Moldova: Gagauz Language Lags Behind Russian

Numbers of speakers in the country’s autonomous region of Gagauzia are dwindling.

Moldova: Gagauz Language Lags Behind Russian

Numbers of speakers in the country’s autonomous region of Gagauzia are dwindling.

Seven grader Elizaveta Chernioglo reads a book in Gagauz at her home in Comrat, the administrative centre of Moldova's autonomous region of Gagauzia. The language struggles for popularity among young Gaguzians who largely speak Russian.
Seven grader Elizaveta Chernioglo reads a book in Gagauz at her home in Comrat, the administrative centre of Moldova's autonomous region of Gagauzia. The language struggles for popularity among young Gaguzians who largely speak Russian. © Piotr Garciu
Monday, 17 July, 2023

Over 30 years ago, the ethnic Turk Gagauzians minority in the south of Moldova fought for autonomy, claiming that it was a necessity to preserve their language and culture. Yet while Gagauzia remains the country’s only autonomous region, its indigenous language remains in danger of extinction as residents largely opt to use Russian.

In 2010, UNESCO even included the Gagauz language in the Atlas World Languages in Danger, labelling it “potentially vulnerable”.

The Moldovan government has shown willingness to support efforts to protect it. Speaking at a youth forum in late June in Comrat, Gagauzia’s administrative centre, President Maia Sandu said that the authorities were ready to fund a programme for learning the Gagauz language, but that it needed to be developed within the autonomous region.

“We are still waiting for a proposal to launch a programme for learning the Gagauz language,” she said.

Yet the idea appears to lack popular support in Gagauzia itself. In 2017, a group of local assembly lawmakers initiated amendments allowing four school subjects to be taught in the Gagauz language. They also proposed to launch a Fund for Saving the Gagauz language. The moves included allocating funds for publishing books, paying teachers and financing Gagauz-language theatrical performances.

However, many parents objected, arguing that it would complicate the learning process and affect their children’s final grades. As a result, eventually only two subjects were switched to the Gagauz language curricula instead of four.

“In Soviet times, speaking the Gagauz language was considered unfashionable and inferior, associated with the rural population, illiterate villagers who do not speak Russian,” Elena Karamit, one of the co-authors of the legislative initiative, told IWPR. The principal of a school in the village of Avdarma, in Comrat region, Karamit has tried to promote the Gagauz language in several ways, including with essay competitions.

Karamit also noted that existing regulations were only partially applied. For example, according to the law, all government officials in Gagauzia must speak the Gagauz language and use it at work. In practice, local politicians do not use the Gagauz language during committee meetings or the sessions of the People’s Assembly, preferring to converse in Russian.

The same is true of the media. Only one channel, the GRT public broadcaster, has TV programmes in Gagauz, while there is only one Gagauz language newspaper; all other media outlets are in Russian.

As a result, pro-Kremlin narratives dominate in the region where the Turkic Orthodox Christian community, numbering 135,000, makes up about 80 per cent of the population.

Gagauzia has traditionally been strongly pro-Russian and favours politicians who call for closer relations with Moscow, straining relations with the pro-Europe central government in Chișinău.


Although Gagauz language classes were launched in Gagauz areas in 1957, when they were stopped in 1961 there were no further efforts made until the 1990s.

Currently, almost all schools in Gagauzia have Russian as the principal language of instruction, with Gagauz language being taught four times a week as a separate subject.

Irina Konstantinova, director of the Marunevich Science and Research Centre of the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, which produced the Gagauz language textbooks, sees the potential for progress. For example, thanks to the Fund for Saving the Gagauz Language, the funding for learning programmes has increased in the past two years.

“We have developed 12 textbooks for civil servants who want to learn the Gagauz language or want to improve it. With these textbooks, we have elevated the learning process to more professional level,” she explained, adding that they have also developed a new curriculum for secondary school students with more focus on speaking activities and fewer grammar tasks. 

We have also developed a website that will include dictionaries and video classes for all levels of language proficiency,” Konstantinova continued.This is an important step that should have been taken 30 years ago, so that those who want to learn the Gagauz language can have free access to the materials.”

That will not be the first attempt to bring the Gagauz language online. In 2010, Kirill Zhelezov, then a 12th grade student in the city of Chadyr-Lunga, decided to develop an online dictionary of the Gagauz language.

“I was getting ready for my exams. I did not know the meaning of some words, but going to the library for a print dictionary seemed a little bit old-fashioned to me. This is how I came up with the idea of an online dictionary,” Zhelezov said.

Funding his efforts with a combination of donations and his student allowance, he and a fellow student who specialised in web development brought the dictionary into being.

“I filled in all the entries manually, from several print dictionaries. Later, we added a function so that anyone could add a new word. This is how our dictionary increased from an initial 4,000 entries to 7,000 words,” Zhelezov explained, adding that people can download the Gagauz keyboard from the website and install it on their computer.

In 2020, he decided to update the website, for which he eventually received almost 6,000 euros (2,710 US dollars) in funding from the local government. 

“Now it is possible to translate short phrases, search for synonyms and antonyms, and to understand verb tenses,” Zhelezov said.

Yet producing more Gagauz language materials may not be enough: what is needed is more speakers.

“There are more materials for studying the Gagauz language, but fewer people actually speak it,” Fedor Marinoglu, who has been teaching in Gaguazia for over 40 years, told IWPR.

“In the past, children spoke Gagauz in breaktime, after school. Now only Russian. Even if they understand Gagauz, they don't use it in everyday life.”

Part of the problem, he noted, lay in families where parents know Gagauz, but communicate with their children in Russian.

“We need to start communicating from early childhood, so that the Gagauz language is the native language for the child.”

The real trick, Marinoglu argued, would be to increase the number of subjects taught in Gagauz.

Konstantinova agreed, adding, “For more profound learning of the native language, we need the schools that will have the Gagauz as the language of instruction; all subjects, including chemistry, mathematics and others will be taught in the Gagauz language."

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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