Staunton, March 25 – Not only have the Crimean Tatars become “the main problem for Russia” on the peninsula, Aleksey Makarkin says, because of their opposition to unification with Russia, but they represent an issue that won’t be resolved any time soon and thus are something that “will create ever more problems” in the future.
Makarkin, first vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies and a frequent commentator on developments in the region, says that this situation should not surprise anyone given that “a large part of the Crimean Tatar community sees Russia as a threat” because of that community’s “tragic history”.
In 1944, Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars for supposed collaboration with the Germans, a process in which between a quarter and a half of all of them died, and suppressed the Crimean Tatar Autonomous Republic. Under Khrushchev, Crimea was transferred to Ukraine but the Crimean Tatars “unlike the majority of ‘repressed peoples’ did not get permission to return to their motherland.”
That decision apparently reflected less a judgement about their supposed “guilt” than concerns about “the strategic and political importance of Crimea in which there were both resorts of all-union importance and a base for the Black Sea Fleet,” Makarkin says. But it sparked a national movement, led by Mustafa Cemilev, which demanded the right of return.
In 1974, the Brezhnev government “formally lifted the ban” on the right of Crimean Tatars to live in Crimea, but the Communist authorities using the propiska system and other means did everything they could to block the return of the Crimean Tatars from their exile in Central Asia.
As Makarkin notes, “the massive return” of members of this nation “took place only in 1989.” By the 2001 Ukrainian census, there were 243,433 Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Now, there are an estimated 300,000, although there are nearly an equal number still living in their places of exile.
On their return, the Crimean Tatars set up their own system of self-adminsitration, although it was not recognized by the Ukrainian government. They created a parliament or Kurultay which has had as its executive organ the Mejlis, a body which in Makarkin’s words “considers itself a forerunner of a government structure.”
In addition, the returning Crimean Tatars came into conflict with the local ethnic Russians who had moved in and seized Crimean Tatar lands after the deportation. Efforts by the Crimean Tatars to recover them, including occupying some plots, sparked fights with Russians who felt that they had a right to the land.
The Ukrainian authorities did not help the situation. On the one hand, they did not extend the right of automatic Ukrainian citizenship to Crimean Tatars who were not on Ukrainian territory on the day of zero-option. And on the other, over two decades, Kyiv wasn’t able to adopt a law on the rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars.
Only on March 20, five days ago, when Russia had already occupied Crimea and the writ of Ukraine did not de facto extend to the peninsula, did the Ukrainian parliament recognize the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of Ukraine and the Mejlis and Kurultay as the plenipotentiary organs of power for that community.
It is not the case, however, that Kyiv did nothing earlier, Makarkin points out. In the mid-1990s, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma created a Council of Representatives of the Crimean Tatar People, to advise him. Its members were drawn from the Mejlis and included until November 2013 Cemilev, and since that time Refat Chubarov.
Cemilev, as Makarkin notes, “historically was closely connected with the Ukrainian national movement.” Not surprisingly, the Mejlis supported the Orange Revolution of 2004, but that event led to a split in the Crimean Tatar movement, a split that continues to this day and may play a major role while Crimea is under Russian control.
In 2006, a group of Crimean Tatars re-established the the Milli Firka party. Unlike the Mejlis, it quickly gained official recognition in Kyiv, although it did not receive much support from Crimean Tatars. Nonetheless, in 2010, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich made its representatives rather than those of the Mejlis the members of the consultative council.
The Mejlis responded by boycotting the council, something that exacerbated divisions among the Crimean Tatars, Makarkin says. One manifestation of this was the support the Mejlis gave in February 2014 to the Maidan opponents of Yanukovich, and another was the Mejlis’ increasing clashes with the ethnic Russian government in Crimea itself.
That government did not include a single Crimean Tatar. One vice prime minister, whom the authorities suggested was a Crimean Tatar, Rustam Temirgaliyev, is in fact a Kazan Tatar and the son of the leader of the Idel Association of Volga Tatars. That reinforced the conclusion of most Crimean Tatars that their future must be part of Ukraine, not of Russia.
In an attempt to counter that, the Russian government of the peninsula on March 11 promised the Crimean Tatars 20 percent of the positions in all legislative and executive organs, declared the Crimean Tatar would be one of the three official languages of the peninsula, created a new program for repatriation, and even recognized the Kurultay as a representative body.
This de facto recognition of the Kurultay and the Mejlis meant, Makarkin says, that “the Russian authorities intend to develop relations with the majority part of the Crimean Tatar community despite the fact that the latter is anything but an easy partner.” Indeed, that section of the Crimean Tatars is clearly opposed to Russian rule.
That has led to discussions, in public and perhaps behind the scenes, of the possibility that Moscow and Sevastopol will shift their focus to the “minority” or Milli Firka part of the Crimean Tatars, especially since one of its leaders, unlike the heads of the Mejlis, called on Crimean Tatars to take part in the Russian-imposed “referendum.”
The problem with the second variant is the Mejlis retains the loyalty of most Crimean Tatars and the size of the Milli Firka means that it will be very difficult for Moscow and Sevastpol to find enough cadres from within it to fill all the positions that it would have to in order to live up to its promises.
Both Kazan and the Kremlin got involved and tried to convince Cemilev to switch sides, most famously in the telephone call between Vladimir Putin and the Crimean Tatar national leader. But Cemilev held firm in his commitment to Ukraine and the talks “led to nothing,” Makarkin says.
Instead, Cemilev reached out to Turkey and the West and maintained his opposition to the so-called referendum. According to his Milli Firka opponents, some 40 percent of Crimean Tatars voted in the referendum with a quarter of them supporting integration with Russia. But according to Cemilev, “not even one percent” of the Crimean Tatars did so.
The truth, the Moscow commentator suggests, is probably somewhere in between, but it is obvious that the Crimean Tatars do not overwhelmingly support the inclusion of Crimea into the Russian Federation as Moscow has claimed. Moreover, a demand that the Crimean Tatars take Russian passports or become migrants on their own land hasn’t helped Russia either.
This Saturday, March 29, the Kurultay is slated to discuss what the majority of Crimean Tatars should do next. One possibility is that it will call for a referendum among the Crimean Tatars, although how the Russian authorities would react to that is very much an open question, Makarkin says.
In the view of the Moscow commentator, “the Mejlis does not intend to enter into a head’s on conflict with the Russian authorities because it understands that this could lead to tragic consequences.” Cemilev has said that he “does not exclude” the possibility that the Crimean Tatars could take Russian passports, “although he has compared them with the Nazi-required ‘Ausweis,” something that will infuriate many in Moscow.
But whatever happens on Saturday, there are more problems ahead for Moscow with the Crimean Tatars, and these are not limited to political, historical or land issues. One of them that is obvious: the Crimean Tatars use Latin script for their language, something which Russian law prohibits.
Moreover and probably more explosive, Russian laws which are being extend to Crimea include a prohibition on any calls for “’the violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation,’” an offense Crimean Tatars could be charged with if they suggest in public that Crimea is and should remain part of Ukraine.
And finally, Makarkin says, Russia faces a difficult balancing act because if it makes too many concessions to the Crimean Tatars to encourage their loyalty to Moscow, that will only enrage local ethnic Russians who don’t think the opponents of the Anschlus should be in any way rewarded.
Consequently, the Moscow analyst says, “the Crimean Tatar issue is hardly going to be resolved in the near term. On the contrary and more likely, it is going to give birth to ever new problems” that will complicate the Russian government’s life in the peninsula and perhaps more broadly.