Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 10

Crimean Tatars reenter politics with a bang

by David Nissman

For most of the last two years, international attention to theCrimea has been devoted to just two of the actors in the region:to the ethnic Russians with their ties to the Black Sea Fleetand to Moscow, and to the Ukrainians who want the region toremain within Ukraine. But as last weekend’s violence showed,there is a third actor which increasingly is pressing to beheard: the Crimean Tatars who were deported from the regionby Stalin, and who are now returning in large numbers, withtheir own agendas, concerns, and complaints. And this thirdactor may turn out to have a bigger voice than anyone now suspects.

A Complicated History

The various populations now in Crimea reflect the complex historyof the peninsula. The territory came under Russian rule in 1783and was as an autonomous-republic part of the Russian Federationwithin the USSR until Nikita Khrushchev ceded it to Ukrainein February 1954, the 300th anniversary of the treaty whichbrought Ukraine under Russian control. Many Russian legal experts,and even more local Russians–who form over 60 percent of thearea’s population–believe that Khrushchev did not have the right to do this, and thus believe that Crimea is or at leastshould be part of the Russian Federation. Ukrainians in theregion naturally reject this notion, and most Crimean Tatarshave generally sided with Kiev although some of them have suggestedthat this could change if the Ukrainian authorities fail toprotect Crimean Tatar interests. The defining event for CrimeanTatars today was Stalin’s deportation of nearly 500,000 of themto Central Asia in 1944. Falsely accused of being collaborators with the Germans during the war, the Crimean Tatars–or CrimeanTurks, as they had called themselves before Stalin decided otherwise–losttheir statehood and were deposited in the Central Asian republics.Initially, many died; their language was prohibited, and theywere deprived of all civil rights. After Stalin’s death, theircondition improved somewhat: they were allowed to publish anewspaper in their own language and even to organize a Movementfor the Return to the Homeland.

By the end of the 1960s, a Soviet trial of 10 Crimean Tatarnationalists captured the imagination of dissident circles inMoscow and even became a cause celebre in the West. The defendantswere able to turn the tables on their prosecutors, and to makethe suppression of ethnic rights in the Soviet Union the focusof the trial. Almost overnight, the Crimean Tatars ceased tobe a non-people. And despite all the barriers which the authoritiesplaced in their way, Crimean Tatars began to make their wayback from Central Asia. Now, 240,000 have returned, only todiscover that ethnic Russians had moved into their lands, andanother quarter million are expected to move to Crimea in thenext several years.

The Conflict Emerges

In April 1991, the Soviet government passed a law on the rehabilitationof repressed peoples which, at least in theory, provided forthe restoration of the territorial statehoods that these groupshad lost. Unfortunately, as Russian officials have since acknowledged,Gorbachev’s government did not give much thought to the implications of this law. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, severalof the now independent countries met in Bishkek and decidedto cooperate on repatriation, but of those which agreed to providereal help to the Crimean Tatars, only Ukraine has followed through.But as Kiev regularly points out, it does not have the fundsfor the massive construction and social programs that are neededfor the resettlement of the new arrivals.

As far as Crimea itself is concerned, its status has beenin political, legal and social chaos since 1991. Since then,Crimea has been officially known by Ukrainians as the AutonomousRepublic of Crimea but, until recently,, its Russian-dominatedgovernment called it the Republic of Crimea and claimed thatit was subordinate to no one. And a substantial portion of the ethnic Russian population has agitated for the region’s inclusionwithin the Russian Federation, a view supported by Russian officersin the Black Sea Fleet and by many Russian officials, as wellas by many ordinary Russians. At the end of May 1995, however,the Ukrainian authorities forced the Crimean government to acknowledge Kiev’s control.

Nonetheless, one of the best organized political parties inCrimea is the Communist Party of Crimea which continues to agitatefor the restoration of the Soviet Union. Its views also findsupport among ethnic Russians in the region, but not among theUkrainians or the Crimean Tatars.

Increasingly pressed by Russians who oppose their return, andby Ukrainians who seem more concerned with holding on to theterritory than providing rights and protections to the CrimeanTatar minority, the Crimean Tatars themselves increasingly arebeing pushed into forming their own self-defense units. Thesewere responsible for at least some of the clashes last week; and, while illegal under Ukrainian law, they are unlikely to disappear given the weakness of the local authorities andKiev’s inability to protect the Crimean Tatars from ethnic Russiansand criminal groups. When local Russians said they were goingto set up Crimean Cossack formations, the Tatars said that theywould form traditional Crimean Tatar "asker"(fighter) units to oppose them. Some of these units protectlocal Crimean Tatars; others have been involved in fightingalongside Dzhokhar Dudayev’s forces in Chechnya, an involvement which has cost the Crimean Tatars what little sympathy theymay have had from Russians in the region.

Stateless and Homeless

As a result of this, the Crimean Tatars find themselves in anincreasingly difficult situation. When they were deported, theylost their Soviet passports and regained them only much later;but when the Soviet Union collapsed, these passports did notdo them much good. The Central Asian countries where most ofthe Crimean Tatars still lived in 1991 adopted the "zerooption" on citizenship: anyone living on their territorieswho declared himself to be a citizen of the country was given citizenship; anyone who didn’t was left stateless. Becausethey hoped to return to Crimea, the Crimean Tatars did not claimcitizenship in Central Asia.

But upon arrival in Crimea, they faced the difficult task ofacquiring Ukrainian citizenship. While some 60,000 of the 240,000Crimean Tatars have been able to do so, most have not and thuscould not vote in the June 25 local elections around which theclashes took place. Because so many could not participate, the leadership of the Crimean Tatar community decided that no Crimean Tatar would vote, thus limiting their influence stillfurther. (The region’s 50,000 Bulgarians, Armenians, Greeks,and Germans, all of whom were also deported in 1944, face similarproblems.)

In addition to being stateless, many Crimean Tatars arehomeless as well. At the beginning of June 1995, more than 9,000Crimean Tatar families were on the waiting list for housing,and some 21,000 others had tried but failed to build their ownhousing in the region. The Ukrainian government has offeredto help, but has little money. And on June 19, President Leonid Kuchma told Crimean Tatars that he would do all he could toobtain international aid for them. But even if such aid is forthcoming,the Crimean Tatars are going to be in a difficult position fora long time to come, one that they may seek to resolve throughviolence, particularly if the weak local government bodies cannotdefend them against the rising power of the mafia. In that event, the clashes of last weekend could be only a prelude to muchworse fighting in the future, fighting which could draw in notonly Russia and Ukraine, but other countries as well.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.