A New Crimean Front

7 March 2012, 14:26

More than a dozen NGOs joined forces to found the Crimean Tatar Popular Front in late January 2012. Member of the Crimean Parliament Lentun Bezaziyev, formerly a communist, later a BYuT member and until recently a Party of Regions member, led this group. The front brought together pro-government and pro-Russian groups of the Crimean Tatars that position themselves as “anti-Orange.” The Presidential Administration in Kyiv and Russian special services are thought to be the masterminds behind the project.


Just like in the early 1990s, the main problems facing the Crimean Tatars are the absence of legislative guarantees for those who want to return from deportation and the unregulated process of allocating land plots for building housing. The Mejlis, which is the main representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, has failed to achieve any significant progress here in the 20 years Ukraine has been independent. Consequently, the anger and irritation of many indigenous residents of the Crimean peninsula are directed against its leader, NU-NS MP Mustafa Jemilev. Jemilev admits that the legal and land problems have not been resolved. He counts himself among the 11 per cent of Crimean Tatars who, according to a 2011 survey by the Razumkov Centre, are dissatisfied with the performance of the Mejlis but trust the institution.

The current problems of the biggest ethnic minority on the peninsula are largely due to the choice it made in 2004 when it threw its support behind Viktor Yushchenko. The Crimean Tatars did not receive the help they expected from Ukraine's third president. The local pro-Russian authorities continued to hinder land allocation in every possible way. The practice of giving the territories for which the Crimean Tatars claimed the status of local-level preserves became widespread. The resistance of the local authorities and the low efficiency of the Mejlis caused Tatars to take the law into their own hands and settle without authorisation. This movement was dubbed “islands of protest.” The police drove out the settlers in some places, but they have been able to build small, barn-like buildings, or even complete houses, in a large majority of cases. In order to hedge their risks, some families occupied several plots of land. Selling these unregistered land parcels became a common business. NGO Avdet and its leader Daniyal Ametov were charged with selling land that had been occupied without authorization. Ametov was recently sentenced to four years in prison for assault and battery of a police officer. The attempts of the Mejlis to act as a mediator between the “islands of protest” and the authorities disgruntled many dissenters. Jemilev was accused, among other things, of a desire to obtain half of the lands where the Crimean Tatars had settled without authorisation.

Following the Ametov verdict, those who were discontent with the mediating activities of the Mejlis joined the NGO Sebat. Remarkably, its leaders are Salafi Muslims that are followers of Arsen Abu Akhja Crimean, a popular Muslim leader on the peninsula. Despite their religious conservatism, Sebat members want to cooperate with the new government as long as the land issue can be resolved. The late Vasyl Dzharty, former Chairman of the Crimean Council of Ministers, promised Sebat that most of the land Crimean Tatars had occupied would be legalised. In exchange, protesters who are close to the organisation were to scale down their public activity and distance themselves from protests staged by the Mejlis. The new Crimean government headed by Anatoliy Mohylov is not backing off these promises but, at the same time, is doing nothing to make good on them. Sebat was involved in protests against the Mejlis’ policies in 2011 but refused to support the founders of the Crimean Tatar Popular Front and did not join the organisation. The reason is a desire to solve the land legalisation issue. Sebat leaders believe political games may once again become an obstacle to real progress.


According to various estimates, there are about 280,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Several thousand returned from deportation after Ukraine proclaimed independence and do not have Ukrainian citizenship. Because of this, they cannot expect to have permanent jobs or obtain land for building homes. Tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars live in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The local legislation there greatly discourages them from returning to Crimea. For example, they must pay a high fee (by Uzbek standards) to renounce their Uzbek citizenship and are unable to sell their houses at market prices. Transporting their possessions by train is also costly. Those brave enough to return to Crimea must often abandon both their property and their homes, yet find that no-one is welcoming them in Ukraine. A law about restoring the rights of and rehabilitating persons who have been deported based on their nationality could put the issue to rest. The Verkhovna Rada passed a bill to this effect, but it was vetoed by President Leonid Kuchma. Bezaziyev promises that his organisation will obtain this kind of decision from the Ukrainian government by the 58th anniversary of the Crimean Tatar deportation which will be marked in Crimea on May 18, 2012. However, the main opponent of the Mejlis is careful not to reveal the mechanism for achieving this strategic goal. The Milli Firka organisation, which was one of the initiators of the front, is known for calling on the Kremlin to “save Crimean Tatars from the Ukrainian yoke”, a statement it issued in August 2008 during the Russo-Georgian war. Viktor Yanukovych showed his acceptance of Milli Firka when he invited three members of the organization to join the Council of Representatives of the Crimean Tatars under the President of Ukraine. (Official Kyiv does not recognise the Mejlis as a legitimate representative body of the Crimean Tatars and views the Council as its counterbalance.) Jemilev was then deposed as chairman of the Council. The involvement of Milli Firka in the Crimean Tatar Popular Front suggests to Jemilev that it is a project engendered by Russian special services. It is also the source of accusations against him – something quite in the spirit of these services.


While Milli Firka — which is a small organization with little influence — is clearly listening to Moscow, the leaders of the newly created Front claim they are pro-Ukrainian. They assert that they expect Yanukovych and the Party of Regions to deliver a law on the status of repressed peoples and a solution to the land issue, while stigmatising Jemilev and his allies in the Front as “agents of the United States.”

Jemilev says Crimean Tatars have two chief partners – Ukraine and Turkey. There are more people of Crimean background living in Turkey than in Ukraine. The powerful Crimean Tatar lobby in Turkey finances cultural and infrastructure projects in  Crimea and represents the interests of its people in dealing with Turkish government agencies. Jemilev has said on numerous occasions that he supports the secular Turkish state founded by Ataturk in the 1920s. However the rise of the pro-Muslim Justice and Development Party had no effect whatsoever on the Mejlis’ plans for cooperation with Ankara. It recognises the authority of the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims in Crimea, headed by Mufti Emirali Ablayev, in religious affairs. While the leaders of the Crimean Tatar Popular Front ignore the religious factor in keeping with the Soviet tradition, the Mejlis views Islam as one of the components of Crimean Tatar national identity.

All of the above means that the Crimean Tatar community in Ukraine is likely to see confrontation between national democrats and the bearers of Soviet mentality in the “popular front.” This scenario is welcomed by the central government in Kyiv which has sought to neutralise the protest potential of Crimean Tatars.


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