Gagauz Turks

Gagauz People
Total population
approx. 240,000
Regions with significant populations
 Moldova ( Gagauzia) 147,500[1]
 Ukraine 31,900[2]
 Turkey 15,000[3]
 Russia 13,700[4]
 Romania 45[5]
 Bulgaria 540[6]
 Kazakhstan 700[7]
Gagauz, Russian
Orthodox Christianity

The Gagauz people are a Turkic[8] group living mostly in southern Moldova (Gagauzia), southwestern Ukraine (Budjak), south-eastern Romania (Dobrogea),[9] northeastern Bulgaria, Greece, Brazil, United States and Canada. The Gagauz are Orthodox Christians. There is a related ethnic group also called Gagavuz (or Gajal) living in the European part of northwestern Turkey.

Geographic distribution

Today Gagauz people outside Moldova live mainly in the Ukrainian regions of Odesa and Zaporizhia, as well as in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, Romania, Brazil, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, Turkey[10] and the Russian region of Kabardino-Balkaria.

There are also nearly 20,000 descendants of Gagauzians living in the Balkan country of Bulgaria, as well as upwards of 3,000 living in the United States of America, Brazil and Canada. Most of Gagauz immigrants in the USA are Evangelical Christians, who left their homeland in Moldova as refugees. They were persecuted by the Communist government of the Soviet Union. Gagauz immigrants live in Sacramento, California; Salem, Oregon; Vancouver, Washington; Seattle, Washington; Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Tacoma, Washington; Charlotte, North Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Atlanta, Georgia; and in Massachusetts. The official figures in the latter group of countries cited in this article are much lower due to the loss of Gagauz identity during the last century.


The Encyclopedia of World cultures lists the ethnonym of the Gagauz as "Turkish speaking Bulgars".[11] Astrid Menz writes this about the etymology: "Older ethnographic works such as Pees (1894) and Jireček (1891)— both covering the Gagauz in Bulgaria— mention that only their neighbors used the ethnonym Gagauz, partly as an insult. The Gagauz themselves did not use this self-designation; indeed, they considered it offensive. Both Pees and Jireček mention that the Gagauz in Bulgaria tended to register either as Greek because of their religion (clearly an outcome of the Ottoman millet-system) or as Bulgarian because of the newly emerging concept of nationalism. According to Pees informants from Moldova, the Gagauz there called themselves Hıristiyan-Bulgar (Christian Bulgars), and Gagauz was used only as a nickname (Pees 1894, p. 90). The etymology of the ethnonym Gagauz is as unclear as their history. As noted above, they are not mentioned —at least not under that name— in any historical sources before their immigration into Bessarabia. Therefore, we have no older versions of this ethnonym. This, combined with the report that the Gagauz felt offended when called by this name, makes the etymology somewhat dubious. Nevertheless, a number of researchers and Gagauz intellectuals have proposed various explanations. Some of these explanations are obvious folk etymologies, and there is no consensus on any of them. Most proposals assume that the name contains the element uz or guz, which they connect to the tribal name Oghuz. That leaves the element gaga, which is supposed to be a tribal name of unknown origin. We also are faced with the problem that both uz and ghuz are designations for the Oghuz in Byzantine and Arabic sources, respectively —i.e., they are not self-designations. Some propose an element auz, which is supposed to have developed from Oghuz, thus leaving the element gag, which is explained as having developed from gök, hak, or ak. All these explanations have serious problems with the historical development of Oghuzic phonetics and phonology. An alternative etymology was proposed by Wittek (1952), who believed that the Gagauz were the offspring of a group of Rum- Seljuks who surrendered to the Byzantine emperor; thus, he attributed the name to a leader of this group, the Seljuk prince Kaykaus. There are additional explanations of the name Gagauz, but most of them cannot be taken seriously and are clearly only superficial combinations—such as that of Jireček (cited after Pees 1984, p. 81), who suggests that the words gaga (beak) and us (straight) are supposed to mean “those who speak out as they think,” because the Gagauz like a good talk. Most of these explanations obviously are linked to the speculations about the ethnogenesis of the Gagauz. In connection with the etymological problem of the ethnonym Gagauz, one should always keep in mind that this very name was first mentioned in written sources in the eighteenth century (Radova 1995, p. 268). Before that, they were recognized in Moldova as Turkish-speaking Bulgarians (Turkish population). The term Gagauz probably was initially not a self-designation but rather as an exonim, ide est a name given by neighboring ethnic groups. Both these facts tend to support the possibility of a non-Turkic etymological root. Today, Gagauz is a neutral ethnonym. Interestingly enough, however, since the 1980s—corresponding to the major political changes in Eastern Europe, some authors have started to change the ethnonym Gagauz into Gagavuz or Gagouz or even Gagoğuz (the latter despite the fact that the official alphabet does not contain the letter ğ, the “soft g” of Turkish), thus making a statement about both the etymology of the word and the ethnogenesis of this people."[8]


