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14 March, 2011  ▪  Yulia Tyshchenko

In a Captious Land

Kyiv’s policy towards the Crimean Tatars remains controversial and inconsistent

Relations between the Cri­­mean Tatars and the Cri­­mean government look like the erratic swinging of intricate clockwork by which it is impossible to tell the time, rather than like a smooth-working, consistent and reliable mechanism. In the 20 years since Crimean Tatars began to be repatriated en-masse, it has become typical of the Crimean government to respond to problems on an ad hoc basis rather than maintaining a strategy of dialog with the Tatars. The situation is both complicated and strange, given that the majority of issues for the Crimean Tatars are socio-economic ones that have long been overdue for a solution.

The first significant move in 2011 to integrate Crimean Tatars into Ukrainian society actually happened in December 2010. The country’s executive branch was streamlined by Presidential Decree, resulting in the elimination of the State Committee for Nationalities and Religions. This institution used to manage Budget funds allocated to implement state-initiated programs for the settlement and provision of deported Crimean Tatars and other nationalities returning to Uk­­raine.

Now, the money will go to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, although the Decree did not transfer the authority to work on integration and settlement policy to the Ministry’s remit. Moreover, any government policy is not just about strategies and actions, but also about the real resources needed for implementation. Over 2006-2009, settlement and integration programs for Crimean Tatars and other nationalities were underfunded by UAH 103mn, and, in 2010, only UAH 35mn was allocated instead of the necessary UAH 108mn.

Politically, 2011 started with an ultimatum from Crimean Premier Vasyl Dzharty to Mustafa Cemiliev, President of Mejlis, the governing body of the Crimean Tatars. On January 18, it was disclosed that Mr. Dzharty had asked Crimean Tatars to voluntarily leave the land they had been squatting as this hindered the socio-economic development of the region and destabilized inter-ethnic relations. The document stated that the Crimean government “would not turn a blind eye to certain leaders of the Crimean Tatars who are prepared to ignore and disdain the Constitution and the laws of Ukraine. The law is only law when it is the same for all.”

Yet the Crimean Land Committee reports that of all land that has been squatted, Crimean Tatars have taken only 17% in the region. The rest has been grabbed by domestic and Russian business entities. Too often, the Crimean Tatar issue is used with regard to this problem to mask the real situation with land allocation on the peninsula. But why the local government doesn’t like to give land to Crimean Tatars is not stated, as this is the place where corruption and ethnic stereotypes intertwine.

Mr. Cemiliev’s response was that Crimean Premier Dzhar­­ty had to go to the revived Council of Crimean Tartar Representatives under the President of Ukraine with his proposal, a body mostly made up of Crimean Tatars who are from organizations opposed to the Mejlis. Last August, President Yanukovych changed the format of the Council, which had been formed of representatives elected by the Crimean Tatars following their own procedure, to an appointment-based system. Right now, with 8 members vs 11, representatives of the Kurultai-Mejlis, the national council, are a minority on this Council, so the results of debates are easy to predict. Despite much talk about possible changes to this format, the procedure has not been revised so far.

Such “new approaches” to dialog could well be a result of Party of the Region’s long political memory. Despite years of PR monopoly in Crimea, the Mejlis supported Viktor Yushchenko and later Yulia Tymoshenko in elections. Nor did the Mejlis’ criticisms of the Kharkiv accords and public disagreement with the extension of the stay of Russia’s fleet in Sevastopol fail to register in PR ears.

The January letter gained considerable publicity, not only for its list of problems and the ultimatum-like tone, but for the fact the Mr. Dzharty used the word “Mejlis” for the first time as the proper representative body of the Crimean Tatars in an official document. In 20 years of Tatar repatriation, no Ukrainian legislation has ever found place for the term. Nor for a law on renewing the rights of people deported for their nationality, which would include a mechanism for rehabilitation and compensation for deported peoples: the relevant bill has been shelved indefinitely.

Many other religious and historical issues are in a similar situation, including a return to Tatar place names, reviving the historical memory of Crimean Tatars, and constructing a mosque in Simferopol. This ultimatum from the Crimean government with respect to land allocation drew a lot of attention, both in Crimea and outside, because it is seen as a direct threat. And any suggestion that force might be used could become the real catalyst for a major ethnic confrontation. 

All this leaves an impression that the Crimean government is clueless about such things. Its new Donetsk elite is not always in the know about tricky issues around Crimean Tatar identity. Instead, they tend to prioritize the “economization” of politics. In practice, this often refers to the enrichment of specific officials and their friends.

Meanwhile, the government is downplaying the social and cultural aspects of Crimean Tatar identity. Indeed, the strategy for socio-economic development in Crimea, approved in late 2010, has just one sentence about the need to “harmonize ethnic relations and establish a multicultural dialog.” It does not mention possible challenges that could emerge in the process of modernizing Crimea if the multiethnic nature of the region is not properly taken into account.

Today, the pendulum is swinging towards dialog once again. The Committee established by the Council of Ministers on January 31 to resolve the issues related to squatted lands and allocating land for houses for repatriated deportees and other people in Simferopol and the region should start working soon. This opens the door to dialog with the government. How this will change the ad hoc approach of government policy with regard to Crimean Tatars remains to be seen.

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