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18 March, 2014  ▪  Lenur Yunusov

Will History Repeat for the Crimean Tatars?

Separatists exploit Kyiv’s weak stance on Crimea’s indigenous population

The bitter military and political crisis in the Crimea turned the attention of the entire world community to the Crimean Tatars. The position of their leaders, who have flatly refused to join separatists, is admirable, but even more important is the fact that the crisis has exposed the inadequacy and short-sightedness of Kyiv’s policy on the Crimean Tatars. This is precisely what the masterminds of the separatist scenario, which directly involves Moscow, have tried to exploit.


For all intents and purposes, the Ukrainian authorities have never had any clear-cut policy on the Crimean Tatar issue. In the 25 years that the Crimean Tatars have lived in independent Ukraine (counting from 1989 when they started returning from exile en masse), Kyiv has ignored virtually all, even the smallest, demands and appeals coming from the Crimea’s indigenous population. The Verkhovna Rada has never adopted a law to restore their rights as victims of an ethnic deportation despite persistent urging from the Mejlis, a representative body of the Crimean Tatars. A programme to help repatriates return and settle in the Crimea received less and less financing with each passing year, while many predominantly Tatar settlements still lack gas and water supply and roads. Kyiv has simply ignored the issue of restoring the historical names of the Crimea’s towns and villages which were given false-sounding Russian names immediately after the 1944 deportation. Nor did it react when the Mejlis called on the government to guarantee representation of the indigenous people in the Crimean authorities. The Mejlis itself has never been given a place on the law-making landscape of the country.

Kyiv only remembered about the Crimean Tatars before elections. The press even came up with the expression “the Crimean Tatar card”. Various political forces have tried to play it. The opposition traditionally (and successfully) tried to enlist the support of the Mejlis. The Party of Regions attempted to use the Crimean Tatars as a bugaboo for its pro-Russian electorate.

The weakness, or rather lack, of an official position on the Crimean Tatar issue was utilized by the forces that have been playing out the separatist scenario on the peninsula. They have offered the Crimean Tatars such “carrots” that they could only dream of. The Crimean Tatar card has become golden.

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In the separatist territory occupied by enemy forces, which the Crimea is today, it is dangerous to swim against the current. Journalists are being beaten up; activists of the local Euromaidan are being thrown behind bars; the Ukrainian military are being blocked and denied food and water.

However, the main obstacle for separatists is, again, the Crimean Tatars. Without them, it is impossible to paint a picture of total support for Russia on the peninsula. As soon as the crisis broke out, the Mejlis clearly and unambiguously declared its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and opposition to the Crimea’s possible separation and subsequent annexation by Russia. Unswerving in their position, the Crimean Tatar leaders have urged their people to boycott the separatist referendum scheduled for 16 March by the Crimea’s Supreme Council.

“We are against the ‘referendum’. We are boycotting it and are doing everything to explain to all Crimean residents the consequences that may follow,” Chairman of the Mejlis Refat Chubarov said on 11 March.

Local Crimean Tatar officials support this position. Chairman of the Bakhchysarai Raion State Administration Ilmi Umerov and Bilohirsk Mayor Albert Kanqiev have refused to make preparations for the referendum and urged their subordinates to boycott this unlawful event. ATR, a Crimean Tatar TV Channel, is now probably the only source of unbiased information from the Crimea.

The determination of the Crimean Tatars is admirable, especially considering how much the local authorities and numerous agents from Russia have tried to win them over. The Mejlis has never received so many Russia negotiators. President of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov came to the Crimea in person. Shortly before his visit, Kazan mufti Kamil Samigullin arrived to talk to his fellow Muslims on the peninsula.

Early on, the Crimean authorities offered the Mejlis a number of high offices in the Council of Ministers and other bodies in the Crimea. They also promised to modernize Crimean Tatar settlements and find resources to build a grand mosque in Simferopol. “Participation in the decision making process at all administrative levels will be guaranteed to the Crimean Tatars. Moreover, the Crimean government will undertake the financing of the key issues related to the placement and settlement of the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula,” Deputy Chairman of the Crimea’s Council of Ministers Rustam Temirgaliev said.

The latest and most generous offer has come from the Supreme Council of the Crimea in the form a decree guaranteeing the restoration of the rights of the Crimean Tatars and their integration into Crimean society. The document promises the recalcitrant indigenous people literally everything they have been demanding from the Ukrainian government for the past two decades. The Crimean Tatar language will have official status in the Crimea (alongside with Russian and Ukrainian). Historical place names will be brought back into circulation, without replacing, however, the existing toponyms. The Crimean Tatars will be guaranteed a 20 per cent representation quota in government bodies, even though they account for no more than 15 per cent of the Crimea’s population. The Crimean government has even agreed to officially recognize the Mejlis and the Kurultai, the national congress of the Crimean Tatars, which the Ukrainian authorities were afraid of even thinking about. In general, the Crimean Tatars have been promised so much that it has irked even the coup-supporting Russian-speaking Crimeans.

However, the Crimean Tatars have stood their ground. Referring to the “carrots” promised by the separatist government, Chubarov said it was “a signal to all the sides involved in the Crimean crisis”. “This signal is not subject to any agreements,” he said, assuring that the Mejlis will remain opposed to the referendum and will not participate in the formation of the Crimean government.

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Will help come from abroad?

Only time can show how long the Crimean Tatars will be able to hold on to their principled position. Unfortunately, they can count on no-one else but themselves in their confrontation with the local regime. In other ethnic groups, opponents to the Crimea’s separation are numerous but not organized, and there will be virtually no Ukrainian authorities left on the peninsula by mid-March.

When rumours of possible provocations against the Crimean Tatars started spreading across the Crimea, they organized night watches in their settlements. Young people have formed a kind of Crimean Tatar Self-Defence force and are patrolling streets and guarding cemeteries and mosques. Locals collect money to buy petrol and food for them.

Adding fuel to the fire are statements by various experts about possible ethnic cleansings and even a repeat deportation of the Crimean Tatars. The peninsula is now gripped by fear. Suffice it to mention a statement made by Yana Amelina, leading research fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, who said in a clear allusion to Stalin’s deportation: “The events of the past months show that history does not teach anybody – at least, the Crimean Tatars – anything”.

Chubarov also wrote about the threat of ethnic cleansing in his letter to U.S. President Barack Obama: “Who will stop the escalation of the situation in the Crimea, and when? Who will avert the threat to the lives of the Crimea’s residents, and when? Who will avert the threat of new ethnic cleansings, which may take place if the military and their accomplices from paramilitary organizations cause direct clashes?” Chubarov called on Obama to take resolute action for the sake of “preserving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living in the Crimea”.

Still, the Crimean Tatars do not seem to be pinning high hopes on foreign aid. And this is something they have learned from history. When the Stalinist regime deported the entire Crimean Tatar people, not one country of the world – not even the kindred Turkey – intervened. Moreover, less than a year after the deportation, the U.S. president and the British prime minister came to Yalta, already thoroughly cleansed of the Crimean Tatars, to shape the future of the world together with Stalin.

This is why many Crimean Tatar families have decided to send their women and children out of the peninsula. Some have accepted offers of hospitable Ukrainians in other regions who agreed to accommodate the Crimean Tatars free of charge. Remembering a painful historical lesson, many of those who have stayed in the Crimea have packed their documents and valuables in case they have to run for life.

Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, it will teach the Ukrainian authorities a good lesson. Even if one assumes that the Crimean Tatars agree to participate in the government of the “independent” Crimea or Crimean Oblast of the Russian Federation, their conscience will be clear before the Ukrainian people. They held on to the last.

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