The Gagauz language belongs to the Oghuz branch of the Turkic languages, which also includes the Azerbaijani, Turkish, and Turkmen languages. The Gagauz language is particularly close to the Balkan Turkish dialects spoken in Greece, northeastern Bulgaria, and in the Kumanovo and Bitola areas of Macedonia. The Balkan Turkic languages, including Gagauz, are a typologically interesting case, because they are closely related to Turkish and at the same time contain a North-Turkic (Tatar or Kypchak) element besides the main South-Turkic (Oghuz) element (Pokrovskaya,1964). The modern Gagauz language has two dialects: central (or ‘‘Bulgar’’) and southern (or maritime) (Pokrovskaya, 1964; Gordon, 2005).


The vast majority of Gagauzians are Orthodox Christians and Evangelical Christians. There is a very small minority of Atheists and Muslims


"Subsistence and Commercial Activities: The traditional economy centered on animal husbandry, particularly sheep raising, and agriculture that combined growing grain and truck farming with viticulture. Even in the recent past, despite the cultural similarity of the Gagauz to the Bulgars of Bessarabia, there were important differences between them: the Bulgars were peasant farmers; although the Gagauz also farmed, they were essentially pastoralists in outlook."[11]

"Food: Many traces of their nomadic past may be found in the cuisine of the sedentary Gagauz, such as a special way of processing milk and the preservation of meat, curds, and sheep's milk cheese in a skin. The staple food is grain, in many varieties. A series of family holidays and rituals was connected with the baking of bread, wheat loaves (kalaches ) and unleavened flatcakes."

"The favorite dish was a layered pie stuffed with sheep's milk cheese and soaked with sour cream before baking. Other delicacies were pies with crumbled pumpkin and sweet pies made with the first milk of a cow that had just calved. The traditional ritual dish called kurban combined wheat porridge (bulgar wheat) with a slaughtered ("sacrificed") ram and is further evidence of the origins of the Gagauz in both the Balkan world and the steppe-pastoral complex. A special place in the cuisine is occupied by peppered sauces for meat; one combines onion and finely granulated porridge; another is tomato-based. A red house wine is served with dinner and supper. An indispensable component in holiday meals is meat in jelly prepared from the heads and feet of livestock (head cheese)."

"Clothing: Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a Gagauz woman's costume consisted of a canvas shirt, a sleeveless dress, a smock, and a large black kerchief; in winter, they donned a dress with sleeves, a cloth jacket, and a sleeveless fur coat. Required features of female dress were earrings, bracelets, beads, and, among wealthy Gagauz, a necklace of gold coins. "So many of their decorations are hung about," wrote a pre-Revolutionary researcher, "that they cover the entire breast down to the waist."

"Traditional male clothing included a shirt, cloth pants, a wide red sash or belt, and, in the summer, a hat; the winter cap was made of Kanakul sheep wool. The shepherd's costume was the usual shirt combined with sheepskin pants with the fleece turned in, a sleeveless fur coat, and a short sheepskin jacket, the latter sometimes decorated with red-on-green stitching."


