A brief history of the Gagauz, a Turkic, primarily Orthodox Christian people in the Balkans.

The Gagauz, a Turkic-Orthodox Christian people, have lived in the Balkans for hundreds of years, managing to preserve their language and culture. 

Today, these unique people occupy a unique position between the Turkic, European, Muslim and Orthodox worlds. 

With a population of about 250,000, the Gagauz people primarily live in the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (ATUG) in Moldova, where Gagauz is the official language along with Russian and Moldovan. 

Large Gagauz communities are also located in Ukraine, Russia and Europe. Many of the Gagauz have also moved to Türkiye, with which the people of Gagauzia have established close relationships.

History

The most widely accepted hypothesis about the origins of the Gagauz people posits that they are descendants of Turkic peoples like the Pechenegs, Cumans and Uzes, known in Russian sources as "Torks," who came to the Balkans through the northern Black Sea coast.

Based on this theory, the closest peoples to Gagauz would be Crimean Tatars and Nogais, as well as Lithuanian Tatars, all of whom descend from the so-called "northern" group of the Turkic peoples whose ancestors were mainly the nomadic Oghuz and Kipchak tribes.

The Gagauz language belongs to the Oghuz group, the closest linguistic relatives of which are Turkish, Azerbaijani and the Yaliboylu dialect of Crimean Tatar. 

Thus, even among the Turkic peoples, the Gagauz are a bridge between "southern" Turks of Anatolia and Southern Caucasus and "northern" Turks of the northern Black Sea, northern Caucasus and lower Volga regions.

Settlement in Dobruja

The region of Dobruja, today the area between northeastern Bulgaria and southeastern Romania, is widely considered to be the original settlement area of the Gagauz. 

Though the ethnonym "Gagauz" first appeared in the 19th century, the 13th century is considered a period of formation of the Turkic-Christian population in Dobruja and Northern Thrace. 

A century later, an independent Bulgarian Principality of Karvuna, in the northeast of modern-day Bulgaria, was formed under the leadership of a Turkic-speaking Christian of Kipchak origin, Balik Bey.

In the 14th century, when the Dobruja region was incorporated into the Ottoman State, the Gagauz also became Ottoman subjects.

According to Ottoman statistics from 1597, these "Christian Turks" comprised the majority of the population, while there were no Bulgarians. 

This means that during that period, Varna, a city of several thousand people, was a Gagauz city.

At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, the gradual growth of the Russian Empire's influence on the Balkans was accompanied by the weakening of the Ottoman State.

Combined with the unrest among both the Christian and Muslim populations, Russia called for their resettlement to the lands on the northern Black Sea coast, which had been deserted after the resettlement of the Nogai Hordes.

Russian authorities offered the Bulgarians and the Gagauz, who they considered "Turkified" Bulgarians in the Russian Empire (it would be more accurate to call this phenomenon "re-Turkification"), favourable living areas near Melitopol and in Bessarabia, in modern-day Eastern Europe. 

Although the resettlement of the Gagauz began in the 18th century, it reached its peak after the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-1812. After the war, a peculiar population exchange took place: the Nogais in Budjak were transferred to Dobruja and the Gagauz were settled in their place.

The Gagauz remembered this fact and preserved the Nogai heritage of their villages, and maintain warm relations with the Nogais to this day. They publish books about the Nogai heritage of Budjak and invite representatives of the Nogai community to events related to the history of Bessarabia.

The Gagauz who did not migrate to Bessarabia were later divided between Romania and Bulgaria within the borders of the historic Dobruja. Others were resettled to the Russian Empire after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878 and up until 1917.

Gagauz statehood

The Gagauz settled in the south of modern-day Moldova, in the Budjak region, which became the centre of their national movement. 

Following the First Russian Revolution of 1905, the Gagauz briefly formed an autonomous Comrat Republic after a peasant rebellion in January 1906.

On January 10, 1906, a correspondent of the Russkoe Slovo newspaper wrote: "Comrat parish with a 10-thousand population is in the hands of the rebels. Autonomy is declared. The authorities are deposed and arrested. The dragoons are powerless. The vice-governor, who left yesterday, asks for the second squadron to be sent."

One of the rebels' demands was that the Gagauz language be taught in educational institutions.

The Gagauz also took part in the 1917 revolution and tried to attain autonomy again. In December 1917, the Council of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies of Kishinev discussed the creation of a Gagauz-Budjak Republic. The initiative was not successful.

After World War I, Bessarabia was a part of Romania until it became a part of the USSR in 1940. 

But the Gagauz did not receive autonomy within the USSR. Gagauz settlements became part of the Moldavian SSR and were divided among the Congaz, Comrat, Ceadir-Lunga and partially Vulcaneshti territories of the Soviet Republic.

And although the Gagauz did not achieve autonomy during the Soviet period, the communities actively developed their language and culture. They created an alphabet based on the Cyrillic alphabet, published dictionaries, textbooks and books, and formed bands and performance groups.

In 1988, Gagauz activists created the "Gagauz Halki" ("Gagauz People") movement and decided to establish Gagauz autonomy in Moldova with a capital in Comrat. 

In August 1990, Guagazia declared independence in Comrat, but the Moldovan government annulled this declaration and even organised a march of Moldovan nationalists to Gagauz towns accompanied by police units, known as the "March on Gagauzia".

This prompted the Gagauz people to actively oppose the Chisinau authorities. 

Residents of Gagauz villages started to mobilise, arming themselves with steel bars and other items to defend their settlements. 

Gagauzia was supported by Transnistria, which sent its volunteers to help. The issue was resolved on October 29 and 30: in exchange for the withdrawal of volunteers from Transnistria, Chisinau withdrew the Moldovan nationalists from Comrat.

On October 31, 1990, an organisational session of the Supreme Soviet of the Gagauz Republic took place, which was the founding step of modern Gagauz autonomy: the unrecognised Republic of Gagauzia existed from 1990 to 1994.

Then, the Moldovan Parliament adopted the law on the special legal status of Gagauzia in 1994. The Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, Gagauz Yeri, consisting of three towns and 27 villages, was established.

Today, these unique people have the potential to become a key player in public diplomacy both among these groups in particular and in the areas of inter-communal and inter-religious dialogue in the world as a whole.

A version of this article originally appeared in TRT Russian. 

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