Moldova-2019 is full of paradoxical elections. First, the Parliamentary voting actually led to a crisis in the country’s governance system and, at the moment, “oil to the flame” can be added by the elections of Bashkan (Governor) in the Administrative Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (ATU Gagauzia) on June 30, 2019, initially scheduled for February and May.

Background of the problem

The incumbent Bashkan of ATU Gagauzia is Irina Vlah; both she and her cabinet make no secret of their sympathy for the Moldovan socialists and Russia. In the Presidential election-2016, the autonomy supported the incumbent President of Moldova Igor Dodon by a majority of votes. At the same time, the Gagauz People’s Assembly is under control of members of the Democratic Party of Moldova (the party of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc prosecuted by the Russian Federation), currently in opposition to both President Dodon and to Russia’s interests in Moldova. In September 2018, Irina Vlah proposed Bashkan elections to be held on February 17, 2019, but deputies disagreed with this proposal and called the elections for May 19, 2019 (further postponed for June 30, 2019). Pro-Russian media predicted Vlah’s victory with confidence, while the opposition media sources accused her of embezzlement in healthcare.

The ATU Gagauzia CEC accepted documents from potential Bashkan candidates until May 30, 2019. To be registered as a candidate for the Bashkan of Gagauzia, an applicant had to collect 1,500-2,000 voter signatures in his support. According to recent amendments to the electoral law, candidates are tested for knowledge of the Gagauz language.

Five applicants announced their intention to run for the Bashkan office: Irina Vlah, Mikhail Vlah, Sergey Chimpoesh, Vasily Aladov and Ivan Burguji. Four candidates were registered within the statutory timeframe: Irina Vlah, Sergey Chimpoesh, Ivan Burguji and Dmitry Manol.

The former mayor of the Gagauz city of Comrat, the leader of the local branch of the Democratic Party of Moldova and the main political opponent of Irina Vlah, Nikolai Dudoglo, who had previously attempted Bashkan elections more than once and lost in recent elections to the Parliament of Moldova in a single-mandate constituency, did not take part in this election. However, Democratic Party that takes control over the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia succeeded in introducing amendments to the electoral legislation: elections are now recognized as valid only if the turnout is no less than 50%. It is a very high threshold for this region, where most population is composed of migrant workers, so the Bashkan elections were at risk, given the possible non-participation of Dudoglo supporters in the campaign. However, according opinion polls, the majority of Gagauz residents were going to cast their votes for the incumbent Bashkan Irina Vlah, who was supposed to win in the first round. The only obstruction to her victory could come from a low voter turnout.

“Deputies controlled by the Democratic Party pursue several goals. First, they expect to gain time so that the residents of the autonomy forget about the humiliating defeat of Nikolai Dudoglo in the recent parliamentary elections. Thus, the Gagauz Democrats expect that their informal leader will get more chances to win in the Bashkan elections”, Irina Vlah said in a recent interview.

Ms. Vlah also noted that the local office of the Democratic Party had planned to reformat the Central Election Commission of Gagauzia prior to the elections, by appointing people under their control to senior positions. In her opinion, the elections postponed from May to June resulted in a decreased voter turnout and put at risk overcoming the 50% turnout threshold (inconsistencies between the Electoral Code and Gagauz legislation).

President of Moldova Igor Dodon expressed his concern about the possible destabilization in Gagauzia ahead of the elections.

Recent amendments to the Electoral Code of Gagauzia involve raising the turnout threshold up to 50% in the Bashkan elections, as well as the applicability of the national register of the Republic of Moldova, where Gagauzia has 130,000 voters, instead of the local voter lists. At the same time, Bashkan confirms that the Code of Gagauzia is the principal document to guide her activities.

In summary, we can state with confidence that Gagauzia is one of numerous local points in the post-Soviet space where the interests of Russia and the West (figuratively) politics collide. Moscow hopes to take advantage of the Moldova’s situation to establish a friendly government in the autonomy and in the country, and all the politicians of the forthcoming electoral race are either direct or indirect spokesperson for Russian interests in Gagauzia. Even local residents make it clear in their talks that they feel closer to Russia than to Moldova. Russia has opened its market to local agricultural exporters and Gagauzia is developing close political and economic ties with Russian Federation, unlike the rest of Moldova.

