Crimea's Tatars considering their own referendum

Crimea's Tatars considering their own referendum

SIMFEROPOL - Agence France-Presse
Crimeas Tatars considering their own referendum

Muslim Tatars leaders attend the Crimean Tatar Qurultai, or congress, in Bakhchisaray, Crimea, on March 29. AFP Photo

Crimea's Tatars are considering the possibility of a vote on increased autonomy, a local leader has said, a move likely to deepen the crisis on the Russian-controlled peninsula.

The minority group's assembly, known as the Mejlis, has created a special group to look into the possibility of holding a "referendum within one ethnic group", said its leader Refat Chubarov in a statement released late on Apr. 1.

"We are now trying to find international precedents and international organisations which can help us in that," Chubarov said in the statement.

Representatives of the Turkish-speaking Muslim group - who number around 300,000 in a total population of 2 million Crimeans - are expected to convene before April 15 to consider the issue.

An emergency Qurultai, or congress, of the Crimean Tatars last week decided to seek increased autonomy on the peninsula in a move widely seen as a challenge to the Kremlin.

The community largely boycotted a March 16 referendum in which a Russian-speaking majority voted to split from Ukraine and become part of Russia.

The Tatars' spiritual leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, is a Ukrainian lawmaker, and many Tatars say they want to be part of Ukraine.

Moscow has been conspicuously quiet over the Tatars' decision to seek more self-rule. Local authorities have said the minority's representatives would be offered posts in the local government but the Tatars want a quota system to ensure a guaranteed level of representation.

5,000 Tatars already fled

Speaking at a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council meeting earlier this week, Dzhemilev said that some 5,000 Tatars had already left the peninsula and warned of possible bloodshed.

Vladimir Konstantinov, leader of the regional legislature, told reporters on Wednesday that the representatives of the minority would be actively involved in decision-making.

He appeared to downplay the Tatar leaders' appeal for more autonomy.

"We do not pay attention to any political statements of certain leaders," he said. "It's just an issue of the period of transition."

The Crimean Tatars, native inhabitants of the peninsula, spent decades in Central Asia after Joseph Stalin ordered their banishment, ostensibly for Nazi collaboration.

They were allowed to move back in the late 1980s but are still battling with a host of issues including land ownership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Tatars had nothing to fear and promised to take legal steps to officially rehabilitate them.