What next for the Crimean Tatars?

Crimean Tatar leaders are vehemently against a return to Russian rule. But why, when so often they have been at odds with the Ukrainian Government?

Mansur Mirovalev
11 April 2014


Sitting at a low table in a little restaurant in Bakhchisaray, the old Crimean Tatar capital, Said explained to me why his people don’t want to be part of Russia: ‘We know what’s been happening to Muslims in the Caucasus and the Volga region, and we don’t want the same thing to happen to us.’

Said, who is still in his twenties, wears a short, neat beard and the black skull cap of a devout Muslim, and represents a small but very active tendency within the Crimean Tatar population. A graduate of a major Crimean university, he is also a member of the Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, which is banned as a terrorist organisation in both Russia and most Western countries. Its stated aim is to re-establish an Islamic Caliphate by peaceful means, by preaching and example, but according to human rights organisations, young activists like Said are targets of the Russian military and security forces in the Caucasus and other Russian regions.

A hijabi woman stares out of a shop window.

Exiled to Uzbekistan for alleged collaboration, Crimean Tatars only returned to Crimea in the last 25 years. Via Fergana NewsAnd in the last couple of years a few young Crimean Tatars have been identified in the ranks of the opposition forces fighting in Syria, which is unlikely to endear them to Russia’s anti-terrorism warriors. 

The Tatars and Russia

There is a Crimean Tatar saying: ‘If your neighbour is a Russian, keep an axe handy.’  Tatar hostility to Russia goes back hundreds of years, and recent events have done nothing to change that.

Seventy years ago almost 200,000 Tatars were deported from Crimea to Central Asia, mostly Uzbekistan: the collaboration of Crimean Tatar religious and political leaders with Hitler during the German occupation of Crimea provided the Soviets with a pretext for accusing the whole Crimean Tatar population of being Nazi collaborators. They adapted and survived – became integrated in local life, went to university and became scientists and entertainers, although their sensitivity to slights from the locals about ‘traitors’ earned them a reputation for getting into punch-ups.  

The fear of another deportation is perhaps the strongest reason for the Tatars’ rejection of the idea of unification with Russia. In March, some began to leave of their own accord, some to western Ukraine, some to Turkey, and their numbers have already reached the thousands.   

The fear of another deportation is perhaps the strongest reason for the Tatars’ rejection of the idea of unification with Russia.

On 1 April Vladimir Putin, at a meeting with Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov, promised to solve the problems of the Crimean Tatars. Responding to Minnikhanov’s request to include the Tatars in the list of peoples to be officially rehabilitated after unjust accusation and repression under Stalin, Putin announced that he would legalise the Tatar resettlement of Crimea and create an infrastructure development project.

These conciliatory gestures do not, however, lie well with the presence of the ‘little green men’, as Crimeans have christened the Russian military in their green uniforms without insignia, and their vehicles with Russian number plates on the streets and roads of Crimea.

The land question

Discrimination is one of the key words in any discussion of the return of the Tatars to Crimea in 1989, as the Soviet Union began to collapse. Many of them claim that the Crimean authorities, dominated by ethnic Russians, followed a tacit policy of keeping Tatars out of senior political and administrative positions, to avoid their participation in government and a potential secession from Ukraine. So Tatars, who now make up just about 15% of the Crimean population, feel like second class citizens in their own historic homeland, limited to working in agriculture and business.

Tatars feel like second class citizens in their own historic homeland

Land is another sore point in relations between Slavs and Tatars. Refused the right to return to the lands held by their deported fathers and grandfathers, they bought other parcels of land or simply squatted illegally. The Crimean authorities readily recognised their right to this squatted land, but their Slavic neighbours were less happy. Crimean lawyers make most of their money from helping Tatars register their legal ownership of the land they are occupying, and the situation has spawned a new type of illegal business, where Tatars register pieces of prime land in their won names and then sell them on to the highest bidder. So the new Crimean government’s plan to review property rights regulations is seen by Tatars as an implicit threat.

Support from Turkey

Turkey, with its linguistic, cultural and historic links to Crimea, is the Tatars’ closest ally in the international arena. Before it was annexed by Russia in 1783, the Crimean Khanate was for over three centuries a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, and a privileged one at that, since the Crimean Tatar cavalry, renowned for their archery skills, were an elite force within the Ottoman army. The Crimean Giray dynasty was also the reserve pool of candidates for the Imperial Throne, since newly chosen Sultans would have their brothers and half-brothers murdered to avoid any threat to their rule, which led to a risk of the dynasty dying out.

Two Muslim Tatars praying at mosque.

Devout Tatars fear absorption into the Russian Federation, which is deeply suspicious of political Islam. via Fergana NewsToday Ankara, seeing itself as the centre of the Turkic world, is loud in its support of Turkic peoples, who are mostly concentrated in former Soviet states, and at the beginning of March the Crimean Tatars announced that Turkey was ready to give political asylum to an unlimited number of them.

