After weeks of tense build-up, voters in the obstinate Moldovan region Gagauzia have elected a pro-Russian trajectory in the first round of the gubernatorial elections. Having obtained roughly the same amount of votes, Evghenia Guțul (Ilan Shor Party) and Grigorii Uzun (supported by the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova) – both with a pro-Russian agenda – will have to battle it out in a run-off. Following the result, more tension is likely to develop between Gagauzia and the pro-European government in Chisinau.
On 30 April, voters in Gagauzia – a hotly contested region in southern Moldova – went to the polls for the gubernatorial election. Grigorii Uzun – supported by the pro-Russian Party of Socialists in the Republic of Moldova – obtained the most votes with a total of 14,849 (26.43%). Evghenia Guțul – the candidate of the highly controversial pro-Russian Ilan Shor Party – came in as a very close second with only 13 votes less (26.41%). Third placed Viktor Petrov – seen by many as the most vocal advocate for restoring ties with Moscow – obtained 9,132 votes and is out of the race. Meanwhile, the moderate candidate Dumitru Croitor could not get beyond 5,825 votes and sits in fourth place. No comments have yet been made regarding the openness and fairness of the elections.
The result likely means a watershed for the region’s stance on EU-accession. Despite difficult relations with Maia Sandu’s government, the incumbent governor Irina Vlah was open to help from the EU and was one of the few candidates who did not endorse the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A map of Moldova with Gagauzia shaded in purple
Rising tension amid Russian interference
It is safe to say that the election had a controversial run-up. Last week, the Moldovan government in Chisinau denied access to a delegation of Russian politicians, who were on their way to a campaign event in Gagauzia hosted by Viktor Petrov. Furthermore, the pro-European government chose not to appoint a candidate, stating that it could not “undo thirty years of Russian propaganda” in Gagauzia. The pro-Russian sentiment in Gagauzia and attempted involvement by the Kremlin is all the more alarming for Chisinau since it already accused Russia of orchestrating a coup in February.
The pro-Russian sentiment in Gagauzia has significantly grown since the start of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. The increasing inflation and energy bills have resulted in economic hardship in the region, which was seen as economically underdeveloped even before the war started.
Gagauzia is a complex region. It is predominantly populated by Orthodox Christians who speak Turkish, although the political orientation of Gagauzia’s 150,000 inhabitants is traditionally pro-Russian.
Looking ahead to the run-off and its candidates
The run-off round – to be held on 14 May – will feature the two highest placed candidates. Evghenia Guțul is part of the controversial Shor Party, headed by oligarch Ilan Shor. The Shor Party is notorious for its pro-Russian stance and was involved in the massive anti-government protests in February. Shor – who was sentenced in absentia by a Moldovan court to 15 years in prison for fraud and money laundering of $1 billion – has been stripped from his seat in parliament. He had furthermore pledged to invest €500 million in the region, claiming this would create 7.000 new jobs and increase salaries by 30%.
Grigorii Uzun – on the other hand – is an independent candidate with the support of the Party of Socialists in the Republic of Moldova (PSRM). Uzun – like the PSRM – has a staunchly anti-European view and has promised to revert the Gagauz and Moldovan path towards European integration.
A pro-Russian candidate, therefore, will become the new governor of Gagauzia. Given the incredibly close result in the first round of the election, the winner of the run-off is hard to predict.
Author: David Groenen