Democracy. Russia. CIS.

The Crimean Tatars: Opportunities and Threats.

Posted by democratist on June 11, 2011

11th June 2011,

By way of a short summer break, and in order to broaden our understanding of Ukraine’s regional diversity, Democratist has just returned from a week in Crimea. Long the Soviet apparatchik holiday destination of choice, it remains popular with Ukrainians and Russians today, despite the lure of Turkey and Egypt.
While we recommend both the Simferopol-Yalta Trolleybus line (at 86 km, the longest in the world, and a mere 12 UAH or 95 pence for a one way ticket), and the Sebastopol harbour/Russian black sea fleet boat tour, by far the most intellectually rewarding aspect of our 5-day trip was the opportunity we had to meet with representatives of the Crimean Tatar community, at the their Mejlis (cabinet) secretariat in the regional capital, Simferopol.
The Tatars are a Sunni Muslim, Turkic people. They arrived in Crimea in the 13th century as part of the Golden Horde, and dominated the peninsula for some 500 years. They were prominent in the slave trade until the early 1700’s, and provided Russian, Ukrainian and Polish slaves to the Ottoman Empire – under which they had become a protectorate in the late 1470’s.
However, Russia annexed Crimea in 1783, and the subsequent 200 years proved a disaster for the Tatars, with a tentative recovery only beginning in the late 1980’s.
From the time of annexation, and for much of the following century, the Tatars were subject to repression and an extraordinary degree of systematic cultural destruction. This in turn provoked mass emigration, as much of the population fled to remaining parts of the Ottoman empire. By 1897, they came to compose only about 30% of the inhabitants of Crimea.
The early Soviet period was marked by an initial resistance to the revolution and declaration of the first democratic republic in the Islamic world, the Crimean People’s Republic, in Simferopol in December 1917. This was followed by military defeat at the hands of the Bolsheviks a month later, then repression, mass executions, and deliberate starvation in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It has been estimated that about half the remaining Tatar population was killed by the mid-1930’s.
Given this course of events, it is perhaps understandable that the Tatar leadership should have chosen to collaborate with the Nazis after the 1941 invasion of the USSR. However, once the Red Army reestablished control over Crimea in 1944, Stalin responded with what was effectively his own “final solution” to the problem of the Tatar presence in strategically important Crimea. Under influence from the NKVD, he ordered the mass deportation of the entire remaining population to central Asia. While it was probably not his intention to physically destroy an entire people (as was the case with the holocaust), it is clear that the deportation essentially amounted to genocide within the terms of the 1948 UN Convention. According to Tatar NGOs just under half of those deported died within the first couple of years of exile.
Although all charges against the Tatars were lifted in 1967, they were not formally permitted to return to Crimea until 1989.  Even since then, the steady trickle of returnees have faced discrimination at the hands of the heavily sovietized Russian/Ukrainian majority, many of whom moved to Crimea in the post-war period and were given confiscated Tatar property.
As of 2011, about 280,000 Tatars have returned to Crimea, so that they now constitute about 13-14% of the population. A further 100,000 or so remain in central Asia, many of whom would like to return, but lack the financial means.
In terms of political representation, while it does not have any official powers or legal status, about 90% of the returned Tatars support, and elect deputies to the 250 member Kurultai (parliament), and its 33 member executive Mejlis, both established in 1991. The Mejlis is led by respected former dissident and Human Rights campaigner Mustapha Cemilev, and has become the main point of contact for Ukrainian government dealings with the returnees.
According to Cemilev, and other representatives of the community Democratist spoke with, the main contemporary potential threats and problems facing the resettled Tatars include:
  • The possibility that Crimea (only designated part of Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954, and 65% ethnically Russian) might secede from Ukraine back to Russia, which would almost certainly lead to open conflict.
  • The intensification of inter-ethnic tension as a result of Soviet-era and contemporary propaganda which seeks to justify the deportation. Many Russian nationalists in Crimea go as far as to say that the Tatars should be re-deported.
  • The need for legal rulings on the status of Tatars in Crimea, saying that they have a right to settle there, to preserve their identity, as well as restitution for property confiscated in 1944.
  • The need for increased international facilitation to help the return of those Tatars who wish to do so.
  • The need to address a lack of amenities, high unemployment, and discrimination in terms of access to land.
  • The need to create a comprehensive Tatar-language education system and cultural/media sphere (only 10% of Tatar children are currently educated in their own language). The establishment of Tatar as an official language in Crimea.
The Tatars’ main strategy in addressing these issues is currently more focused on deepened cooperation (and possible eventual Ukrainian integration) with the EU and NATO, rather than in trying to cut deals with local political groups. They see the best hope for long-term stability, economic growth, and the legal rights, religious, cultural and educational autonomy they seek as lying with deeper Ukrainian integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. In this regard, while NATO membership is firmly off the table for the foreseeable future, the Yanukovich government’s recent renewed seriousness with regard to agreement of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU will surely come as a welcome development.
The Tatars are now faced with both future opportunities and lingering threats. To a large extent, the threat of Crimean succession back to Russia (it is currently supported by 70% of ethnic Russians in Crimea) will remain for many decades to come, and is dependent as much upon developments within Russia itself, as it is on the political and economic development of Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula.
Nonetheless, in order to benefit as much as possible from the opportunities presented by Ukraine’s European aspirations, the new generation of Tatar leaders is going to have to develop its ability to lobby persuasively and professionally at the international level. As such, a new cadre of professionals, fluent in English, and with qualifications from Western Universities will be required to make the case for Tatars in Brussels and Washington over the coming decades.

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