Techno-populism trumps geopolitics: How Moldovan oligarch Ilan Shor won local elections in Gagauzia17 min read
Recent regional elections in Moldova’s autonomous territorial unit of Gagauzia were won by Yevgenia Gutsul, the candidate put forward by the Shor Party, which was recently declared unconstitutional. Its founder and leader, Israeli-Moldovan fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor, coordinates his political opposition to Moldova’s pro-European government from exile, having been handed a 15-year jail sentence in absentia for his involvement in Moldova’s infamous 2014 banking scandal. Shor’s populists gaining power in peripheral Gagauzia has important implications for Moldova as a whole.
Everything was set for a celebration. On 19 July, hundreds of people gathered in front of an oversized stage in the centre of Comrat, the regional capital of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, to witness the inauguration of Yevgenia Gutsul as the region’s new governor, locally known as the Bashkan. A carefully placed red carpet, flamboyant artists and a famous Turkish actor on the stage, sophisticated light effects, and the omnipresent amalgam of the flags of Moldova and Gagauzia created a photogenic background for the festive display of Gutsul’s victory in the second round of the elections in late May.
Gutsul proclaimed herself to be “pro-Gagauzian,” but only months ago she had been a completely unknown figure in Gagauz society. During the campaign, Gutsul never hid her intention to establish closer ties with Russia. Consequently, members of the Moldovan government ostentatiously stayed away from the proceedings unfolding 100 kilometres south from Moldova’s capital. Pressed by journalists, President Maia Sandu declared the next day that she would not attend the inauguration of someone with connections to “criminal groups,” an unequivocal reference to Gutsul’s affiliation with the Shor Party, which was banned by Moldova’s constitutional court the month prior.
What at first glance might look like an ordinary quarrel between centre and periphery or government and opposition was merely a temporary conclusion to a highly politicised election, with longer-term implications. When the first results were published on 30 April, it became obvious that the Shor Party’s Gutsul was able to defy the polls, reaching a tight first place with 26.47 percent, followed by Grigoriy Uzun with 26.40 percent . With 52.34 percent of votes in the second round, Gutsul secured the ultimate victory for Ilan Shor two weeks later.
The first half of May saw investigations and raids by the Central Election Commission of Moldova and the National Anticorruption Center to obtain further evidence on suspicions of illegal campaign financing, as well as including deceased and emigrant Gagauz on voter lists. On 16 May, this culminated in a tense stand-off, sparking protests and an emergency session held by the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia. But in spite of clear violations, the central authorities were unable to prevent the rise to power of a de facto Shor candidate in Comrat. The Israeli-Moldovan oligarch’s skillful merger of populist and technocratic promises – backed by dubious finances – proved successful in Gagauzia, and might foreshadow his strategy for Moldova’s local elections, scheduled for 5 November 2023.
In 1994, the special legal status of Gagauzia was established, granting “external self-determination” to the Moldovan localities mostly inhabited by Gagauz, a Turkic Orthodox Christian community. Institutionally, this autonomy takes the form of the People’s Assembly (Halk Toplushu) and the Bashkan, an executive head. For a variety of historical and social reasons, including Soviet-era Russification, labour migration, and a Russia-dominated media landscape, most Gagauz speak Russian in their everyday lives, not Gagauz, and retain a strong attachment to Russia. The region’s unique amalgam of ethnolinguistic and socio-political factors has led Gagauzia to pursue its own para-diplomacy, fostering close ties with Turkey and Russia, as well as other regions settled by Gagauz, occasionally sparking rifts with the central government in Chișinău.
As the polling stations opened their doors on the morning of 30 April, 92,519 eligible voters were called to cast their ballot for the next Bashkan who would steer the autonomous region, with its roughly 135,000 inhabitants, for the next four years. Having filled the position for two electoral terms, the popular incumbent Irina Vlah, associated with the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), which is currently in opposition, was barred from running again.
The ballot papers contained the names of eight candidates, who in the previous weeks and months had wrestled for public support and attention, promising prosperity, increased autonomy, and closer ties with Russia. Describing the campaign as a battle among “pro-Russians,” with a “potential to undermine Moldova’s stability,” outside observers saw a significant event for the country at large under the auspices of broader geopolitical competition. Yet, it would be a mistake to reduce the recent election outcomes and post-election trends exclusively to (new) geopolitical questions, the Kremlin’s influence, and the region’s history of secessionism.