The origin of the Gagauzes is obscure. In the beginning of the 20th century the Bulgarian historian M.Dimitrov counts 19 different theories about their origin. A few decades later the Gagauz ethnologist M.N.Guboglo increases the number to 21. In some of those theories the Gagauz people are presented as descendants of the Bulgars or a clan of Seljuk Turks or as linguistically Turkified Bulgarians. The fact that their confession is Eastern Orthodox Christianity suggest that their ancestors already lived in the Balkans prior the Ottoman conquest in the late 14th century.[8]

Seljuk (Anatolian) hypothesis

According to the Seljuk theory, supported by the Polish orientalist T. Kowalski the Gagauz descended from the Seljuk Turks who in the 13th century followed the Anatolian Seljuk Sultan Kaykaus II (1236–1276) and supposedly settled in the Dobruja region of the medieval Bulgarian kingdom. There they presumably mixed with other Turkic peoples such as Pechenegs, Uz (Oghuz) and Cuman (Kipchak) who came from the Russian steppe at about the same time. After settling in the eastern Balkans (Bulgaria) this Seljuks are thought to have converted from Islam to Orthodox Christianity in the 13th century and later became known as "Gagauz".

In fact Kaykaus is known to have finally settled in Crimea. The supporters of the Seljuk theory claim that the term Gagauz came from the name of Sultan Kaykaus II and therefore it is an ancient tribal name, confirming that the Gagauz were originally Turkic people and not linguistically Turkified Bulgarians. Another explanation is that the ethnonym means straight-nosed (from gaga - nose and uz - straight). Therefore Gagauz means straight-nosed Christian Turks in opposition to the curved-nosed Ottoman Muslim Turks. Some interpret Gagauz as derivative of Gök Oğuz - "Heavenly Oghuz" (from Turkish Gök - sky, heaven and Oğuz - branch of Turkic people).

Steppe hypothesis

The Steppe hypothesis suggestes that the Gagauzes may be descendants of the Turkic nomadic tribes (Bulgars and Cumans) from the Eurasian steppes. In 19th century, before their migration to Bessarabia, the Gagauzes from the Bulgarian lands (then in Ottoman Turkey) considered themselves Bulgarians. Ethnological research suggest that "Gagauz" was a linguistic distinction and not ethnic. Gagauzes to that time called themselves "Hasli Bulgar" (True Bulgars) or "Eski Bulgar" (Old Bulgars) and considered the term "Gagauz" applied to them by the Slavic-speaking Bulgarians (who they called "toukan") demeaning. The Gagauzes called their language Turkish and accordingly claimed descent from early Turkic Bulgars who in the 7th century established the Bulgarian state on Danube.[12] Now many Gagauz in Moldova claim Seljuk-Turkish descent. The Gagauz in Bulgaria do not support that view.

The 1897 Russian Census did not distinguish the Gagauz as a specific group, but it reported the existence of 55,790 native speakers of a "Turkish language" (presumably, the Gagauz language) in the Bessarabia Governorate.[13]

It is also a possibility that Gagauzes are descendants of Pechenegs who settled near Constantinople following their defeat at the Battle of Levounion.


In population comparisons, the Gagauzes were found to be more closely related genetically to neighboring southeastern European groups than to linguistically related Anatolian populations.[14] More considerable distinctions in the distribution of Y chromosome components appeared between the Gagauzes and other Turkic peoples.[9]

The similarity to neighboring populations may be due to the lack of social barriers between the local and the Turkic-Orthodox populations of the Balkan Peninsula. Thus, the ongoing intensive reciprocal gene flow was accompanied by the gradual dissolution of the Asiatic genetic component. Another possibility is language shift in accordance with the elite dominance model, i.e. Turkification.[15]

After a genetic comparison with populations of Balkans, Anatolia, and Central Asia, results showed that Gagauz are part of the Balkan genetic group.[16][17]


