Ethnic tension has increased in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula as the authorities move to tackle the problem of Crimean Tatar squatters occupying local plots of land. In early November, Tatars were forcibly evicted from two construction sites that, according to the Crimean authorities and the local Slav radicals, they had illegally grabbed. Crimean Tatar leaders have accused the authorities of bias and threatened to set up an ethnic militia to defend their property.
The current real estate conflicts in Crimea have their roots in Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Tatars began to return to their homeland en masse in the early 1990s, only to find their estates occupied by the state and Slav settlers. The authorities in Kyiv and the Crimean capital of Simferopol decided to settle the problem by allocating land plots to the returnees, most of whom are farmers. As the authorities have been slow and often reluctant to keep their promises, the repatriates began to occupy land plots without permission.
The most lucrative plots are in southern Crimea, whose Mediterranean climate and picturesque mountains have made it a popular destination for holidaymakers from Ukraine and Russia. The local land is valuable, so naturally most of the Tatars want to settle there. They say southern Crimea is their home. Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatars’ self-styled national assembly, claims that 70% of the southern Crimean coastline belonged to Tatars before the deportation, while now they own just 1.5% of that area. Tatar interests clash with those of the developers who build resorts in the area. Tatars believe that many of these construction projects are illegal, and that the local authorities are corrupt and work in cahoots with developers.
On November 1, several hundred Tatars clashed with representatives of a construction company in Simferopol. The company said Tatars had seized its construction site and built houses there illegally. Tatars said that the company only “claimed” to own the plot and that they wanted to protect their property from demolition. Police apparently did not interfere, and nobody was seriously injured or detained.
A more serious conflict broke out on November 6, when police destroyed a Crimean Tatar café and several unfinished buildings at Mount Ay-Petri. About 1,000 riot police clashed with some 500 Tatars who tried to prevent the demolition. Police say they obeyed a court order, but Tatars insist that only one of the destroyed sites was illegal. Police arrested 18 repatriates for resistance; four more repatriates were hospitalized, including one with a gunshot wound. A video of the clash, which was shown on TV channels nationwide, prompted accusations of police brutality.
Police said that the Tatars had prepared Molotov cocktails and threatened to set fire to a liquefied gas cylinder. The Tatars denied this and accused the police of brutally beating and shooting unarmed people at Ay-Petri.
The Crimean Majlis ruled to establish Tatar militia units to protect Tatar property across Crimea, but Dzhemilev personally vetoed this move, fearing it would only escalate the conflict. Speaking on Ukrainian TV, however, Dzhemilev made it clear that this was only a gesture of goodwill, one that can be reversed. He said that he did not see why it would be illegal for Tatars to set up their own militia when the local Slav militia units – the Cossacks – have been active in the area for years.
The party of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Our Ukraine, which has historically supported the Tatars, reacted to the incidents by accusing the Crimean authorities of provoking ethnic conflict. “It is the Crimean authorities’ discriminatory attitude toward repatriated Crimean Tatars” and “selective application of law” that creates conflicts, Our Ukraine said in a statement.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Our Ukraine’s rivals from the Party of Regions, said that the police acted lawfully at Ay-Petri. Acting Interior Minister Mykhaylo Kornienko noted that there are still over 80 land plots in Crimea “which should be vacated because they were illegally grabbed.” The prosecutor for Crimea, Viktor Shemchuk, who is loyal to Yushchenko and Our Ukraine, said that police actions at Ay-Petri were unprofessional, but he conceded that Tatars had occupied the plot illegally. The leader of Crimea’s radical Russian Bloc, Oleg Rodivilov, speaking to Segodnya, accused Yushchenko and his party of covering up what he described as illegal land grabs by Tatars.
Tatar protesters, meanwhile, set up a tent city in downtown Simferopol, demanding that the Crimean police should be dismissed and punished for the Ay-Petri incident and that the arrested repatriates should be freed. The Tatars promised an open-ended protest. A mass rally scheduled for November 11 was called off due to a hurricane in the Crimea.
(UNIAN, November 1; Channel 5, November 6, 10; Interfax-Ukraine, November 7, 8; Segodnya, November 10; Zerkalo nedeli, November 11)