As an ex-officio member of the Cabinet of Moldova, the position of the Bashkan certainly provides a convenient opportunity to bring pro-Russian voices to Chișinău and obstruct the Europeanisation course of the Sandu government, but this is hardly new. Nearly all Bashkan candidates have run on a predictably pro-Russian platform. The region’s inhabitants are consistently in favour of good relations with Russia, as survey results from 2021 and 2023 show. In 2014, the Gagauz population overwhelmingly voted for integration with the Russia-led CIS Customs Union.
Despite these trends, a recent poll indicates that Gagauz are split on who is to blame for the ongoing war in Ukraine. To add further complexity to the picture, loyalty vis-à-vis Moscow has gone hand in hand with hospitality for Ukrainian refugees in Gagauzia.
Confronted with these conditions and in line with previous elections, the ruling party, the driving force behind the country’s ongoing reform efforts and push towards EU integration, abstained from nominating or supporting a candidate. President Maia Sandu explained this decision with the preferences of the Gagauz population: “Their world,” she said, “is a world completely dominated by Russian propaganda.”
The Moldovan government thus took a “defeatist attitude towards Gagauzia,” historian Keith Harrington explained in an interview with Lossi 36. With the central government displaying reticence and the candidates toying with established rhetorical elements in favour of closer relations with Russia, the Gagauz elections appeared to be the continuation of the region’s largely inconsequential Sonderweg.
Geopolitics and disillusionment
In spite of the overwhelming Russian influence on the information space in Gagauzia, ordinary people’s attitudes are more ambiguous than expected if we remove our ‘geopolitical goggles.’ The new Bashkan should “in no case turn his back on Ukraine, Russia or Europe,” a Gagauz school teacher from Congaz told Radio Free Europe. But another resident (60 years old) of the same small town displayed an unequivocal pro-Russian attitude, typical for older generations in the region: “We need Russia, we don’t need Europe.” Harrington underlines that the EU has invested considerable funds in Gagauzia. “However, they have done little to highlight the positive role they have played in the region.”
None of the candidates for the Bashkan election were honest and incorruptible, Andrey, a Gagauz who immigrated from Gagauzia to the Netherlands in 2021, tells Lossi 36. “Viktor Petrov and Grigory Uzun are no better than this candidate,” says Andrey. Yevgenia Gutsul won because of ordinary Gagauz’ belief in promises of a bright future, he says, but “they are engaged in self-deception.” Gutsul “will not make any independent decisions,” he adds, pointing to Ilan Shor’s control from abroad. Sharing the same sentiment, a Gagauz man named Sergey told Deutsche Welle that he saw no reason to vote in the regional elections: “It’s the same as always: We go and vote for them, and they don’t do anything to help us.”
Andrey thinks Gagauzia receives sufficient economic support from the European Union. “But it’s being plundered. Everything goes into the pockets of officials who will build a business on it and retire.” Although he believes corruption and the lack of rule of law are the main problems Gagauzia faces today, he does not see a pro-European or pro-Western foreign policy orientation as a cure-all. Moldova, Andrey says, should remain neutral in the current confrontation between Russia and the collective West.
In this context, attempts to change Moldova’s geopolitical allegiance and identity spark vehement criticism in peripheral regions such as Gagauzia. Shortly before the 9 May Victory Day celebrations, for example, President Sandu signed a law banning the use of the ribbon of St George, which is associated with both the Soviet army’s victory in the Second World War and today’s criminal military aggression in Ukraine. A protest quickly emerged in Comrat, with Gagauz and Russian flags in full display. Following this public backlash, the Gagauz assembly repeatedly tried to reverse the law.
Likewise, right when public anger in Gagauzia was directed against the perceived infringement of their own autonomy by the central government, Sandu organised mass rallies in favour of European integration on the streets of the country’s capital. Following a now well-established back-and-forth dynamic, the Shor Party organised significantly smaller counter-protests across the country, including in Gagauzia.
Meanwhile, many Gagauz remain impoverished, frustrated about corruption, and uninformed about the day-to-day material benefits that closer relations with the EU have already brought. “We can say that the promise to provide cheap gas won,” said political analyst Vyacheslav Krachun in his commentary on the unsurprising election results. “Who is to blame? The inhabitants of Gagauzia? No! We need to think about what a desperate situation people are in if their critical thinking has decreased so much and allows them to believe in such promises.” Concrete socioeconomics, so it seems, trumps abstract geopolitics.
2022 was a particularly tough year for Moldova as a whole, casting a shadow over the gubernatorial elections in Gagauzia. Although inflation and gas prices have dropped considerably in recent months, sudden energy price hikes and an average annual inflation rate of 28.7 percent for 2022 provided significant challenges for the incumbent government and have opened up new room for opposition parties to gain popularity and attention.
