Russian will not become an official language; Ukraine will not be federalized; the state will protect Crimea’s indigenous Muslim population — Crimean Tatars — but illegal land grabs made in their name will not be tolerated. These were the messages that Viktor Yanukovych brought to Crimea on his first visit there after his appointment as Ukrainian prime minister early this month. Yanukovych also sided with Crimean Tatars in a land dispute that resulted in violent clashes among radical Slavs and Tatar activists over a market built on the site of an ancient Tatar cemetery. This may be the end of close cooperation among the local radical anti-West, and anti-Tatar forces in Crimea and Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (PRU), which strives to become a force respected across Ukraine and abroad.
Crimea voted overwhelmingly for the PRU in the Ukrainian parliamentary poll and PRU’s satellites in the local election in March 2006, as the local dominant ethnic Russian population embraced their calls for raising the status of the Russian language, federalization of Ukraine, and opposition to entry into NATO. Coming to Crimea as prime minister in August, however, Yanukovych made it clear that now he sees things differently.
Hardly by coincidence, ahead of Yanukovych’s visit a local court outlawed the decision by the council of the Crimean town of Feodosiya to proclaim the town a NATO-free area. That decision dated back to the anti-American and anti-NATO protests in Crimea in May-June 2006, which the then-opposition PRU supported.
Addressing journalists in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, on August 11, Yanukovych said it would be hardly possible to make Russian a second state language, as this would require either a referendum or constitutional amendments. Neither is possible now, he said. Yanukovych dismissed calls to make Ukraine a federal state and urged local politicians to forget hostilities between former election rivals. Yanukovych also demanded an end to the practice of land grabs by Crimean Tatars and noted that this is a serious crime. According to Yanukovych, 90% of land plots seized by Crimean Tatars were intended for commercial purposes.
The problem of illegal land seizures by Tatars has persisted for a decade or so. Slav settlers call this phenomenon “land grabs,” but Tatars say they only take back what belonged to them, admitting, however, that it is not always quite legal to do so. Returning to their land in the late 1980s and early 1990s after being exiled by Stalin during World War II, Tatars found their native places renamed, their lands cultivated by new owners, and many of their holy places desecrated. The latter happened also to an ancient cemetery in the old capital of the Crimean khans — Bakhchysaray — which had become a street market. Crimean Tatar demands for the market to be removed have been ignored by local authorities for years.
Several people were injured near the market on July 8, when Crimean Tatars clashed with market vendors. The accident was apparently timed toward Yanukovych’s upcoming arrival in Crimea. Yanukovych, however, backed Tatar demands after meeting with their leader Mustafa Dzhemilev on August 11. He promised to investigate the July 8 clash and to allot funds to build a Crimean Tatar memorial in place of the market, which, he reportedly told Dzhemilev, should be closed down within a month.
Such an outcome was probably not expected by the radical Slav groups. On August 12, a crowd consisting of market vendors, Cossacks, and skinheads clashed with Crimean Tatar protestors near the market. Hundreds of people armed with stones and metal rods took part in the clash, police said. About twenty people, mostly Tatars, were wounded and several cars were overturned. Radical Slavs smashed also the cars of Dzhemilev and Crimean Tatar MP Refat Chubarov. Riot police had to intervene with tear gas and machine-gun bursts in the air.
Later on the same day, Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) head Ihor Drizhchany arrived at the venue, joined by Crimean Prime Minister Viktor Plakida, Crimean parliament deputy speaker Mykhaylo Bakharev, the local police chief, and the Crimean prosecutor. On August 13, Crimean government representatives signed a document with Crimean Tatar leaders, which had been earlier approved by Yanukovych, pledging to close the market down by September 11. Under the agreement, police will patrol the market until then.
The police have opened a criminal case and said that they hold radical Slavs responsible for the August 12 clashes in Bakhchysaray. The local pro-Russian groups have hurried to deny their involvement. Bakharev said that the Russian Community of Crimea, which the media listed among the organizers of the disorders, had nothing to do with that. The Russian Bloc also denied any wrongdoing.
(Interfax-Ukraine, August 11; Krymskiye izvestiya, Obkom.net.ua, August 12, 15; UNIAN, August 13; Den, Kommersant Ukraina, 1+1 TV, August 15)