Crimea Tatars: ‘Homeland’ at stake

Persecuted Muslim community fears repeat of brutal past as conflict continues over peninsula.

Crimean Tatars are a major force in the peninsula which cannot be ignored whatever outcome will prevail in the conflict, writes Gilfanov [AP]

As the standoff over Russian interference in Crimea intensifies and the outbreak of a new war remains firmly in sight, few people wonder what the region’s indigenous people – Crimean Tatars – think about the situation.

The two main conflicting sides, Ukraine and Russia, regularly state their own views and motivations in the conflict, but the Crimean Tatar stance is equally – if not more – relevant as it is their homeland that’s at stake. In the event of a war, would they not be the primary victims? For this reason, it is vital to understand the worries of the Tatar population.

Marking Surgun

This ethnic minority, whose Sunni Muslim ancestors once reigned over the powerful Crimean khanate, was conquered in the late 18th century by the Russian Empire. Since the fall of the khanate, Tatars have always felt that whoever dominated Crimea neglected Tatar interests, paid little attention to their needs, and even went so far as to try and wipe them out from Crimea.

In May 2014, Tatars in Crimea will mark the 70th anniversary of Surgun – the mass deportation of the entire nation to Siberia and Central Asia, on the orders of Communist dictator Joseph Stalin. In 1944, when Crimea was liberated from Nazi occupation, Moscow accused the Tatars of having collaborated with the Germans and as such, had to be punished for it.

Crimean Tatars clash with pro-Russian groups

Their fate was sealed; up to 200,000 Tatars were given 30 minutes to collect basic belongings, were put on railway cattle cars and were sent to exile. This went on while many Tatar men continued fighting the Nazis with the Red Army, unaware of what the Soviet leadership had done with their families.

Almost half of the nation died during the deportation, thousands of miles away from Crimea. In this manner, the peninsula was cleared of its indigenous Muslim population, and new residents, mostly Russian-speaking colonists from other parts of the Soviet empire, were brought in to be settled into newly emptied Tatar homes.

Until Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika”, Crimean Tatars were banned from not only residing in their homeland, but even from entering the official borders of Crimea. They began repatriating immediately after the perestroika, starting a new life from scratch, faced with ongoing hostility from Russian colonists and authorities who didn’t intend on welcoming Tatars back home.

Secession game

Even now, as Tatars comprise about 14 percent of the entire population (about 300,000 people), Russians still dominate in Crimea, and their attitude towards Tatars has not changed. After the break-up of the USSR, Crimea became a part of Ukraine , but Tatars have remained staunchly in opposition to the local Crimean government, as it has always been dominated by pro-Moscow Russian forces.

Now the Russian government justifies its military intervention in Crimea by claiming that it needs to protect the Russian-speaking population of the peninsula. Moscow has long been working with local Russian organisations to ensure they remain pro-Moscow.

If Crimea falls to Russia, it will become a brutal reality for Crimean Tatars, and end to the measure of freedom Tatars enjoyed within the Ukrainian state.

It came as no big surprise that local authorities started to play the secession game immediately after the central government in Kiev was destabilised. There is a strong sense that the aspiration came from Moscow itself – Crimea is a geopolitically important region, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet, stationed in Sevastopol as per a special Russo-Ukrainian agreement. Crimea is also viewed as a jewel in the Russian imperial mentality; Moscow has never abandoned the idea of once again hoisting its own flag in Crimea some day in the future.

But this future is being tailored these days. Russia, angered by pro-European developments in Kiev, seized the opportunity to realise its long-held dream. The only thing it badly needed? A legal framework for the operation. The regional parliament leader went to Moscow and returned with the idea of a referendum on wider autonomy for Crimea; naturally, this did not exclude possible secession and the prospect of joining Russia. 

But those plans were met with fierce opposition from the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, the biggest Tatar political organisation, which is also considered as the executive body of the Tatar Qurultay (Congress).

On February 26, the regional parliament was to convene to discuss the current political situation in Ukraine after former President Viktor Yanukovych left the country. Pro-Moscow forces wanted to use the opportunity to start the long-awaited secession process, however tens of thousands of Tatars prevented deputies from entering the building, as they gathered outside. Despite the tense confrontation, Tatar leaders kept the protest peaceful.

Crimea’s Tatars fear a repeat of history

The event clearly showed two important things: First, Crimean Tatars are a major force in the peninsula which cannot be ignored whatever outcome will prevail in the conflict, and secondly, if they are put in a situation to face either Kiev or Moscow, Tatars unequivocally choose Kiev , which they think is more in tune to European democratic processes, especially insofar as respecting the rights of minorities.

Besides a sagging economy, endemic corruption, and rampant xenophobia, the issue of ethnic minorities is Russia’s greatest challenge. Although it is formally called a federation, the level of centralisation surpasses common sense and reason. Russia has been good at making statements but it lags behind in action where the interests of ethnic minorities are concerned.

Crimea’s Tatars are well aware of the deep problems facing their fellow Tatars in Russia’s Volga-Ural region, especially with regard to education, preserving their language and maintaining their media. Russia’s central government is pursuing a new policy of “Rusification”, undermining the Tatar language , just as it was in the Soviet Union.

While championing Russian Orthodoxy, Moscow retains a blatantly untransparent and hostile attitude towards Muslim communities in Russia, as security services intimidate and persecute them, misusing anti-terror efforts. If Crimea falls to Russia, it will become a brutal reality for Crimean Tatars, and end to the measure of freedom Tatars enjoyed within the Ukrainian state.

Rim Gilfanov is the Director of Radio Free Europe’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. His writing is primarily concerned with ethnic and religious minority issues.