Tensions between Moldova and Russia’s Gazprom preceded the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but it was the war that made costs of living skyrocket. Next to Gazprom’s deliberate reduction of gas exports to Moldova from October 2022 onwards, the country was no longer able to import electricity from Ukraine as a result of Russia’s attacks on critical infrastructure in Ukraine. Moldovans soon experienced what President Sandu called the country’s “worst energy crisis in its history,” leading to temporary blackouts and surging consumer prices. As a result, over 60 percent of Moldovan households faced energy poverty as of September 2022. “The people of Gagauzia struggled to pay their bills,” says Harrington, “and the municipal authorities struggled to heat schools and hospitals – fortunately, however, it was a rather mild winter. Nevertheless, several local businesses went bankrupt, and there was widespread anxiety in the region.”
“The situation was exacerbated by the fact that during the summer of 2022 there was a serious drought, which destroyed most of the region’s crops,” Harrington adds. This dire situation sparked protests, with most people in Gagauzia blaming Chișinău, not Moscow, for their hardships. “On several occasions, the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia voted in favour of sending a delegation to negotiate directly with Gazprom, but it was never sent.”
This initial wave of protests in Gagauzia in the autumn and winter of 2022 was “non-political,” Harrington explains. “The organisers generally prevented members of the opposition from speaking at these protests.” Over time, however, it proved impossible to prevent Ilan Shor – who at this point was sanctioned by the US – from getting involved.
In his efforts to become the Kremlin’s favourite populist in Moldova, Shor seized the opportunity to channel the rising discontent in Gagauzia and the country at large. From September 2022 onwards, Shor’s party and its vocal deputy Marina Tauber – who in May 2023 would be detained on corruption charges – organised weekly protests in Chisinau. Incentivised by cash hand-outs and free transport from the regions to the capital, thousands of protesters gathered on a weekly basis in the Moldovan capital, demanding President Sandu’s resignation and criticising the skyrocketing inflation as well as the government’s pro-EU course.
Oligarchy comes to the rescue
Five days before the first round of the Bashkan elections, Shor announced that his team had successfully “negotiated a special price for gas and electricity in the regions we manage.” This ill-substantiated promise was part of a wider campaign strategy, which plugged into the narrative that the government mismanaged the gas crisis (or even used it to steal from Moldovan citizens). “The European Union is to blame for the fact that the citizens of the Republic of Moldova pay ten times more for gas and three times more for electricity,” Shor said the day after Gutsul’s victory.
More importantly, Shor’s campaign also offered voters a range of other short-term material benefits. The now-banned party pledged to secure investments worth 500 million Euros for Gagauzia, create 7,000 jobs in the region, raise public sector salaries by 30 percent, begin work on an airport in Comrat, and erect an amusement park – GăgăuziaLand.
Shor was not the only one who built his campaign on such sheer economy-driven populism; so did candidate Victor Petrov, who came in third during the election’s first round. A lawyer and businessman, Petrov established the socio-political movement “People’s Union of Gagauzia” (Gagauz Halk Birlii) in July 2022 to rally and unite pro-Russian sentiment in the region, and created a charity called the “People’s Anti-Crisis Headquarters” (NASH) to provide free transportation, restore water wells, and refurbish schools.
If Shor and Gutsul used large-scale promises and projects to attract voters, Petrov rather relied on a more locally fine-tuned combination of populism, paternalism, and clientelism. Petrov also managed to get the support of some breakaway members of the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM). Whereas Gutsul paid Gagauzinfo.md to boost her campaign, Petrov’s team controlled Gagauznews.md (blocked by Moldovan authorities, it reappeared as Gagauznews.com).
But Petrov’s finances were ultimately no match for Ilan Shor’s deep pockets. According to independent media outlet Nokta, Gutsul’s campaign spent almost 92,000 Euros in four weeks, more than all the other candidates combined. Petrov spent less than half that amount. Practically all candidates received campaign donations exceeding the legal limit, set at approximately 605 Euros per individual contribution.
Techno-populism in Gagauzia
A little over a month after Gutsul’s victory, the Shor team announced that it would begin recruiting for the Executive Committee (Ispolkom) of Gagauzia, the autonomous bureaucracy headed by the Baskhan. It would be crucial to recruit skilled leaders on the basis of professionalism rather than personal ties or party allegiance, Ilan Shor said. In order to find qualified candidates, he employed an international recruitment agency to aid the selection council.
Shor’s approach in Gagauzia is reminiscent of what political scientists Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti call techno-populism, a political logic which merges populist and technocratic discourses and side-steps traditional ideological party-political competition. Politicians as varied as Czechia’s Andrej Babiš, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, and indeed Moldova’s exiled Ilan Shor stress that, unlike others, they ‘get things done’ for the ‘people.’
