COMRAT, Moldova -- Moldovan President Igor Dodon has urged supporters in the ex-Soviet nation's autonomous Gagauzia region to fight against those he says are plotting to "destroy" Moldova's statehood by uniting it with neighboring Romania.
Dodon made the remarks in the evening of August 19 during a visit to the regional capital, Comrat, for celebrations of the 26th anniversary of the declaration of the region's autonomy.
Attendance by Moldovan leaders at such celebrations is rare given the separatist overtones of the events.
The so-called Gagauz Republic was declared on August 19, 1990, but was deemed unconstitutional by the government in Chisinau, which granted the region autonomous status four years later.
The largely pro-Russian region, populated mainly by ethnic-Turkish Gagauz who speak Russian and have adopted Russian Orthodox Christianity, voted overwhelmingly for Dodon in the November 2016 presidential election.
"We have no other option than to stay together, and together we will fight back hard against those who want to destroy the Moldovan statehood," the pro-Russian president, speaking to a crowd attending a concert, said of the idea of unification with Romania.
The region's leadership attended the events, as did the Russian and Turkish ambassadors to Moldova.
"I think everyone agrees that we have friends who are close to Gagauzia, and I believe to Moldova, as well," Dodon said. "They are Russia and Turkey."
Dodon added that "I am confident we cannot survive without a strategic partnership with Russia."
The issue of unifying Moldova with Romania is deeply controversial, particularly in Moldova where a sizable part of the population is Russian-speaking. Most of present-day Moldova was part of Romania before World War II.
According to an opinion poll in April that did not include the pro-Russian breakaway Transdniester region, 23 percent of Moldovans favor unification with Romania, while 58 percent oppose it.
Dodon claimed in early 2016 that Washington was pressing for the "terrible scenario" of the unification of Moldova and Romania and urged Chisinau to return "back to the U.S.S.R." through membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
The U.S. Embassy in Chisinau responded by calling the claim "categorically false."
In October 2016, a march in support of unification with Moldova turned violent in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, after several people broke through police lines while trying to reach a symbolic site.