Friday, February 19, 2010
Gagauz: A Mixing Bowl People of Three Worlds
Think of the Balkans. One probably has the image of various ethnic groups strongly resisting outsiders while cling on to the old ways. There is another type of Balkans people, though. There is a group that has adopted the many traits of other ethnic nations and has become unique because of their melting pot culture. The Gagauz are that people whose cultural and political make-up combine all the major players of the Balkans in the last 600 years.
The Gagauz are ethnic Turks. Their very name means “straight-nosed Turks.” There are two theories on how they reached present-day Moldova. The first theory is that they are descended from the Ottoman conquers of the 15th and 16th centuries. The other theory was more popular in the past. It stated that the Gagauz were descended from the Bulgars, also a Turkic people, who pillaged their way into Europe from the Central Asian steppes. The basis for this hypothesis is that Gagauz use to call themselves “true Bulgars” when they lived among the Bulgarians. They resented Bulgarians calling them "Gagauz" because it implied they were Turks like the Ottomans rather than a small “t” Turkic people like the Bulgarians who became Slavic in culture. Today the Gagauz prefer the Ottoman-origin theory.
No one knows when the conversion happened but the Gagauz are Eastern Orthodox Christians belonging to a See in the Russian Orthodox Church. During the 1800s the first noting of religion amongst the Gagauz was made. The Gagauz were being oppressed by the Ottomans for being Christian. Around this time Russian Orthodox Church was the only Orthodox Church not under Ottoman control and it was therefore a political statement to belong to it while living in the Ottoman Empire. The Gagauz probably converted from Sunni Islam due to missionary activity or, if the Bulgar theory is correct, converted out of a desire to be aligned with a free Orthodox church.
The Gagauz speak Gagauz, a language closely related to Turkish. However, their alphabet is now in Latin. Previously Gagauz used the Greek alphabet but it switched to Cyrillic in the 1950s. The change was forced by the Soviet Union which sought to Russify the various cultures in the USSR. It went to Latin after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The majority of Gagauz live in the former Soviet republic of Moldova. While they have been partially Russified by their adoption of Russian Orthodoxy and Cyrillic, the Gagauz have managed to keep their own language alive while being multilingual in Romanian and Russian. Their national identity nearly lead to war in the early 1990s. As the Soviet Union was falling apart, ethnic Romanians in Moldova changed the official language of Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic from Russian and Romanian to Romanian only. Also, the Moldovan nationalists were making it known an independent Moldova would seek to merge into a greater Romania. The Gagauz threatened to breakaway violently but war was prevented by Transnistria's war of independence. The crushing of the Moldovans by the Transnistrians and 14th Russian Army prevented any anti-Gagauz crackdown by Moldova. A period of undeclared independence existed from 1992 to 1994. In 1994 Moldova agreed to give autonomy to majority Gagauz regions and areas with a sizable Gagauz minority which voted to join the autonomous zone of Gagauzia. Gagauzia is a free, liberal democracy with its own parliment and good civil rights record.
Today the mixed nature of the Gagauz continues. Turkey has granted Moldova money to improve Gagauzia and has spent its resources by conducting cultural exchanges. The Gagauz tend to support the Communist Party of Moldova and are considered still close to Russia as they see the party and Russia as counterweight to the pro-European, pro-Romania parties. The Gagauz have become a focal point where Europe, Russian Eurasia, and a Turkish Near East merge. The mixing bowl Gagauz have become a people of three worlds.