Late history

It is historically documented that the Gagauzes migrated to Bessarabia from northeastern Bulgaria (Dobruja) in the beginning of the 19th century fleeing from political and religious oppression by the Ottoman Turks. However, very little is known about their previous history. Turkic-speaking tribes of the Nogai Horde inhabited the Budjak region of southern Bessarabia from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Before 1807, a portion of these tribes were forced to abandon the Budjak by the Tsarist government of Russia, resettling in Crimea, Azov and Stavropol. Soon after they were replaced by other Turkic-speaking people which later came to be known as the Gagauz. Most if not all Gagauz people who now live in Moldova, came to Bessarabia from Bulgaria (then in the Ottoman Empire) after the Russo-Turkish War (1806–1812). This fact is well documented in the Russian tsarist archives. They settled alongside Slavic-speaking Bulgarian who emigrated at the same time and often married them.

Between 1820 and 1846, the Russian Empire allocated land to the Gagauz and gave them financial incentives to settle in Bessarabia in the settlements vacated by the Nogai tribes. They settled in Bessarabia along with Bulgarians, mainly in Avdarma, Comrat (or Komrat), Congaz (Kongaz), Tomai, Cismichioi and other former Nogai villages located in the central Budjak region. Originally, the Gagauz also settled in several villages belonging to boyars throughout southern Bessarabia and the Principality of Moldavia, but soon moved to join their kin in the Bugeac. Until 1869, the Gagauz in Bessarabia were described as Bulgarians. During the Romanian rule of southernmost Bessarabia (1856–1878), they supported Bulgarian schools in their settlements and participated in the Bulgarian national movement. Therefore some ethnologists (Karel Škorpil, Gavril Zanetov, Benyo Tsonev) claim Bulgarian origin for the Gagauz.

With the exception of a five-day independence in the winter of 1906, when a peasant uprising declared the autonomous Republic of Komrat, the Gagauzian people have mainly been ruled by the Russian Empire, Romania, the Soviet Union, and Moldova.

The wave of Stolypin agrarian policies carried some Gagauz to Kazakhstan between 1912 and 1914, and later yet another group settled in Uzbekistan during the very troubled years of initial collectivization. So as not to lose their civil rights, they called themselves "Bulgars" in the 1930s; The Gagauz of the village of Mayslerge in the Tarhkent District retain that designation to this day.[11]

Soviet Union and Republic of Moldova

Gagauz nationalism remained an intellectual movement during the 1980s but strengthened by the end of the decade as the Soviet Union began to embrace liberal ideals. In 1988, activists from the local intelligentsia aligned with other ethnic minorities to create the movement known as the "Gagauz People" (Gagauz Turkish: Gagavz halki). A year later, the "Gagauz People" held its first assembly which accepted the resolution to create an autonomous territory in the southern Moldavian SSR, with Comrat designated as capital. The Gagauz nationalist movement increased in popularity when Moldovan (Romanian) was accepted as the official language of the Republic of Moldova in August 1989.[18] The minorities of southern Moldova – Gagauz, Bulgars, and Russians – looked on this decision with concern, precipitating a lack of confidence in the central government located in Chişinău. The Moldavian population regarded Gagauz demands with suspicion, convinced they were acting as puppets of forces that wanted to preserve the Soviet Union.

In August 1990, Comrat declared itself an autonomous republic, but the Moldovan government annulled the declaration as unconstitutional. The Gagauz were also worried about the implications for them if Moldova reunited with Romania, as seemed increasingly likely. Support for the Soviet Union remained high, with a local referendum in March 1991 yielding an almost unanimous "yes" vote to stay in the USSR; Moldovans in Gagauzia, however, boycotted the referendum. Many Gagauz supported the Moscow coup attempt, further straining relations with Chişinău. However, when the Moldovan parliament voted on whether Moldova should become independent, six of the twelve Gagauz deputies voted in favor.

