CHISINAU -- With the upheaval in Ukraine showing no signs of abating, neighboring Moldova has become the star of the European Union's Eastern Partnership program.
Chisinau initialed an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the bloc in November -- but not everyone is Moldova is on board with the country's aggressive European-integration policy.
As the policy has accelerated, the Russian-supported breakaway region of Transdniester has rumbled increasingly loudly. Recently it adopted Russian legislation, a clear signal of the region's preference for joining a Russia-led customs union.
And on February 2, the southern Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia is holding a controversial referendum, asking locals if they favor closer relations with the EU or the CIS Customs Union.
[According to RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, the head of Gagauzia's election commission said turnout was at more than 55 percent in the afternoon, passing the required one-third to be considered valid. A correspondent in Comrat reported long lines at polling stations earlier in the day.]
In an interview with RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, Gagauzia Governor Mihail Formuzal did not hide his personal preferences. "I think that for the next 10 years it is in our interest to be in the customs union. I think that would enable us to modernize our economy, secure reliable markets for our goods," he said.
"And, at the same time, during these years we would carry out the genuine democratization of our society to correspond with the globally accepted standards and democratic norms of a law-based state. At present, unfortunately, we do not have this in our country."
Defiant In Comrat
Gagauzia is a geographically discontinuous region with a population of about 155,000 people, mostly ethnically Turkish, Russian-speaking, Orthodox Christians. Many locals there fear that Chisinau's EU-integration agenda masks an intention to unite Moldova with neighboring Romania.
Governor Formuzal said this was the main concern in his region. "There is a definite skepticism as we watch the processes going on in Europe today," he said. "The citizens of Gagauzia are very concerned that Euro-integration processes are being carried out in synch with, say, the entry into Europe through Romania. And this worries and frightens people."
Moldova's central government has tried hard to stop the February 2 referendum, which it sees as a challenge to the country's territorial integrity. A court in the Gagauz capital of Comrat accepted Chisinau's argument that the autonomous region is only allowed to hold referendums on local issues. But Gagauz authorities are proceeding with the ballot despite the court ruling.
The referendum will ask whether Gagauzia should be able to declare independence in the event that Moldova loses or surrenders its own independence and whether Moldova should pursue closer relations with the EU or with the CIS Customs Union.
Reaching Out To Gagauzia
Officials from Chisinau have rushed to the region in recent days in a seemingly unsuccessful bid to stave off the divisive vote.
Prime Minister Iurie Leanca was in Comrat on January 22 to argue that people don't have sufficient information to vote in such a referendum. "Of course, learning the opinions of the population -- and not just here, but across the country -- is a basic element," he said. "But let's first inform our citizens so that they can very consciously make a decision. And then, at the next parliamentary elections, everyone will have the opportunity to make their opinion known."
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele was in Comrat on January 23 for the first time since the Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009 -- meeting with local university students and trying to allay concerns about the EU's intentions. Afterward, he posted on his Twitter account that he "underlined in Comrat" that the Association Agreement is "a nationwide project for Moldova" with a role for all regions, including Gagauzia.
Officials in Gagauzia counter that informing the public is exactly what the central authorities and the European Union have failed to do. The documents that were initialed at the Eastern Partnership summit in November 2013 were not even published in Romanian and Russian until January 14 and January 21, respectively.
Gagauz legislator Ivan Burgudji slams the government for its alleged secrecy. "Let them explain. Let them come and explain and not make decisions behind closed doors," he says. "And it isn't just Gagauzia, but the entire population of Moldova hasn't been acquainted with what is going to be signed, and what is good and what is bad in it."
He adds that officials in Comrat reached out to Chisinau in the past and were rebuffed. "They should have come a long time ago. The local parliament invited the president to come, but he didn't," he says. "In any event, if these visits had come earlier, maybe the situation would be different now."
Too Late For Dialogue?
Ion Tabarta, of the Institute of Policy Analysis and Advice in Chisinau, agrees that the ruling pro-European coalition has failed to engage with the Gagauz, both about the European-integration process and about issues of concern to the region.
"We haven't been able to integrate the Gagauz minority into Moldovan society," Tabarta says. "They had their issues -- they were unhappy with the representation they got in the national leadership, government, and parliament. Chisinau just neglected these problems. So dialogue now comes a bit late, but I think it can move forward."
Chisinau-based political analyst Igor Botan is less sanguine. "It's more of a political conflict, since Gagauzia does not have the power of secession that Transdniester did," he notes. "But they can keep alive this political conflict: while the European Union is pondering whether to sign an Association Agreement with Moldova, they set up obstacles and send the message that they do not agree. And they have the support of the voters and of the Russian Federation."
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin hinted darkly earlier this month that "the train called Moldova that is chugging toward Europe might lose a couple of its cars." Clearly he had in mind both Transdniester and Gagauzia.
Ironically, representatives of the Gagauz minority in Ukraine have endorsed that country's EU-integration ambitions and have called on the government and the opposition to reach a peaceful settlement.
Robert Coalson contributed to this report