Moldova's Gagauz region faces tough choice between Russia, EU
A statue of Lenin is seen next to Gagauzia's Government building in Comrat, the main city of Gagauzia, in southern Moldova, on April 7, 2014 - by Daniel Mihailescu
"The situation here is very tense, there are major dangers lying ahead," said Nikolai Dudoglu, mayor of Gagauzia's capital city Comrat.
"Fortunately, we have moderate politicians who know that if (a Ukrainian scenario) was to repeat here, it would be very hard to stop it," he told AFP, indicating that independence protests would not reach the level of violence seen in Ukraine.
The territory in southern Moldova close to the Ukrainian border, stretching over 1,800 square kilometres ( 700 square miles) is peopled by ethnic Turks, who converted to Orthodox Christianity in the 19th century and speak Russian among themselves.
Gagauzia abandoned plans to break away from Moldova in 1994 on the condition that the country would not reunite with neighbouring Romania.
In February, local authorities called a controversial referendum asking Gagauzia's 160,000 inhabitants to choose between joining a customs union with Russia and signing an association agreement with the European Union.
More than 98 percent of voters cast their ballots for closer ties with Russia and said "nyet" to the EU.
That goes directly against plans for the rest of Moldova, which agreed to an association agreement with the EU in November, and is expected to formally sign the agreement by 2015.
"It goes without saying that the situation in Ukraine has affected the dynamics and the atmosphere in the entire region," the EU's ambassador to Moldova Pirkka Tapiola told AFP by telephone.
"Of course, no situation is identical and I don't see an independence movement in the making" in Gagauzia, he said.
"But we do see there is a heightening of tensions, stronger rhetoric and some actions," he added, citing attempts to fuel local fears that the independent culture of Gagauz will be threatened if Moldova signs the EU accession deal.
- Separatism 'unacceptable' -
The region's governor, or "bashkan", Mikhail Formuzal told AFP in an interview that talking of separatism was "unacceptable for Gagauzia".
But he added that Crimea made the "correct move" in declaring its independence from Ukraine since the rights of the Russian minority there were "trampled, and their interests ignored".
"Russia understood that it must promote a firm stand in the interest of its own nation," he said, adding that Moldova "must not join any political bloc" if it wants to preserve its territorial integrity.
Formuzal also raised the issue of Transdniestr, a strip of land on Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine, which broke away from the rest of the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but is not recognised by any state.
Residents of Transdniestr voted overwhelmingly to join Russia in a 2006 referendum and Moscow still maintains thousands of troops there.
"Moldova will face tremendous problems if it signs the EU accession agreement as Russia has warned that it will introduce additional taxes on imported Moldovan goods" and send back the roughly 500,000 Moldovan migrants working there, including 25,000 Gagauz, Formuzal said.
Remittances from Moldovan migrants account for one-third of Moldova's gross domestic product.
- 'Nothing for us in Europe' -
"Here we all feel close to Russia. The only opportunities for us and our children are in Russia," said Ivan Gavrilov, a 33-year-old farmer from Ceadir-Lunga, a Gagauz town close to the Ukrainian border.
"There's nothing for us in Europe. We don't speak the language and don't know what to expect over there," he added.
He had just emerged from a red tent set up by Moldova's Socialist Party close to the Lenin statue in Comrat's city centre, where passers-by were encouraged to sign a petition calling for a referendum on whether to turn East or West.
Most had already made up their minds.
"I was born in the Soviet Union and I think we should be part of Russia," said Olga Patraman, 40.
"Under the Soviet Union we had stability, security, social guarantees. We'd like those days to return," she added.
In a bid to win over the Gagauz, Moscow recently lifted an embargo on wine imports from the region, while maintaining restrictions on the rest of Moldova.
Some are still hoping to keep the country united.
"We are happy that wine exports have resumed, but the same criteria should apply to all producers in Moldova," Dudoglu said.
The mayor, who plans to run for Gagauz governor in February 2015, pleaded for friendly ties with both the EU and Russia.
"We must not forget that we are a neighbour of the European Union and we will not be able to fly over Ukraine" to be closer to Russia, he said.