Gagauzia, Moldova – In Congaz, a small village in Moldova’s autonomous area of Gagauzia, a statue of the previous Soviet chief Lenin watches over a reception centre for Ukrainian refugees.

“I discovered solely good issues about Lenin: that he was an essential chief, that he was a hard-working man like us. That’s why I don’t thoughts standing subsequent to Lenin’s statue,” Margarita, who hails from Odesa and now lives on the village’s Lenin Road, advised Al Jazeera.

Forty-three refugees stay on the centre. Washing machines donated from Turkey sit close to the doorway, the place assist can be acquired and distributed.

Margarita arrived along with her nine-year-old son a number of weeks in the past, when she moved from Tiraspol, the self-declared capital of Moldova’s pro-Russia breakaway area, Transnistria, after explosions that appeared to narrate to the Ukraine warfare rang out.

At the moment, Russian officers mentioned they have been on the lookout for simpler entry to Transnistria, the place Moscow’s army has a presence already, with a purpose to seize extra of Ukraine.

“We might solely go additional if one thing occurred right here in Gagauzia,” mentioned Margarita, “however now we really feel secure right here, it’s quiet, prefer it was at house in Odesa. And it helps that everybody speaks Russian right here.”

Gagauzia is Moldova’s poorest area, populated by a Russian-speaking Turkic minority that settled in Ottoman occasions. Now, the European Union, Russia and Turkey are competing for affect within the area.

And like everybody in Moldova, the Ukraine warfare has startled the individuals of Gagauzia – which is simply 200km (124 miles) from Odesa.

Ukrainian refugees enjoying in entrance of their lodging in Congaz [Eli Driu/Al Jazeera]

The workplace of George Sari, deputy mayor of the Gagauzian capital, Comrat, is adorned with Turkish flags and the Turkish eye-shaped amulet.

As he speaks to Al Jazeera his cellphone rings.

“I’m sorry, I must reply, it’s a name from Turkey,” he mentioned.

Ankara has made appreciable investments in Gagauzia’s infrastructure, hospitals and colleges. In accordance with Sari, Turkey has additionally donated vital sums of assist to host Ukrainian refugees right here.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan visited Gagauzia in 2020 and opened a brand new consulate in Comrat.

deputy mayor of Comart Gagauzian capital
George Sari is an area official with shut ties to Turkey [Eli Driu/Al Jazeera]

After World Struggle I, Gagauzia grew to become a part of Romania, a interval when many on this area have been persecuted. Due to that, Gagauzians usually don’t like Romanians, don’t be taught Romanian and don’t agree with reunification.

In 1940, along with Moldova, Gagauzia splintered from Romania and was absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Very similar to the breakaway area of Transnistria, Gagauzia declared independence in 1990 – when the Soviet Union dissolved.

It reintegrated into Moldova in 1994 and has since been an autonomous area. Whereas it solutions to Chisinau, it has its personal police drive, regional legal guidelines and distinctive financial ties to Russia, the EU and Turkey.

Roughly 150,000 individuals stay right here, largely Gagauzians and in addition some Bulgarians, Russians and Ukrainians.

Gagauzians make up 5 p.c of Moldova’s inhabitants.

They’re Orthodox Christians and primarily communicate Russian, but additionally Gagauzian, a language that’s closest to Turkish. Moldova’s nationwide language is Romanian.

The Gagauzian language was not correctly taught when the area was a part of Romania, so the principle aim of authorities and Turkey alike is to revive the native dialect and provides it extra prominence in overwhelmingly Russian-speaking colleges.

The EU, in the meantime, has been investing within the area’s infrastructure by way of its growth financial institution.

Irina Vlah, Gagauzia’s governor, believes in balancing the competing pursuits of Brussels, Moscow and Ankara.

The area’s largest problem is its mistrust in Chisinau, particularly for the reason that pro-European, democratic President Maia Sandu took workplace in 2020.

“The federal government in Chisinau is towards our individuals. As a result of we don’t communicate Romanian, they assume we’re Russian,” mentioned Nikolai, a Comrat native.

Nikolai
Nikolai says he distrusts the central authorities in Chisinau [Eli Driu/Al Jazeera]

Sandu utilized for EU membership in March and Moldova has formally grow to be a candidate state.

Accession might take years, however Gagauzians are already towards the transfer.

Nikolai believes that if Moldova joins the EU, “Our individuals will run free in Europe.”

Anastasia, a 20-year-old making ready to go to school in Comrat, advised Al Jazeera that if Moldova joins, there might be “chaos” in Gagauzia.

“We need to be autonomous; we don’t like their legal guidelines and a very powerful cause is that they permit numerous LGBT parades there,” she mentioned.

Sandu’s authorities lately banned pro-war symbols related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, such because the letters V and Z, but additionally a black and orange ribbon utilized in Soviet medals and on Could 9, when former-Soviet nations have a good time the World Struggle II victory.

Gagauzians are largely pro-Russian and treasure the ribbon.

“A mistake on the a part of the federal government was banning the ribbon,” mentioned Sari, the deputy mayor.

Traditionally the area helps the socialist get together led by former President Igor Dodon, who is understood for warming ties with Moscow.

“Our area wished to have good relations with Russia, to supply us cheaper gasoline and for our college students to have the ability to examine in Russia. Maia Sandu broke this hyperlink,” mentioned Anastasia.

“When Dodon was in energy, there was no such chaos, costs didn’t rise so instantly. We had neutrality and we didn’t go towards anybody however it appears that evidently we are actually going towards [Russia] whereas we must always keep neutrality.”

Anastasia in Comrat
Anastasia, 20, believes Moldova ought to keep a way of neutrality [Eli Driu/Al Jazeera]

A lot of the resentment in the direction of Romania, the EU and Chisinau could possibly be all the way down to how a lot Russian media Gagauzians eat.

Within the lead-up to this 12 months’s Could 9 parade, Anastasia learn studies about Romanian tanks stationed on the border with Moldova, making ready to enter through the parade. She acquired scared, however the studies finally turned out to be misinformation.

In the meantime, Nikolai believes that information from Romania and Moldova is biased – in assist of the West.

“They assume we’re zombies and may’t assume. We’re towards the warfare clearly, however Moldovan media thinks we’re not able to analysing issues by ourselves, and we’re upset about that, it’s disagreeable,” Nikolai advised Al Jazeera.

However some younger Gagauzians see worth in becoming a member of the EU.

“I feel Moldova and Gagauzia ought to transfer in the direction of the EU,” mentioned 16-year-old Lili. “Folks have a foul opinion about Russia however a superb opinion in regards to the EU.”

Lili nonetheless likes the thought of Russia, the place she’s going to go to proceed her schooling in two months.

When requested if she is afraid of the warfare in Ukraine, she mentioned she’s “not frightened in any respect”.

“I’m going to Russia quickly and I’m not enthusiastic about safety, I’m enthusiastic about a superb job, a superb future,” she mentioned.

Whereas Lili thinks of her future, Margarita is caught on her previous, dreaming of prewar Ukraine.

Even so, she doesn’t have unwell emotions in the direction of those that sympathise with Russia.

“It doesn’t trouble me in any means that individuals listed here are pro-Russian, as a result of I select peace and quiet in my soul. I don’t need warfare with others, that’s the essential factor for me,” mentioned Margarita.

Lenin statue in the Congaz refugee centre courtyard
A statue of Lenin stands within the courtyard of the Congaz refugee centre [Eli Driu/Al Jazeera]

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