Tatars split over Russian rule after annexation of Crimea

Tatars split over Russian rule after annexation of Crimea

BAKHCHISARAY, Crimea - Reuters
Tatars split over Russian rule after annexation of Crimea

Crimean Tatars greet and escort former chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars Kırımoğlu (C) before attempting to pass a checkpoint connecting Kherson region and Crimea, near the city of Armyansk, May 3, 2014.

Seventy years after their families’ mass deportation under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, the Crimean Tatars are in a quandary over cooperating with their homeland’s new Russian authorities or resisting them.

Some Tatars fear a return to Stalinist repression despite official promises to respect their rights and freedoms, others say dealing with Russia is the best way of ensuring their people can flourish. Less than two months into Moscow rule, tensions are running high before Sunday’s anniversary of the deportations in cattle wagons which began on May 18, 1944.

“It’s either war or compromise. That is the essence of the problem we face. If we don’t adopt a unified approach, we risk splitting ourselves up and being marginalized,” said Nariman Dzhelyalov, deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars’ main representative body.

The Tatars, who make up more than 12 percent of Crimea’s largely ethnic Russian population of about 2 million, are among the most vociferous critics of Moscow’s annexation in March of the peninsula previously governed by Ukraine. Russia views the annexation as righting an historical injustice, describing it as “reunification” of a region which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed to Ukraine only in 1954.

But the Tatars, whose historical capital of Bakhchisaray lies a short distance from the modern day regional center of Simferopol, remind Moscow they ruled large parts of Crimea for centuries before Russian Empress Catherine the Great conquered the Black Sea peninsula in the late 18th century.

Stalin accused the Tatars of sympathizing with Nazi Germany, and many of the estimated 200,000 deportees died on their way into exile in Central Asia and eastern Russia. Only in the last years of the Soviet Union were members of the community able to start returning to Crimea in the 1980s.

Many Tatars boycotted a referendum on March 16 when local authorities say 97 percent of those who voted opted to join Russia. Kiev and the West derided the exercise as illegitimate.

Ukrainian flag still flies

The Tatars have continued to fly the Ukrainian flag at the Mejlis since the vote, despite a visit by armed pro-Russian “self-defense” units and threats to close their organization by the region’s chief prosecutor.

“We’re used to constant struggle. We don’t trust the Russian authorities, and why should we? They have always opposed the Crimean Tatars,” Dzhelyalov said. The Mejlis’ former leader, Soviet-era dissident Mustafa Abdülcemil Kırımoğlu, says he is banned from setting foot on Crimean soil. While the Mejlis is the largest Crimean Tatar organization, some smaller groups are happy Russia has taken the region under its wing.

One such group, Milli Fırka, says Kyiv had done little to rehabilitate the Crimean Tatars in the 23 years since the Soviet Union collapsed.

“In less than two months Russia has done far more for the Crimean Tatars than Ukraine ever did. Only after Crimea became part of Russia did Kiev even remember that we exist,” said Milli Fırka’s chairman, Vasvi Abduraimov. Milli Fırka says the Mejlis is a Western project whose aim is to integrate the Crimean Tatars into Europe rather than Putin’s planned Eurasian Union of former Soviet states. “We believe it’s better for us to look east to Eurasia, especially as the center of world economic development is gradually shifting to countries like China and India,” Abduraimov said.

Rustam Temirgaliyev, Crimea’s deputy prime minister, told Reuters that Russia now treated the Tatars in an “absolutely open and democratic manner” and that they had been given ministerial posts in the latest government. “Russia guarantees that all rights and freedoms of the Crimean Tatars will be respected,” he said.

The Mejlis says it hopes to receive official permission soon for a march through central Simferopol to mark May 18’s anniversary, but that the government is insisting the Tatars don’t fly the Ukrainian flag or criticize the annexation. After the annual march, the Mejlis typically adopts a resolution on its demands to the local authorities.

“What are we to say this year? Some want a peacekeeping force brought in to protect us, while others are more worried about solving everyday problems like housing,” Dzhelyalov said.