Gagauz, the Turkic-Speaking Minority of Moldova

Dec 14, 2014 by


The recent parliamentary election that took place in Moldova on 30 November 2014 has drawn my attention to an often-overlooked ethno-linguistic group: the Gagauz. As can be seen from the map reproduced on the left, in this election, the Gagauz—whose area of concentration is UTA Gagauzia and the adjoining regions of Basarabeasca and Taraclia in the south of Moldova—voted heavily for the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), a new party that won the election, receiving the plurality of the votes (20.51%) and hence 25 seats in the 101-seat Parliament. While several other regions, most notably in the north of the country, gave a plurality of their votes to PSRM, UTA Gagauzia was the only area to give a majority of its votes, 57.1% to PSRM. It is also the only region to vote so heavily for any given party. As the Gagauz constitute over 80% of the UTA Gagauzia’s population, there appears indeed to be a clear ethnic voting pattern. So who are the Gagauz?



According to the Wikipedia article, there are approximately 210,000 Gagauz worldwide, of whom 147,500 live in Moldova. Other countries with smaller Gagauz populations include Ukraine (especially the Budjak region in the southwest), Turkey, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Kazakhstan. As a group, the Gagauz stand out from the surrounding Moldovan population not by their religion or genes, but only by their language. Gagauz is a Turkic language, more precisely a member of the Oghuz branch of the Turkic family. Its closest relatives include Azerbaijani, Turkish, and Turkmen. But unlike most other Turkic-speaking peoples, who are Muslims, the Gagauz are Orthodox Christians. Because of their religious affiliation, the Gagauz were often considered to be “Greeks” (cf. Menz 2006). However, they should not be confused with another Turkic-speaking “Greek” community in the circum-Pontic region: the Greeks of south-central Georgia who speak a language called Urum, discussed in Martin Lewis’ GeoCurrents post. Unlike the Gagauz language, Urum is typically classified as belonging to the Kipchak branch of the Turkic family; its relatives thus include Crimean Tatar, Karaim, and Krymchak in Crimea, Karachay-Balkar in northwestern Caucasus, Tatar and Bashkir in the Middle Volga region, as well as Kazakh and Kyrgyz in Central Asia.


Going back to the Gagauz language, it is very similar to Turkish, particularly to the Balkan Turkish dialects spoken in Greece, Bulgaria, and parts of Macedonia. As discussed in my earlier post, the internal classification of Turkic languages is a complicated enterprise because many languages in the family exhibit properties characteristic of different branches, due mostly to extensive contact between languages and across branches. This is true of the Gagauz language too, as it shows certain Kipchak traits in addition to the expected Oghuz features. Another complication comes from a theory of the Gagauz origins that takes them to be are descendants of the Bulgars, a Turkic-speaking group whose historical homeland was in the Middle Volga region and whose subsequent migration to the northern Balkans around 800 CE gave rise to the Bulgar Khanate and later to the Bulgarian nation (see map on the left). However, the language of the Volga Bulgars is typically classified in its own branch of Turkic, neither Kipchak nor Oghuz. The only surviving language in this branch is thought to be Chuvash, spoken in the area of the Bulgar homeland, in the Middle Volga region.

The Bulgar theory of Gagauz origins is not the only one, however. An alternative hypothesis connects the Gagauz to other nomadic steppe tribes such as the Cumans, whose language is classified as belonging to the Kipchak branch. Linguistically, this hypothesis makes more sense than the Bulgar theory, as it helps explain the Kipchak elements in Gagauz. Yet another theory links the Gagauz with the Seljuk Turks, who settled in the medieval Bulgarian kingdom in the 13th century. There, the Seljuks must have mixed with other Turkic peoples from both Oghuz and Kipchaks tribes. One way or another, the affiliation of the Gagauz with the Orthodox Church suggests that their ancestors arrived to the Balkans prior to the Ottoman conquest in the late 1300s (see Menz 2006).


Curiously, although the Gagauz language stands out from its Romance and Slavic neighbors, genetic studies find the Gagauz to be more closely related to neighboring southeastern European groups than to linguistically related Turkic-speaking groups (cf. Nasidze et al. 2007, Varzari 2009). As discussed in my earlier post, this situation where languages and genes do not correlate is quite common worldwide, and may result from one of two scenarios: either considerable intermarriage “washes out” a group’s particular genes and replaces them with a genetic composition characteristic of surrounding populations, or a subroup of the population in the area undergoes language shift without much change in their genetic make-up. The former scenario is commonly understood to underlie the history of Hadza and Sandawe, two groups in eastern Africa whose languages are similar to those of Khoisan peoples in southern Africa but whose genes are more similar to those of their Bantu neighbors. Language shift is a typical explanation for the presence of a Finnic admixture in the Russian gene pool. The two scenarios are considered with respect to the Gagauz in Alexander Varzari’s dissertation (2006).

On a more personal note, I will add that I have visited a Gagauz village of Avdarma (population about 3,500, virtually all Gagauz) as a teenager and have been most impressed by the Gagauz hospitality. My parents and I were visiting an acquaintance that my father met on one of his business trips. Even though they barely knew each other, he repeatedly and most cordially invited our entire family to come for the summer holidays, which we finally did. The entire village celebrated our arrival with a great feast at the home of the local chief: a lamb was slaughtered and grilled in honor of the esteemed guests and each of us was served endless carafes of young, homemade wine. During the entire stay, we were treated like royalty. When it was time to leave, our hosts insisted that we take with us thirteen boxes of freshly-picked eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, grapes, walnuts, and other fruits and vegetables; a loaf of delicious home-baked bread served us not only for the duration of a train journey from Chișinău to Leningrad but for almost a month after our return.





Menz, Astrid (2006) The Gagauz. In: Kuban, Doğan (ed.) The Turkic speaking peoples. Prestel.

Nasidze, Ivan; Dominique Quinque; Irina Udina; Svetlana Kunizheva; and Mark Stoneking (2007) The Gagauz, a Linguistic Enclave, are not a Genetic Isolate. Annals of Human Genetics 71(3): 379–389.

Varzari, Alexander (2006) Population History of the Dniester-Carpathians: Evidence from Alu Insertion and Y-Chromosome Polymorphisms. PhD dissertation, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.

Varzari, Alexander; Vladimir Kharkov; Wolfgang Stephan; Valentin Dergachev; Valery Puzyrev; Elisabeth H. Weiss; and Vadim Stepanov (2009) Searching for the Origin of Gagauzes: Inferences from Y-Chromosome Analysis. American Journal of Human Biology 21(3): 326–336.




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