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Crimean Tatars Left With No Space for Illusions

Russian authorities already talking about moving some Crimean Tatars off lands they occupy.
By Halya Coynash
  • At a March 14 protest against the Crimean referendum, the Ukrainian flag (right) flies next to the banner of the Crimean Tatars. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
    At a March 14 protest against the Crimean referendum, the Ukrainian flag (right) flies next to the banner of the Crimean Tatars. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

A day after President Vladimir Putin claimed that the rights of Crimean Tatars would be fully recognised in Russian-annexed Crimea, the government installed at gunpoint on February 27 announced that Crimean Tatars would be "asked" to move from land they had unofficially occupied.

The March 19 announcement was accompanied by assertions about Crimean Tatar participation in Sunday’s "referendum" that diverged widely from the figures given by Refat Chubarov, head of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars’ representative body.

Chubarov’s response to a question from Life News is worth quoting in full. He was asked why the Crimean Tatars were not satisfied with the guarantees offered by the self-proclaimed Crimean prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov.

Chubarov explained that he was not a diplomat and would do better to give an example, "Imagine that one morning some people unexpectedly enter your flat. You don’t know them, they look scary and they’re armed. They don’t touch you. They talk to you politely. They use your toilet and bathroom, but are extremely courteous. And then they say, ‘Let’s continue to live this way!’ I’d like to ask you: would it be better if they discussed how you will live together before they break into your flat, or afterwards? Please excuse me, but that’s an answer to your question."

The problem with posing this question at the right moment is, of course, clear - the answer would not be the one Moscow wanted to hear.

Previous opinion polls in general never showed a majority in favour of joining Russia. The Crimean Tatars as a people were always totally opposed to it, both for historical reasons and because of their treatment by certain pro-Russian groups following their return in the early 1990s from the forced deportation of May 1944.

The events of the last weeks have been a tragedy for many in the Crimea, like the 83-year-old woman knocked down by a pro-Russian vigilante. She and others have seen a level of violence and intolerance that make them doubt that they can remain.

The Crimean Tatars are an indigenous people for whom Crimea is their only homeland. This latest tragedy comes on the eve of the 70th anniversary of their wholesale deportation by Stalin. It is not difficult to imagine how bitter the thought of a new exile must be.

The intolerance and lawlessness displayed by pro-Russian vigilantes over recent weeks is probably all too familiar to them. In the dangerous power games on the peninsula, politicians have long sought to stir up enmity between pro-Russian groups and the Crimean Tatars. The latter are in no doubt that they are part of Ukraine and wish to remain so.

On February 18 this year, Mustafa Jemilev, member of parliament, veteran defender of Crimean Tatar, and former head of the Mejlis, addressed his fellow-Ukrainians from the Maidan, saying he was proud of them, proud to be Ukrainian.

This is not to say the Crimean Tatars have been treated properly by successive governments in Kiev. There was never the money, and seldom the will, to resolve longstanding problems such as housing for those who returned home from exile after Ukraine gained independence. This is largely the reason why many Crimean Tatars are now living on land which they simply occupied because the authorities failed to allocate lands due to them.

Now Aksyonov’s deputy, Ruslan Temirgaliyev, has announced that the authorities will be asking the Crimean Tatars to vacate this land, which he claims is required "for social needs". Temirgaliyev asserted, as Putin did the day before, that land would be provided "to ensure a normal life for the Crimean Tatars".

The first person killed after the invasion – though no longer the only one – was a Crimean Tatar father of three small children. Reshat Ametov was abducted while taking part in a protest against the military occupation. His body was discovered, with marks of torture, on March 16.

The Mejlis called on all Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians to boycott the March 16 referendum, which was unconstitutional and gravely flawed in content and procedure. At a press conference on March 17, Chubarov pointed out some of the irregularities and clear evidence of tampering with the results. He said that only around 1,000 Crimean Tatars out of a possible 180,000 took part, compared with the 30 per cent claimed by Temirgaliyev

After making various promises in an attempt to gain Crimean Tatar support, the Aksyonov government has simply resorted to lying about the results. It is small wonder that the Crimean Tatars don’t trust any of their assurances.

On March 20, Ukraine’s parliament took a very belated first step towards officially recognising the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people. A statement which it adopted guarantees the inalienable right of self-determination for the Crimean Tatar people within a sovereign and independent Ukrainian state, and also recognises the Mejlis as the Crimean Tatars’ authorised body. The Verkhovna Rada has instructed the cabinet of ministers to urgently draw up draft laws that set out and affirm the Crimean Tatars’ status as an indigenous people.

This move was long overdue, and may be seen as a mere political gesture by some. It does, however, highlight the Ukrainian state’s rights and obligations with regard to the Crimean Tatars. Their fate and their tragedy at this time are also Ukraine’s. 

Halya Coynash is a journalist and a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.