But not all Gagauz were convinced by these tactics. Ivan Burgudzhi, a prominent leader of Gagauzia’s autonomy movement in the 1990s, criticised Ilan Shor’s behind-the-scenes political engineering for lacking any democratic or legal basis (after all, Gutsul, not Shor, was elected).
It turned out that Shor had asked a former human resource manager from Gazprombank to recruit Gutsul’s team. On 27 July, the composition of the Executive Committee was announced. Eager to project an image of unity and inclusivity, Shor provided Gutsul with three very different Deputy Bashkans: Pavel Verejanu, a long-time (non-Gagauz) Shor ally and mayor of Orhei since 2019; Mikhail Vlakh, a prominent local activist (involved in a regional television company) who recently jumped on the Shor bandwagon; and – surprisingly – Victor Petrov, who had competed with Gutsul during the first election round in April. At the same time, the region’s Ispolkom retains many figures who had served under former governor Irina Vlah.
Strikingly and ironically, the committee’s composition hangs in limbo: the People’s Assembly on 4 August refused to approve Gutsul’s proposed team, due to seven candidates’ insufficient knowledge of the Gagauz language.
What’s next for Moldova?
Shor’s post-election jockeying resulted in a remarkable coalition of anti-government forces, which may help to cement Gagauzia as a stronghold for his political projects. Projecting influence from afar, Shor has shown his ability to bring eclectic local elites under his wings, slowly displacing Dodon’s Socialists (PSRM) and Voronin’s Communists (PCRM), Moldova’s chief opposition parties.
Ilan Shor’s announcement on 26 June that he would establish a new political bloc clearly shows that the whack-a-mole dynamic between the oligarch and President Sandu is here to stay. Given populists’ particular knack for local elections, economic historian Alexandru Leșanu fears that the upcoming local elections scheduled for 5 November will follow the pattern established in Gagauzia.
At the same time, however, Shor’s people – in Gagauzia and elsewhere – will have difficulties delivering on their promises once elected into power, Leșanu told Lossi 36 in an interview. The closed border between Ukraine and Transnistria puts unavoidable limits on the illicit trade networks and ‘grey’ economic investments which help fund Shor’s political activities.
In July, ex-President Dodon, himself facing corruption charges, called the Shor Party an “organised mafia group” for bribing PSRM politicians into joining the Renaissance or Revival (Vozrozhdenie) Party. Long dormant, the existing party was suddenly joined by ex-Socialist deputies Vasile Bolea and Alexander Sukhodolsky in late May. Having backed Victor Petrov’s Bashkan candidacy, the two deputies, together with Petrov himself, travelled to Israel to meet with Shor right after Gutsul’s victory.
On 24 July, Petrov’s movement “People’s Union of Gagauzia” merged with the Renaissance Party, thus forming a new shadow party for Shor. In return, Petrov was awarded the position of Deputy Bashkan. Less than two weeks later, the country’s National Anticorruption Center conducted searches of the Renaissance Party offices and caught an adviser red-handed with 30,000 dollars.
These shifts and regroupings in the opposition, an ongoing process since the rise of Shor in the winter of 2022, also yielded an expected new role for former Bashkan Irina Vlah. As a former deputy for the Communist faction in the Moldovan parliament, Vlah already brought considerable experience to her native Gagauzia when she won the Bashkan elections in 2015. Already in September 2022, Vlah publicly pondered a future role in national politics.
In an apparent attempt to find synergies in the oppositional camp, several parties and former politicians have already gathered behind Vlah. In mid-July, several centre-left parties publicly backed Vlah in a bid for next year’s presidential elections. Vlah can therefore count on the support of a variety of political groups, some of which have also quietly joined Shor’s new opposition bloc.
Vlah, who stayed away from Gutsul’s pompous inauguration, has meanwhile entered the national spotlight. On Facebook, her image has evolved from that of an approachable and hard-working local governor to an ardent government critic. On her brand new bilingual Telegram channel, she has already accused Sandu of engineering “Soviet, even Bolshevik censorship” under the pretext of combating disinformation. Vlah thus provides an alternative for voters who are critical of Sandu and PAS, but would shy away from directly supporting Shor.
Although it is still too early to tell whether Vlah could become a serious contender for Maia Sandu, the ongoing transformation of Gagauzia’s ex-Bashkan into a presidential candidate is another indicator of the volatility within Moldova’s opposition, intricately linked to the cost-of-living crisis and instability in the country’s neighbourhood. Will Gagauzia prove to be the canary in the coal mine for Moldova?
Images: Jan Peter Haas, 2023.