As the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on, locals in the autonomous Gagauzia region of Moldova oppose war but maintain staunch loyalty to Moscow.
COMRAT, Moldova -- On a freezing afternoon on March 18, Nikolai Dudoglo, the former mayor of Comrat and now candidate for governor of the Gagauzia region, paused from greeting supporters to answer a question.
"Nothing has changed," he told RFE/RL when asked whether the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine has impacted society.
"Gagauzia always has and always will support Russia," he said, before adding, "We are against the war. We love Ukraine, but we cannot accept that Russia is the aggressor."
That apparent contradiction appears to be widespread in Gagauzia, where there has been an outpouring of support for Ukrainians fleeing the invasion even as backing for Russia has remained overwhelmingly high.
Anna Statova was one of many Gagauzians who helped fleeing Ukrainians in February and March 2022. After the entrepreneur's daughters drew a sign offering "help for refugees," hundreds of traumatized Ukrainians poured into the yard of Statova's property through the early days of the Russian onslaught and were given places to sleep free of charge.
"We were falling down from exhaustion," Statova recalls. She and her daughters fired up heaters and got to work over cookers that would eventually cost them several thousand euros in gas bills alone.
"As soon as one group [of Ukrainian refugees] got in their car to leave, others would come immediately to take their place," she says.
Statova condemns the invasion of Ukraine but remains firmly supportive of Russia.
"They say that in every second house here [in Gagauzia] someone has a relative in Russia. How can we be against Russia in this situation?" she says.
Gagauzia is an autonomous region in southern Moldova that is home to 160,000 people, most of them Orthodox Christians of Turkic origin. Gagauzians escaped persecution under the Muslim Ottoman Turks and resettled in today's Moldova -- then a part of the tsarist Russian Empire -- in the early 1800s.
Gagauzians speak Russian and, to a lesser extent, their own Turkic language.
In 1990 the region became a flashpoint as the Soviet Union was collapsing and Gagauz separatists declared independence in a similar situation to the breakaway region of Transdniester.
An ominous standoff followed as thousands of Moldovan nationalists headed to the region in what became known as the "march to Gagauzia."
After Soviet armored vehicles rumbled into Comrat to end the standoff -- reportedly on the orders of a locally stationed Soviet commander and without the knowledge of Moscow -- Chisinau was effectively forced into talks with the separatists.
A compromise was eventually reached that granted Gagauzia autonomy and the right to secede from independent Moldova if Chisinau ever joined Romania.
Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, positive attitudes toward Russia have plummeted internationally, but in Gagauzia a February 2023 poll showed 93 percent of respondents still favor closer relations with Russia.
In contrast, a recent nationwide poll showed nearly half of all Moldovans see "actions by Russia" as a source of insecurity and their most concerning issue, behind only inflation.
Mihail Sirkeli, a journalist and manager of the Gagauzia-focused Nokta.md news website, told RFE/RL that Gagauzia's continued support of the Kremlin in the face of the physical devastation of neighboring Ukraine is a result of "Russian propaganda, first and foremost," adding, "[Gagauzians] have been subject to this since 1944. First it was Soviet propaganda, then it was Russian."
Sirkeli says the push for Gagauzian autonomy was presented in the 1990s "as an instrument to preserve the Gagauz language and culture. It was perceived as such in Chisinau and by the international community, but in Gagauzia it was perceived absolutely differently, as a way to keep a fragment of the Soviet Union alive."
In her guesthouse surrounded by traditional Gagauz architecture and fabric, Anna Statova is eager to get off the topic of politics. She says she was hospitalized for stress and is still on medication as a result of being faced with the heartbreaking individual stories of Ukrainian refugees that she sheltered.
"I just look forward to people coming here to rest, not to cry," she says.