Since 1990, Moldova has struggled to maintain its territorial integrity. On the eve of the republic’s declaration of independence the central authorities were faced with two secession movements: one in the eastern portion of the country, Transnistria and one in the south, Gagauzia.
Historically, Moldova has been considered an ethnic melting pot, home to numerous minorities including Ukrainians, Russians and Gagauzians, as well as some 65,000 ethnic Bulgarians. Known as Bessarabian Bulgarians, they are primarily located in two regions, Taraclia in southern Moldova, and the village of Parcani, presently controlled by the de-facto authorities of Transnistria.
Bessarabia’s Bulgarians present an interesting case study for interethnic relations and secession movements in Moldova. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Bessarabian Bulgarians could broadly be divided into two categories: those who remained loyal to the Moldovan state (in Taraclia) and those who supported separatist ambitions (in Parcani).
Bulgarians of the Tarcalia District:
On 31 August 1989, the Supreme Soviet of Moldova passed a series of language laws which saw Moldovan become the sole official language of the state. Even though these laws provided protection for minority languages, many believed they were discriminatory. In response, ethnic minorities mobilised themselves into various groups.
The group which represented the interests of Bulgarians in Moldova was known as Vuzrazhdane (Rebirth). Initially there were fears amongst the political elites in Chisinau that the Gagauz and Bulgarians would unite their efforts, but this never materialised. Instead, while the Gagauz initially tried to secede from Moldova, Vuzrazhdane only sought to promote a cultural revival amongst Bulgarians.
After independence tensions rose when the central authorities tried to redraw the country’s administrative boundaries, with many fearing it would limit funding for cultural initiatives. In 2013 the district authorities submitted a request for autonomy and the following year supported a referendum on independence organised in Gagauzia (but refrained from organising their own). However, overall tensions have been minimal and Bulgarian schools have been opened in and around Taraclia.
Bulgarians of Parcani:
While the Bulgarians of Taraclia have remained relatively loyal to the republican authorities, their counterparts in Parcani have not. Parcani is located between Tiraspol and Bender and is the largest Bulgarian-majority village outside the borders of Bulgaria.
Unlike the Bulgarians in Taraclia, those in Parcani mobilised against the central authorities in 1989. Following the passing of the language laws the United Work Collective Council (Объединенный Совет трудовых коллективов/OSTK) declared a republican wide strike, with the majority of participants coming from Transnistria. Many in Parcani supported the strikes but were unable to participate due to the rural nature of the region. Instead, collective farm workers donated money and food to strikers in Bendery and Tiraspol.
Support for the separatist cause only increased after the strikes, with Parcani hosting the First Congress of People’s Deputies of Transnistria on the 2 June 1990, which essentially laid the foundation for the region’s unilateral secession that September. Since 1992 the village has been controlled by the de-facto authorities.
Explaining the Different Perspectives:
The above summary raises an interesting question: Why did ethnic Bulgarians in Parcani support secession from Moldova, while those in Taraclia did not? Afterall, both found themselves in the middle of secessionist regions: Parcani in Transnistria, Taraclia in Gagauzia. There are several reasons, including exposure propaganda, the nature of the secession movement and its viability.
Within in Transnistria, the Bulgarians of Parcani were subject to an intense propaganda campaign unmatched in other parts of the republic. The OSTK created multiple newsletters, which opposed the language laws, and distributed them throughout the Transnistrian region. While these publications were consumed by many in Transnistria, including in Parcani, they were scarcer in other parts of the republic, including Taraclia.
The nature of the secessionist movement in Transnistria and Gagauzia also differed somewhat. Officially, the OSTK promoted interethnic harmony and claimed to defend the interests of all Russophones. This appealed to Bulgarians in Parcani, the majority of whom spoke Russian. While Gagauz secessionists also emphasised the rights of Russophones, they placed a particular emphasis on the cultural revival of their people and the use of their language in local government. The ethnic component of the movement did not appeal to Bulgarians, many of whom were frustrated with their inclusion in the Gagauzian SSR.
Finally, economic viability of the region was also an important factor. Transnistria was a heavily industrialised region of Moldova, while the southern portion of the republic is extremely poor. Furthermore, Transnistria enjoyed Russian support. In the absence of any serious industry or a patron state, separatism was not appealing to the majority of inhabitants in southern Moldova.
Today the Bulgarians of Taraclia live peacefully in Moldova. Despite some tensions between the regional and local governments, there is virtually no support for secession. Following the Ukrainian war, many feared that Moscow may exert influence over Moldova’s ethnic Bulgarian minority. This has not been the case. While the region may be slightly Eurosceptic, they do not harbour separatist ambitions as many had feared. To conclude, while some may have been concerned about Budzhak secession, it would appear that Taraclia will remain loyal to Chisinau, just as it did in the 1990s.