Gagauzia declared itself independent on 19 August 1991 – the day of the Moscow coup attempt – followed by Transnistria in September. Some believe that these moves prompted the nationalist Moldovan Popular Front to tone down its pro-Romanian line and speak up for the rights of minorities. In February 1994, President Mircea Snegur, opposed to Gaugauz independence, promised a Gaugauz autonomous region. Snegur also opposed the suggestion that Moldova become a federal state made up of three "republics": Moldova, Gagauzia, and Transnistria. This was the plan promoted by those wishing to rehabilitate the former Soviet Union. In 1994, the Moldovan parliament awarded "the people of Gagauzia" the right of "external self-determination" should the status of the country change. This means that in the event - and only in that event - that Moldova decided to join another country (by all accounts this is referred to Romania), the Gagauzians' would be entitled to decide whether to remain or not a part of the new state by means of a self-determination referendum

On December 23, 1994, the Moldovan parliament produced a peaceful resolution to the dispute by passing the "Law on the Special Legal Status of Gagauzia" (Gagauz Yeri). Gagauzia became a "national-territorial autonomous unit" with three official languages – Russian, Gagauz and Moldovan/Romanian – and the date is now a Gagauzian holiday. Many European human-rights organizations recognize Gagauzia as a successful model for resolving ethnic conflict.

As a result of a referendum to determine Gagauzia's borders, thirty settlements (three towns and twenty-seven villages) expressed their desire to be included in the Gagauz Autonomous Territorial Unit. In 1995, George Tabunshik was elected to serve as the Governor (Bashkan) of Gagauzia for a four year term, as were the deputies of the local parliament, "The People's Assembly" (Halk Topluşu) and its chairman Peter Pashali.

"The prospects for the survival of the Gagauz national culture and the existence of the Gagauz as an independent people are tenuous. They have the lowest ratio of persons with a higher education in Moldova, a virtual absence of an artistic intelligentsia, a very weak scientific intelligentsia, and an acute lack of intellectuals in general. In 1989 less than half as many Gagauz were admitted to the state university and the polytechnical institute as in 1918. Accordingly, the Gagauz are weakly represented in administration, the professions, and the service industries. There is an acute shortage of building materials, and the environment is in a state of crisis. Analysis of this situation led to the Gagauz movement for national regeneration. On 12 November 1989 an extraordinary session of representatives to the Moldavian Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a Gagauz ASSR within the Moldavian SSR. Three days later, however, the presidium of the Moldavian Supreme Soviet failed to confirm this decision, thus trampling on the principle of national self-determination of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Moldavian press opened a campaign of anti-Gagauz propaganda. Despite a series of declarations about a renaissance of the Gagauz, the absence of the necessary conditions, including national-territorial autonomy, will make their realization difficult, and the people appear doomed to assimilation".[11]

See also


External links


  • Bulgarian Government claim that they are Bulgarian speaking in Turkish


  • Vanya Mateeva, 2006 Sofia, "Гагаузите - още един поглед" [" The Gagauzes - yet another view"]
  • Shabashov A.V., 2002, Odessa, Astroprint, "Gagauzes: terms of kinship system and origin of the people", (Шабашов А.В., "Гагаузы: система терминов родства и происхождение народа")
  • Guboglo, M.N., 1967, "Этническая принадлежност гагаузов". Советская этнография, Nо 3 [Ethnic identity of the Gagauz. Soviet ethnography journal, Issue No 3.]
  • Dmitriev N.K., 1962, Moskow, Science, "Structure of Türkic languages", articles "About lexicon of Gagauz language", "Gagauz etudes", "Phonetics of Gagauz language", (Дмитриев Н.К., "Структура Тюткских Языков", статьи "К вопросу о словарном составе гагаузского языка", "Гагаузские этюды", "Фонетика гагаузского языка")
  • Mihail Çakır, 1934, Basarabyalı Gagavuzların İstoryası ["History of the Gagauz people of Bessarabia"]
  • Kowalski, T., 1933 Kraków, "Les Turcs et la langue turque de la Bulgarie du Nord-Est". ["The Turks and the turkic language of North-Eastern Bulgaria"]
  • Škorpil, K. and H., 1933 Praha, "Материали към въпроса за съдбата на прабългарите и на северите и към въпроса за произхода на съвременните гагаузи". Byzantinoslavica, T.5

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