COMRAT, Gagauzia — The mayor was in his cups. He raised a glass of cognac and toasted to a place most people have never heard of – Gagauzia.
It’s barely mid-afternoon and we were already starting in on the hard liquor. How did this happen? Well, pretty easily.
So it goes here in Comrat, the capital of Gagauzia, an isolated, autonomous region in Moldova which proudly retains a unique local identity – the Gagauz people speak a variant of Turkish. On this day last autumn, celebrations were underway for Gagauzia’s “national wine day”. Drink of all kind flowed.
Moldova is among the least visited countries in the world; Gagauzia is even more off the beaten path. This isolation, coupled with massive depopulation, lends daily life a strange, almost ethereal quality.
Getting here can require a two-hour ride from Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, aboard a rickety bus. A trip through the Moldovan countryside is always bittersweet – beautiful steppes dotted with vineyards and modest villages; understated homes decorated in the springtime with lively coats of paint.
But then there are the ghost towns, fallen to disrepair and crumbling. Around one-third of Moldova’s population is scattered across the globe, as people migrate in search of opportunities that the poorest country in Europe cannot provide.
But on national wine day in Comrat, all that seemed forgotten. In a country stunted by identity issues, mass migration, political dysfunction and a toxic East-West divide, wine-making is a rare point of national pride.
After walking down a street named after Vladimir Lenin, I came to the city’s central plaza, where stalls with makeshift seating lined the square, itself fringed by the stunning, golden Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Knuckles and skewers of pork sizzled above hot coals. Chicken wings and drumsticks roasted. Several thousand people had flooded the downtown, guzzling wine.
A 40-foot wine barrel framed a stage. Folk music and Russian and Turkish pop songs blasted.
No one really knows where the Gagauzi came from. Some historians theorise that they descended from a clan of Seljuk Turks who migrated to the Balkans in the 13th century, converting to Christianity in the process.
What is clear: Gagauzia highlights the complexity of forging a unified sense of identity in a region that has repeatedly been dominated by broader powers: the Ottoman and Russian Empires, the Romanian Kingdom and, later, the Soviet Union.
“I think that ethnicity is the basis for identity,” said 35-year-old Olga Jekova. “We are very mixed here. We have Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Russians, Gagauzians.”
“I prefer to see myself as Gagauzian.”
I had my first glass of wine – a super-sweet dessert wine – just after midday. A kindly elderly lady had brought bottles from her family’s cellar and set up a little stall.
“It is still fermenting,” she said.
Wine culture is an essential part of Moldovan life, which retains a reverence for rural traditions and a strong connection to the land. Most all families maintain cellars, hosting many hundreds of litres of quality homemade wine.
During the communist era, Moldova, with its fertile black soil, was among the Soviet Union’s principal wine suppliers.
And tales of the country’s wine-making history take on epic proportions.
There is the winery in the city of Ialoveni, which has produced unique “Heres” wines since the 1950s. Locals claim that Soviet spies were sent out to steal the recipe from a Spanish winery, dipping either handkerchiefs or custom-built spy umbrellas into aerated barrels, acquiring samples.
Others talk of a cognac distillery in the breakaway territory of Transnistria, which is said to have produced nutrient-rich cognac for Soviet astronauts at the peak of the space race.
“It is all about the soil,” said 24-year-old Natalia Sapran, at a stall flush with wine that her husband produced this year. “It is perfect for growing grapes.”
Moldova is probably best known for its late-ripening Babeasca Neagra variety. Cultivated for hundreds of years, these grapes are used to produce light-bodied, fruity red wine.
Sapran poured a glass of Pastoral. That’s a sweet, thick red – with an alcohol content of 16 per cent – normally consumed during religious holidays. And it is delicious.
Elsewhere, stalls showcased locally produced handicrafts: hand-knitted wine barrels and toys, jewellery and religious icons, carved flasks and ceramic vases.
People nibbled on fruit and bread and sat atop hay bales covered in rugs featuring floral designs. Children, meantime, waited impatiently for artists to paint cat whiskers on their faces.
And it was all quite lovely. Then the politicians showed up.
The “pro-Russian” president Igor Dodon and the governor of Gagauzia Irina Vlah moved through the throngs of people, shaking hands, their smiles spread wide, heading towards a table laden with food and yet more wine.
“Today we host a festival that demonstrates the wealth of Gagauz culture,” Vlah said. “Our guests will see our hospitality and how delicious our wine and national cuisine is.”
In Moldova, wine and politics do mix.
Gagauzia’s wine day represents a direct expression of autonomy, a means to maintain symbolic distance from Chisinau; Moldova, celebrated its own national wine day a few weeks earlier.
The country is riven with such divides.
Some people look to Romania and the EU, others to Moscow and the Eurasian Economic Union. Still others want to maintain a neutral stance.
Intimidated by EU and NATO expansionism, Russia has twice banned Moldovan wine and other goods, most recently in 2014 as Chisinau signed an association agreement with Brussels.
In January, Moscow partially lifted that ban, exclusively for companies based in Gagauzia, a move interpreted as a campaign gift for “pro-Russian” parties in the lead-up to national elections. Moldova was part of the Soviet Union until the bloc broke up in 1991.
Certainly, Russia uses Transnistria, and to a lesser degree, Gagauzia – which can participate in the formulation of Moldovan foreign policy – as tools to project influence, potentially neutering any Moldovan drift West.
Not that Russia really needs to. Western governments have increasingly squandered previously widespread support here by getting cosy with a “Pro-Western” political party, forced from power in mid-July after months of political turmoil. That party, the Democratic Party, led by the media magnate and oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, was tied to the theft of $1 billion – 12 per cent of Moldova’s GDP – in 2014 and, according to Transparency International, an alarming rise in public corruption over the past decade.
“We face many challenges here,” said 26-year-old Anna Celac, from a local NGO focused on integrating Gagauzia into Moldova, “migration, unemployment, corruption and an inability to integrate into Moldovan society because of language barriers.”
But, she added that she was proud of the territory’s “linguistic, cultural and territorial peculiarities”.
But such concerns were far from centre stage this day. An elderly man with a cunning grin hoisted a large basket over his head and began dancing. A horse wandered past – a man passed out in its cart.
With a thirst for chardonnay, I headed off to a stall featuring two massive oak barrels – perhaps 100 litres each – and then over to a makeshift thatched house to find Sergey Anastasov, Comrat’s mayor.
Two middle-aged women, a blonde and a brunette, hung off his shoulders, posing for photographs. A brief attempt at an interview was scuttled as he suggested a glass of cognac. The table before him was covered by the detritus of a frenzied feast.
He raised his glass to make his toast. Few people know of Moldova – and even fewer of Gagauzia. But that did not diminish his hopes on a festive national wine day.
“One day,” he said, “we will make this the international wine day of Gagauzia.”