The return from Asia

I grew up near a Crimean Tatar settlement outside Tashkent, and found the people there exceptionally friendly and hard working, even in comparison with Uzbeks, who are known for their ceaseless toil on their land and endless rebuilding and extension of their houses.

At the age of 14, one of my schoolmates spent six months rearing a lamb to raise money to buy a motorcycle, but when the call came to go home to Crimea he meekly handed over his cash to his parents. The Crimean Tatars sold their homes at the peak of Soviet prices – for tens and hundreds of thousands of roubles – and within a few years had upped sticks, gone, disappeared for good – after the breakup of the USSR postal and telephone services more or less collapsed.

Later there was an ugly rumour that their hasty departure was also dictated by an unspoken threat of ethnic cleansing: the nationalist element of the Uzbek leadership, already prepared for independence from Moscow, was reportedly talking about the need to put the screws on one or other ethnic minority, to encourage the others to leave. The group chosen was supposedly to be either the Tatars or the Koreans, but both of these Diasporas were strong and solid, and in the end it was the Meskhetian Turks of the Fergana valley who were picked on, with hundreds dead or injured in clashes with Uzbek extremists in 1989.

It is often forgotten that it was not just the Tatars who were exiled to Central Asia by Stalin in the 1940s: Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians, all groups who had lived on the peninsula since ancient times, were also accused of collaboration with the Nazis and suffered the same fate. And, unlike the Tatars, these communities never returned.

It wasn’t just the Tatars who were exiled to Central Asia by Stalin in the 1940s: Crimean Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians were as well.

To repopulate this southernmost and most strategic area of the USSR, Moscow sent Slav settlers, mostly Russian but some Ukrainian, whose loyalty to the Soviet Union was not in question. The waters between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean were in any case blockaded by Turkey, a member of NATO, and the last thing Moscow needed was Crimean Tatars hanging around the Soviet navy’s Black Sea Fleet’s base at Sevastopol. 

The importance of geography

‘What’s the most important thing for Yalta? Keeping the tourists coming,’ said a young Russian or Ukrainian woman to her friend as they walked into the town centre, where in the middle of March pro-Russian activists and politicians had occupied a small square and were burning the red and black ‘Bandera’ flags associated with Ukrainian right wing nationalists and yelling about their unity with Russia into a microphone.

An older Tatar man in front of a mosque.

Older Tatars, born in exile after the deportations, fear that history will repeat itself. via Fergana NewsBut the young woman hit it on the nail. It’s the grey economy centred on the tourist trade, on top of government subsidies, that keeps Crimeans fed, and if the stream of visitors dries up it will hit everyone hard. The Tatars are not particularly involved with the tourism business – the most attractive stretches of coast were dished out and divided up in their absence – but Tatar farmers do depend directly on visitors’ stomachs for their livelihood.

Crimea has an area of just around 30,000 square kilometres, but in terms of geographic diversity this small peninsula resembles a mini-continent. It has the sea, a subtropical southern coast, fertile valleys, a steppe zone and mountains up to 1500 metres in height – a magnet for the Soviet, Russian and Ukrainian filmmakers who have used its varied landscapes as stand-ins for the Wild West, Africa and California among other locations.

Filmmakers used Crimea’s varied landscapes as stand-ins for the Wild West, Africa and California.

But if Crimea has been lucky with its geography, it’s been less fortunate with its resources. Most of its water comes at present from mainland Ukraine (along the Dnieper), as do its gas and electricity supplies, despite the Black Sea continental shelf with its rich gas fields, on which Gazprom now has its eye.

So Kyiv has the capability to impose an economic blockade on Crimea, and even the prospect of a bridge, back on the agenda after a 20 year gap, as well as gas and water pipelines across the five kilometre-wide Kerch Strait to link the peninsula’s eastern edge directly to Russia is unlikely to solve Crimea’s resource problems.

Back in Russia

Just a few days after the arrival of the first courteous ‘little green men’, Tatars started organising their own volunteer community defence squads. Young lads downloaded apps to their smartphones, giving them constant radio contact and allowing dozens of people to share information about suspicious cars and people. They avoided confrontation, however, simply forcing vehicles to turn round by forming human barriers across roads.

‘I don’t know how we’ll live’, sighs an elderly Tatar as he lists his grievances at the new order: prices of food and petrol have risen, cash machines won’t issue more than 500 or 1000 hryvnia (£25-£50), the tourist season likely to be ruined. Older Tatars are panicking, afraid they might be deported again - ‘How are we going to live in this Russia?’

On 29 March a Crimean Tatar Kurultai (national assembly) approved a resolution to press for self-determination and national territorial autonomy in Crimea – but a Crimea that is now part of Russia.      

A longer version of this article appeared in Russian on Fergana News

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