Some Tatars - Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin - fear a return to
Stalinist repression despite official promises to respect their
rights and freedoms; others say dealing with Russia is the best way
of ensuring their people can flourish.
Less than two months into Moscow rule, tensions are running high
before Sunday's anniversary of the deportations in cattle wagons
which began on May 18, 1944.
"It's either war or compromise. That is the essence of the problem
we face. If we don't adopt a unified approach, we risk splitting
ourselves up and being marginalized," said Nariman Dzhelyalov,
deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars' main
The Tatars, who make up more than 12 percent of Crimea's largely
ethnic Russian population of about 2 million, are among the most
vociferous critics of Moscow's annexation in March of the peninsula
previously governed by Ukraine.
Russia views the annexation as righting an historical injustice,
describing it as "reunification" of a region which Soviet leader
Nikita Khrushchev handed to Ukraine only in 1954.
But the Tatars, whose historical capital of Bakhchisaray lies a
short distance from the modern day regional centre of Simferopol,
remind Moscow they ruled large parts of Crimea for centuries before
Russian Empress Catherine the Great conquered the Black Sea
peninsula in the late 18th century.
Stalin accused the Tatars of sympathizing with Nazi Germany, and
many of the estimated 200,000 deportees died on their way into exile
in Central Asia and eastern Russia. Only in the last years of the
Soviet Union were members of the community able to start returning
to Crimea in the 1980s.
Many Tatars boycotted a referendum on March 16 when local
authorities say 97 percent of those who voted opted to join Russia.
Kiev and the West derided the exercise as illegitimate.
The Tatars have continued to fly the Ukrainian flag at the Mejlis
since the vote, despite a visit by armed pro-Russian "self-defense"
units and threats to close their organization by the region's chief
prosecutor. "We're used to constant struggle. We don't trust the
Russian authorities, and why should we? They have always opposed the
Crimean Tatars," Dzhelyalov said.
The Mejlis' former leader, Soviet-era dissident Mustafa Dzhemilev,
says he is banned from setting foot on Crimean soil.
"GOOD RIDDANCE KIEV"
While the Mejlis is the largest Crimean Tatar organization, some
smaller groups are happy Russia has taken the region under its wing.
One such group, Milli Firka, says Kiev had done little to
rehabilitate the Crimean Tatars in the 23 years since the Soviet
"In less than two months Russia has done far more for the Crimean
Tatars than Ukraine ever did. Only after Crimea became part of
Russia did Kiev even remember that we exist," said Milli Firka's
chairman, Vasvi Abduraimov.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently awarded Abduraimov the
order "For services before the Fatherland," second-class, for
backing the annexation.
Among the reasons Abduraimov cited for his support of Russian
control were the security of knowing that Crimea will be protected
by a "strong, respected power" and a presidential decree making
Crimean Tatar one of three state languages on the peninsula
alongside Russian and Ukrainian.
Milli Firka says the Mejlis is a Western project whose aim is to
integrate the Crimean Tatars into Europe rather than Putin's planned
Eurasian Union of former Soviet states.
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"We believe it's better for us to look east to Eurasia, especially
as the centre of world economic development is gradually shifting to
countries like China and India," Abduraimov said.
the Mejlis and Milli Firka have the same aims - the revival of the
Crimean Tatar people and respect for their right to free speech,
education in their own language, property rights and real
representation in government - but that the two group's methods are
FLYING THE FLAG
Rustam Temirgaliyev, Crimea's deputy prime minister, told Reuters
that Russia now treated the Tatars in an "absolutely open and
democratic manner" and that they had been given ministerial posts in
the latest government.
"Russia guarantees that all rights and freedoms of the Crimean
Tatars will be respected," he said.
The Mejlis says it hopes to receive official permission soon for a
march through central Simferopol to mark Sunday's anniversary, but
that the government is insisting the Tatars don't fly the Ukrainian
flag or criticize the annexation.
After the annual march, the Mejlis typically adopts a resolution on
its demands to the local authorities.
"What are we to say this year? Some want a peacekeeping force
brought in to protect us, while others are more worried about
solving everyday problems like housing," Dzhelyalov said.
On a recent visit to Bakhchisaray, many were reluctant to give their
views, saying they feared persecution for speaking their minds.
A middle-aged man, who would give only his first name, Edem, said:
"There is no understanding of democracy in Russia, whereas in
Ukraine we could defend our interests. The Russians refuse to
recognize that we are the native people here, not them."
Edem said the new authorities were deliberately trying to split the
Tatar community from within: "Now people have started asking me
whether I'm for Dzhemilev, the current leader of the Mejlis or some
Standing outside a mosque in Simferopol, pensioner Akim said the
uncertainty of not knowing how life would be under their new rulers
was tormenting Tatars most.
Akim said life was hardly easy under Ukraine. "For 20 years they
failed to build a school or install drainage systems in our
district. It's because this is known as a Tatar district," he said,
also asking that his last name not be published.
"But our relations with the Russians are worse. We know perfectly
well who deported our families in cattle wagons and don't know how
it will turn out this time."
(Editing by Timothy Heritage and David Stamp)
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