Elections of the Governor (Bashkan) of Gagauzia on June 30, 2019: As it happened

Initially, the elections of the Governor (Bashkan) of Gagauzia were scheduled by the People’s Assembly on May 19, 2019. However, one day before the start of the election campaign (in accordance with the Electoral Code (EC) of Gagauzia, the election campaign starts 60 days prior to the Voting Day) the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia adopted a resolution to set the Bashkan election on June 30, 2019. On the same day, the People’s Assembly adopted the draft law “On Amendments and Supplements to the Electoral Code of the ATU Gagauzia No. 60- XVII/V of 31.07.2015”, to bring the requirement for a minimum turnout in the Bashkan elections in compliance with the Code of Gagauzia, i.e., to increase turnout in the first round from 1/3 to 1/2 voters of their total number included in the lists. The Bashkan Irina Vlah rejected draft law for procedural violations and for the reason it is unnecessary, since in the case of a conflict between the law and the Code, the provision set by the Code is applied. Thus, at the Gagauz Bashkan election on June 30, 2019, the turnout threshold for recognizing the election as valid was 50% of voters of the total number included in the lists.

Given the high turnout threshold required to recognize the election as valid, the accuracy of voter lists has become a major issue. Due to gaps and contradictions between the autonomy’s and republican legislation, the CEC of Moldova is unable to provide the CEC of Gagauzia access to the Voter Register of the Republic of Moldova. At the same time, in accordance with the Gagauz EC, voter lists are compiled by local authorities and precinct election offices. These lists include citizens who enjoy the right to vote and who, at the time of compiling the lists, reside on the respective territory (Gagauz EC, Article 39, paras. 1, 3). Discrepancies between the data of the Gagauzia CEC and the Moldovan CEC arose from differences in compiling techniques. According to the Gagauzia CEC, the tentative total number of eligible voters for the elections of June 30, 2019 was 108,027; while, according to the Moldovan CEC, the number of eligible voters in Gagauzia was 131,299. The work on detailing voter lists organized by local authorities produced the finalized number of 106,136 voters.

Candidates for the Bashkan office were nominated from May 1 to May 30, and by June 6, the Gagauzia CEC completed registration of the candidates. In total, four candidates were registered by the CEC decisions – Irina Vlah, Ivan Burguji, Dmitry Manol and Sergey Chimpoesh. The Gagauzia CEC refused registration of the candidate Vasily Aladov reasoning from non-compliance of signatures collected in support of his candidacy with the legal requirements.

This decision of the Gagauzia CEC was contested by Vasily Aladov in court, and on June 28, 2019, the Appeal Chamber of Cahul city satisfied his claim to cancel the decision of the Gagauzia CEC. Abiding the court decision, the Gagauzia CEC registered Vasily Aladov as a candidate for the election and included him into the ballot. However, on June 29, 2019, the Supreme Court of Justice of Moldova overturned the decision of the Cahul Appeal Chamber and withdrew Vasily Aladov from participating in the elections. As a result, exactly on the Election Day, commission members at polling stations had to cross out Vasily Aladov from ballots by putting a “withdrawn” stamp across his name.

The candidates’ campaigns started after the official registration, so its length varied for different candidates. In general, campaigning was rather peaceful though differing in intensity: the most active was conducted by the current Bashkan of Gagauzia Irina Vlah, while the campaigns of her opponents were far less visible.

However, the main campaigning confrontation was not between the registered candidates, among which the current Bashkan Irina Vlah was the undisputed favorite. Her central opponent was Nikolai Dudoglo, leader of the local branch of the Democratic Party of Moldova, who announced a boycott of the elections and campaigned to discredit the electoral process. Many media sources assign him the initiative to postpone voting to June 30 and to initiate the increasing the turnout validity threshold up to 50%.

Voting at the election of Bashkan of Gagauzia on June 30, 2019, took place in a calm environment; no significant violations to affect the election outcomes were registered.

According to preliminary data of the Gagauzia CEC, 50.51% of listed voters took part in the voting, which made the election valid. Though, a small margin between the threshold and turnout makes the situation vulnerable to politically motivated provocations and sets preconditions for contesting the election legitimacy. Moreover, these preliminary data contain contradictions and are incomplete, which allows for additional speculations about overcoming the electoral threshold.

Thus, the Gagauzia CEC did not publish data on the final number of voters at the time of voting completion. So, it is unclear, what was the number of voters to make 100% (how was calculated 50.51% of those who really voted). Even more, the number of actual voters does not coincide with the total number of voters who supported all candidates included in the ballots. According to the Gagauzia CEC, 55,380 voters took part in the voting, while the candidates were supported by 49,742 voters for Irina Vlah, 3,932 voters for Sergey Chimpoesh, 481 voters for Ivan Burguji, and 346 voters for Dmitry Manol. A total of 54,501 voters cast their voices for the candidates and the fate of 879 votes remains unknown. Also, the percentages of turnout and votes received by candidates published by the Gagauzia CEC cannot be derived by calculation from the data presented.

