While Ukraine continues to battle joint Russian-separatist forces in Donbas, it is simultaneously facing a great dilemma over the Crimean Tatar question and the future status of the Crimean Peninsula, both of which represent serious long-term challenges.
The post–Viktor Yanukovych government in Kyiv wanted to change the previous “unjust” policy regarding Crimean Tatars, which was the status quo before 2014. And following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March of that year, Ukraine commenced a discussion on how to return Crimea under Ukrainian sovereignty. One prominent proposal was to grant Crimean Tatars the status of a national autonomous republic within Ukraine and of indigenous people in Crimea. Over the years, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko several times promised that the future “situation would be different” for the Crimean Tatars (Krymr.com, August 12, 2016), and in May 2017 he once again broached the subject of autonomy (President.gov.ua, May 14). However, three years since the annexation, the discussion remains mostly theoretical.
The first steps to improve the situation of the Crimean Tatars in Ukraine were made on March 17, 2014, the day after Moscow-installed authorities held the illegal referendum in Crimea on splitting from Ukraine. Specifically, the Ukrainian parliament issued a decree on guaranteeing the rights of the Crimean Tatar people and recognizing the Mejlis as the Crimean Tatars’ highest representative body (Rada.gov.ua, March 20, 2014).
Since 2014, the Mejlis has been in exile in Kyiv. This executive self-governing body’s main agenda has focused on supporting the adoption of laws protecting the rights and freedoms of the Crimean Tatar people. It has also pushed Kyiv to clearly indicate Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of the Crimean Autonomous Republic and to enshrine this status within the Ukrainian constitution. It should be noted that before 2014, even a discussion of such matters was not allowed in Ukraine (Krymr.com, July 13, 2015).
A major problem with this protracted discussion over the future of the Crimean Tatars has been the muted recognition of pre-existing hostility within portions of Ukrainian society toward such a solution. In particular, many nationalist-minded Ukrainians consider any attempt by the Crimean Tatars for self-determination to represent a threat to the very existence of a united Ukraine.
As long as Ukraine does not control Crimea, the Crimean Tatar Mejlis has argued that Ukrainian laws on the autonomy of their nationality should be applied in Kherson—as the Ukrainian oblast closest to their Russian-occupied homeland and the region with the second-largest Crimean Tatar population, after Crimea (Krymr.com, August 8, 2014). However, from time to time, one can observe open hostility from the local Slavic population toward Crimean Tatars in Kherson oblast—which borders directly on Crimea—as well as in neighboring Mykolaiv oblast (Krymr.com, December 28, 2015). Strikingly, according to an opinion poll from late 2016, the biggest group opposing the creation of a Crimean Tatar autonomy is the Slavic population in Kherson region (Ukrinform, December 5, 2016). Both Russian and local occupying Crimean authorities have been carefully following this situation, considering such tensions potential levers to destabilize the Kherson region. And indeed, Ukrainian expert Natalya Belitser has argued that negative attitudes among the local ethnic Ukrainians toward the establishment of a Crimean Autonomous Republic are the result of the successful Russian propaganda in the region (Krymr.com, July 4, 2016).
Concerns in Ukrainian society are also prevalent that the creation of a Crimean Tatar Autonomy could trigger a process of “federalization” in Ukraine. The most active proponents of such a decentralization of the country are the minority communities of Ukrainian Rusyns and Hungarians. In December 2016, Ukraine’s Rusyns called on Poroshenko to openly recognize their rights to self-determination: “[the Rusyn] community deserves an autonomous status and recognition no less than the Crimean Tatars” (Vesti-ukr.com, December 22, 2016). And earlier, local leaders of the ethnic Hungarian community living in Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region explicitly organized events to promote Hungarian autonomy. At one such forum, held last October, the participants concluded that if the government grants autonomy to the Crimean Tatars, the same rights should be applied to other national minorities as well as certain territories, including Donbas (Izvestia.kiev.ua, October 6, 2016).
The country’s Hungarian minority has enjoyed backing for greater autonomy from Budapest. As recently as this past March, Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen stressed that all Hungarian communities abroad should strive toward this goal: “The survival of ethnic-Hungarian communities depends on their ability to make progress toward autonomy” (Hungarytoday.hu, March 21). The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly responded that the two states should avoid this point of contention while neighboring countries—implying Russia—are actively exploiting national minorities inside the countries of Europe’s East as a point of political pressure (Mfa.gov.ua, March 22). And in a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Malta, on March 30, Poroshenko also expressed concerns about the provocative statements coming out of Budapest (President.gov.ua, March 30).
In Russia itself and in occupied Crimea, the experience of the Crimean Tatars in Ukraine is also being thoroughly and nervously studied. In fact, the elaboration of the Kremlin’s own policy toward the Crimean Tatars living in Crimea depends on the situation in Ukraine. For example, Moscow’s decision to grant Crimean Tatars a federal-level national-cultural autonomy in the Russian Federation (Vz.ru, June 12, 2016; see EDM, June 14, 2016) was in many ways prompted by the Crimean Tatar autonomy discussions happening in Ukraine. More recently, Russian experts have been pointedly critical of Kyiv’s deliberations on the Crimean Tatar autonomy (Blackseafleet-21.com, April 16; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 15).
At present, the Crimean Tatar question in Ukraine has been postponed indeterminately because, in all likelihood, any real legal decisions will be possible only after the final conclusion of a Constitutional Commission on the matter. For the Crimean Tatars, the name or status of their future autonomy is irrelevant as long their rights and freedoms in their homeland are constitutionally protected once Crimea is returned someday.
On the one hand, Ukraine is quite circumspect in its approach to the resolution of the Crimean Tatar question. In the minds of many, the issue poses potential risks to Ukrainian sovereignty and possible heightened inter-ethnic confrontation in Kherson oblast. Moreover, any attempt to change the unitary character of the Ukrainian state could harm national integrity. However, Poroshenko has repeatedly promised the Crimean Tatars that the new political elites in Kyiv would heal the damages and mistakes that had been made toward this national minority since 1991. Whether this is mere token rhetoric or something more remains to be seen.