Mustafa Jemilev, leader of the Majlis, or Crimean Tatar parliament, warned yesterday that the Tatars may obstruct Ukraine’s upcoming election if measures are not adopted to allow the Tatars to vote. (ORT, March 11) Elections to the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada and Crimea’s Supreme Soviet are due to be held on March 29. The Tatars’ main complaint is that, of the 167,485 Crimean Tatars aged over 18 who are currently resident in Crimea, only 97,000 (58 percent) have managed to qualify for Ukrainian citizenship — and the right to vote.
The Tatars were deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944. Most were sent to Uzbekistan. They were allowed to return only in 1990. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, it offered automatic citizenship to all those legally resident in the country at the time, provided only that they were not citizens of another state. Crimean Tatars who returned to Crimea after 1991 had to go through the more cumbersome method of naturalization. This might not have been an insuperable barrier were it not that Ukrainian law outlaws dual citizenship. To qualify for naturalization, Tatars had to prove they were not citizens of their country of previous residence. The government of Uzbekistan has so far declined to make it cheap or easy for the descendants of Tatar deportees to obtain such documentation. At the same time, the Ukrainian parliament has dragged its feet on a proposed amendment to Ukraine’s citizenship law that would exempt Tatar returnees from having to produce it. (Forced Migration Alert, June 2, 1997; US Department of State, Ukraine Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997, January 30, 1998)
The Tatars have organized a series of protest demonstrations in Simferopol, most recently on March 10. Participants in those demonstrations also demanded the return of property confiscated during the deportation, a quota for their representation in the Crimean parliament, and official recognition of the Majlis. Oleksandr Moroz, Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament promised Tatar leaders on March 10 that the Verkhovna Rada will debate a relaxation of citizenship requirements for Crimean Tatars on March 24. (UNIAN, NTV, March 10)
Even if the Verkhovna Rada decides in the Tatars’ favor on March 24, it is hard to see how changes can be implemented quickly enough to allow the 50 percent presently without citizenship to vote on March 29. Jemilev is leaving nothing to chance: He said the Tatars will hold another demonstration in Simferopol on March 24 and that, if their demands are not met, they may go on to blockade the railway and airport. (ORT, March 11) Jemilev, who has led his people with single-minded dedication from exile back to their homeland, remains a force for moderation within the Tatar leadership. He is walking on a knife-edge, however. There is a growing danger that younger and more radical Tatars will lose patience with the appalling conditions in which many of the returnees are living and try to provoke more violent protests.
Kyiv’s Pullout from Bushehr Boomerangs in Kharkiv.