However, the voting results, with preliminary data showing about 90% of the votes cast for the incumbent Bashkan Irina Vlah, provide no grounds for possible claims from the rivals.

Thus, in the absence of real competitors, Irina Vlah received an overwhelming support from voters who came to the polling stations. At the same time, a very slight margin of passing the electoral threshold and inaccuracies in the published preliminary data leaves many opportunities for speculation and protest activity for the forces that boycotted the elections, primarily those associated with Nikolai Dudoglo.

Hopefully, when drafting the final protocol on the election results, the Gagauzia CEC would pay more attention to the accuracy of figures and thus confirm respectful attitude to the will expressed by the Gagauz voters.

The ATU Gagauzia: Profile

Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia is located in the southern part of Moldova; its population number is about 160,000, which is 4.5% of the country’s population. The majority of the population is the Gagauz people; others are Bulgarians, Moldovans, Russians, Ukrainians and Poles. The total area of ​​the region is about 1,830 sq. km, which is 5% of the total territory of the Republic of Moldova. ATU Gagauzia is not a uniform and compact territorial unit; in accordance with the current legislation, it includes all localities of Moldova with more than 50% ethnic Gagauz in population and those country localities, which expressed their desire by referendum to join Gagauzia. The ATU was officially established in 1994 and currently consists of four separate territories; it includes three cities: Comrat (the capital of Gagauzia), Ceadir-Lunga and Vulcanesti, as well as about 30 villages.

The Gagauz autonomy is functioning within a legal framework, which includes the Law on the Special Legal Status of Gagauzia (Gagauz Yeri) adopted by the Parliament of Moldova and the Code of Gagauzia.

The Law on the Special Legal Status of Gagauzia (Gagauz Yeri) determines that the ATU Gagauzia is an autonomous territorial entity with a special status, reflecting the self-determination of Gagauz people, and is an integral part of the Republic of Moldova. The Law determines that the Gagauz people, within their competence, solve independently issues of political, economic and cultural development, in the interests of the entire ATU population. All acts adopted by the authorities of Gagauzia should not contravene with the Constitution of the Republic of Moldova. The Law also specifies the procedure for the entry (or exit) of territories into the autonomy and determines that Gagauz, Moldovan and Russian are the official languages ​​in Gagauzia.

The Code is considered as a kind of constitution adopted by the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia. Gagauzia has its symbols – the flag, emblem and anthem, which are used along with the national symbols of the Republic of Moldova.

The Law and the Code determine the political system in the autonomy. The permanent executive body is the Executive Committee (Bakannik Committee) formed by the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia. The top official of Gagauzia is its Governor (Bashkan) who has full power over all public authorities of Gagauzia.

On February 2, 2014, the Gagauz authorities held two concurrent referendums. At the first referendum, local residents were asked to declare their support for either the country’s integration with the EU or with the Moscow-led Customs Union (CU); under the second referendum, they discussed the draft law “On the deferred status of the people of Gagauzia for external self-determination”. Under this law, in the case Moldova loses its sovereignty (for example, by accession to Romania, or even, as argued by some politicians, through the further integration with the EU), the ATU becomes, ipso facto, an independent Republic of Gagauzia. As envisaged, the voting results showed an overwhelming support for joining the CU and the draft law. According to data published by the Central Election Commission of Gagauzia, 98.5% of voters supported the integration of the Republic of Moldova with the CU and 98% voted for the “deferred independence” draft law. Support given for the option of more integration with the EU was negligible, slightly over 2%. Voter turnout was very high for the Republic of Moldova and reached about 70%.

The basic reasons for this unambiguous result are: the traditionally pro-Russian attitude of the local population; worries over the potential unification of Moldova and Romania (voiced by local officials and compounded by statements from Bucharest); fears of a further decline in trade with Russia and restricted access to the Russian labor market; low awareness of the EU as such and the conditions for European integration. The referendum was held amid numerous protests in Chisinau and statements that the vote would be illegal.

The ongoing crisis in relations between Chisinau and Comrat is determined by a number of factors, including the fight for power in Gagauzia; struggle between the central and regional authorities concerning the degree of Gagauz autonomy, as well as for the control and distribution of financial resources; as well as Russia’s influence in the region. This crisis cannot be overcome at the time being.