consists of all localities where the proportion of the Gagauz population exceeds 50 percent. And it also includes areas where the Gagauz population are fewer than 50 percent but where the local population votes to include its territory within the Gagauz region. All of this took place without violence and with the maintenance of stability across Moldova.

The Gagauz yeri success story is not the only one in Europe. A similar approach was taken in the southern Tyrolean parts of Italy, where much of the population is German-speaking. And there is also the case of the Aland lslands in Finland.

Such provisions of national autonomy was first accepted by the international community after World War I, when the empires in Central and Eastern Europe had collapsed and their successor states were not much more homogenous in their ethnic composition than their predecessors. As a result, Benko points out that "new states were obliged to provide a high degree of self-government and autonomy to their respective national minorities."

But at present, there is no international regulation obliging states to create special self-governing institutions for minorities on their territories. Nonetheless, success stories like that of the Gagauz encourage both governments and especially minorities like the Iraqi Turkomans and the Assyrians to seek out such an arrangement. And their demands could find some support in Baghdad particularly if the central Iraqi government wants to reextend its authority into the northern part of the country.