Staunton, April 8 – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s promise to secure the full rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars, a promise made to obscure Russian aggression and to try to attract the support of some in that nation for his occupation of their homeland, is echoing not only among the larger and more organized of the punished peoples but among others as well.
The world knows the tragic story of Nazi oppression of ethnic minorities in Crimea and of Soviet deportation of more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars, 70,000 Greeks, and 14,000 Bulgarians to Central Asia. What is less widely known is that Stalin deported the small Roma community from that peninsula as well.
Some 800 Roma were executed during the German occupation, but that did not wipe out the entire community, especially because most of the Roma in Crimea at that time were Muslims and shared much of the culture of the Crimean Tatars. Indeed, Soviet sources lumped them together in a single category most of the time.
But the Roma of Crimea like Roma elsewhere are proud of their national heritage, and Putin’s comments have given them the opportunity to speak out. Yesterday, Nadezhda Demeter, the head of the Federation of National Cultural Autonomies of the Roma in the Russian Federation, said she would raise the issue of the rehabilitation of the Crimean Roma.
She made her remarks at a conference that was evaluating the Russian government’s Plan for the Socio-Cultural Economic and Ethno-Cultural Development of the Roma for 2013-2014.
Demeter said she was “surprised” that despite all the discussion about “the rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars who had been deported,” no one had “raised the question about the rehabilitation of the Crimean Roma” who were deported to Central Asia at the same time and on the same trains.
She said she had read the memoirs of some of the Roma deported in 1944 who recalled that “in the first train car, the Roma were put, in the second, the Tatar, and so on.”
Responding to Demeter’s remarks, Nato Trotsenko, the head of the ethno-cultural analysis and development of the Department of State Policy on Inter-Ethnic Relations of the Russian Ministry for Regional Affairs, suggested that she raise the issue at an upcoming meeting of the Russian Presidential Council of Inter-Ethnic Relations.
According to the Roma leader in the Russian Federation, Russia’s Roma “completely support” Putin’s policies in Crime because, according to her, conditions for the Roma in Ukraine have been difficult and many Roman “want to come to Russia.” Another participant in the meeting spoke about a possible “genocide of the Roma” there.
Almost certainly, the Moscow authorities are counting on this small group to muddy the waters of Western discussions of Crimea, especially since the Crimean Tatars are almost unanimously against the Russian annexation of that Ukrainian peninsula. But there are three reasons why things may not work out the way Russian officials hope.
First, by raising the Roma issue, something Russian officials have been reluctant to do, Moscow has opened the way to a broader discussion of the mistreatment of Roma in Russia by well-organized Roma and human rights groups in Europe. Demeter’s statement is likely to be read by them very differently than Moscow expects it to be.
Second, many ethnic Russians are likely to be furious if one of the consequences of the Russian annexation of Crimea is an influx, however small, of Muslim Roma into Russian cities. Relations between Russians and Roma have never been good, but the victimization of Roma has seldom been a major focus of Western attention. This could change that.
And third, Putin’s words have already encouraged Russian Germans to talk about the restoration of their national republic inside the Russian Federation and other groups to gain rehabilitation, including the return of their historic lands. The Roma claim will only add fuel to that fire, one that even the Kremlin leader will find it hard to put out.