Crimean Tatars set for difficult times

Crimean Tatars set for difficult times

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s contacts in Ukraine continue with uncertainty, as it is not clear which side is Sunni and which is Shiite, or which side is in favor of the coup. Davutoğlu said: “There is no oil, no Shiites, no Sunnis, and no Israel. So why are they fighting? We don’t get it.”

This is what the humor website has written about Turkey’s stance on the crisis in Ukraine. In the beginning, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government might have looked at the issue as an Orthodox versus Orthodox issue, or a power struggle between Orthodox Russia and Christian Europe. But right now there is a “Muslim” element in the equation.

The situation is difficult as it is. However, the position of the Crimean Tatars is particularly difficult. Crimean Tatars have always sided with the supporters of the “Orange Revolution.” They then supported Yulia Tymoshenko against Victor Yanukovych. Turkic-speaking Muslims and the peninsula’s indigenous inhabitants Crimean Tatars have never played two sides. They turned down Yanukovych’s proposals for a deal in exchange for their support. In fact, Yanukovych’s government even asked for Ankara’s help to get the Crimean Tatars’ backing, but efforts have proven futile.

With Moscow continuing to strengthen its grip on Crimea, Crimean Tatars made clear which side they are on. Not only are they vowing to fight alongside Ukrainian forces, some among them have warned Russia that it might face jihadi-style violence against Russian troops occupying the peninsula.

Crimean Tatars do not accept the pro-Russian Crimean Parliament’s vote to hold a referendum on splitting off from Ukraine and joining Russia, and have called for a boycott. It seems they have also turned down Russian offers to switch sides.

Yet the experts and former diplomats I have spoken to, who are familiar with Russia, all say with confidence that Moscow will not loosen its grip over Crimea. Russian soldiers are there to stay and the best possible scenario is to give concessions to Russia over its presence in the peninsula in return for keeping Ukrainian borders intact. If this is the case, then won’t the situation require more pragmatism and a reconciliatory approach from Crimean Tatars?

Experts say they won’t change their stance.

“They still have the bitter taste of the past,” said one observer, recalling how Joseph Stalin deported the entire Tatar population in 1944 on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis. “The moment they give in, they feel they will be assimilated by the Russians.”

“In the past 100 years, the last decade has been the best of all for Crimean Tatars, they were able to return to their lands and their homes were restored. All this will be reversed with increased Russian presence in Crimea,” said Professor Mitat Çelikpala, an expert on Russia and the Caucasus.

All experts agree that Crimean Tatars will be facing very difficult times. Judging from Turkey’s timid reactions, it looks like they should not count on Turkey’s help.

Erdoğan, who has been so vocal about the plight of Palestinians, Egyptians and Syrians, has been rather shy in talking about Crimean Tatars. No one is suggesting that Turkey should pick a fight with Russia. That would not be realistic. But it is questionable how trying to act as an independent actor from NATO or the European Union can help the Crimean Tatars. On the contrary, Turkey should be the one keeping its European “allies” alarmed about the situation of the Crimean Tatars.

“Russia does not respect the weak,” a retired ambassador familiar with Russia told me. While refraining from trying to punch above its weight, Turkey should also avoid looking weak to Russia.