The key to Crimea:

The au­ton­omy of the in­dige­nous peo­ple of Crimea in the frame­work of Ukraine's ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Ihor Lo­sev

The events around the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea brought the prob­lems of the Crimean Tatars to the fore for the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment, which had, un­til then, treated it as a mar­ginal is­sue. This was in­evitable, as re­turn­ing Crimea to Ukraine will be im­pos­si­ble un­less this prob­lem is set­tled and the sta­tus of Crimean Tatars as an in­dige­nous peo­ple of both Ukraine in gen­eral and the Crimean penin­sula in par­tic­u­lar is es­tab­lished.

The restora­tion of Crimea’s au­ton­omy in 1991 did lit­tle to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion of the Crimean Tatars, as the au­ton­omy was a purely soviet con­struct that had also been ap­plied prior to 1944. Its pur­pose was three­fold: firstly, to save the Soviet Union, ac­cord­ing to Mikhail Gor­bachev’s plan, by putting au­tonomous re­publics and oblasts in con­flict with the cen­ters of soviet re­publics; se­condly, to let the Crimean Tatars, who had be­gun re­turn­ing to their home­land, know that the penin­sula was al­ready au­tonomous but it was not theirs, which meant that Crimeans on their own soil would be name­less no­bod­ies; thirdly, to es­tab­lish a nev­erend­ing source of prob­lems for Ukraine in the shape of an oa­sis of sep­a­ratism, ukrain­o­pho­bia and proRus­sian po­lit­i­cal grav­ity. In ad­di­tion, the sta­tus of the penin­sula as Rus­sia’s “un­sink­able air­craft car­rier” was main­tained with its pow­er­ful mil­i­tary base in Crimea. And so, over 22 years, Crimea was to a large ex­tent a Rus­sian na­tional au­ton­omy that barely tol­er­ated the na­tional and cul­tural rights of Crimean Tatars and Ukraini­ans.

A POL­ICY OF NE­GLECT

Even though Crimean Tatars main­tained a proUkraine po­si­tion ever since the coun­try be­came in­de­pen­dent, of­fi­cial Kyiv tended to play up to the lo­cal pro-Rus­sian el­e­ment. Typ­i­cally, this was ex­plained as a de­sire to be bal­anced, wise and far­sighted. How­ever, 2014 demon­strated for all to see just what these qual­i­ties were worth. The catas­tro­phe that brought “Rus­sian Spring” forced those in power in Kyiv to change this coun­ter­pro­duc­tive pol­icy of ne­glect to­wards the Crimean Tatar peo­ple to some­thing a bit more ap­pro­pri­ate—at least ver­bally.

One sym­bol of this worth­less pol­icy was what hap­pened with the Ukrainian Coast Guard bri­gade sta­tioned in the Crimean vil­lage of Perevalne. When Rus­sia’s “lit­tle green men” and lo­cal col­lab­o­ra­tors be­gan to block their base, it was Crimean Tatars who be­gan to bring the iso­lated Ukrainian ser­vice­men food and wa­ter.

Nev­er­the­less, changes in of­fi­cial pol­icy in this area ran up against the ef­fec­tive­ness of Rus­sian tataro­pho­bic pro­pa­ganda, which vic­tim­ized not only Crimean Rus­sians but also many Ukraini­ans liv­ing on both the penin­sula and the main­land. Not long ago, in an in­ter­view on Chan­nel 112, Ukrainian his­to­rian and blog­ger An­driy Plakhonin noted that, while Crimean Tatars were our co-trav­el­ers now, there would come a time when they, too, will want their own in­de­pen­dent state. Such no­tions have been heard around Crimea for many years from of­fi­cers in the SBU, Ukraine’s se­cu­rity agency: “Well, we’ll even­tu­ally come to an un­der­stand­ing with the Rus­sians, but with the Tatars it will be a prob­lem.” Those same SBU of­fi­cers in­deed came to an “un­der­stand­ing” with the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion: to­day, they are of­fi­cers of the FSB.

Yet there re­ally is a prob­lem and even some Ukrainian pa­tri­ots on the penin­sula are wor­ried about the re­birth of a Crimean Tatar na­tion. A friend from Sev­astopol said over the phone, “Won’t I also face dis­crim­i­na­tion if there’s a Tatar au­ton­omy in Crimea?” He seemed to have for­got­ten that he has been and still is ac­tu­ally dis­crim­i­nated with­out even any Tatar au­ton­omy, as a Ukrainian speaker and man of the Ukrainian cul­ture...

BE­TWEEN PHO­BIAS AND GEN­UINE NEEDS

To­day, the Crimean Tatar com­mu­nity con­sid­ers the for­ma­tion of a na­tional au­ton­omy within Ukraine as their “best case” sce­nario. And this most cer­tainly does not in­clude the idea of some kind of Tatar eth­noc­racy on the penin­sula. As one of the Me­jlis lead­ers, Esk­ender Bariev, stated, “There’s no need for this au­ton­omy to be called Tatar.” What was im­por­tant, he pointed out, was that the in­ter­ests and rights of the Crimean Tatars as an in­dige­nous peo­ple of Crimea be re­spected and pro­tected: the right to de­velop on their own soil, free­dom of re­li­gion, the preser­va­tion of their lan­guage, cul­ture, na­tional iden­tity; fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion of in­dige­nous Crimeans in all lo­cal gov­ern­ment bod­ies and agen­cies. In short, what they want is a guar­an­tee that Crimea’s fate won’t be de­cided be­hind the backs of the in­dige­nous peo­ple, let alone to their detri­ment.

Some top of­fi­cials in Kyiv al­ready un­der­stand this but are afraid that for­mal­iz­ing Crimean Tatar de­mands in law at the na­tional level could se­ri­ously dam­age the chances of the penin­sula be­ing re­turned

OVER 22 YEARS, CRIMEA WAS TO A LARGE EX­TENT A RUS­SIAN NA­TIONAL AU­TON­OMY THAT BARELY TOL­ER­ATED THE NA­TIONAL AND CUL­TURAL RIGHTS OF CRIMEAN TATARS AND UKRAINI­ANS

to Ukraine by scar­ing the lo­cal Slavic pop­u­la­tion with the specter of a harsh Tatar Is­lamic au­toc­racy. Given the to­tal­ity of Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda on the penin­sula, in ad­di­tion to the aver­sion to­wards Crimean Tatars that has been shaped there over decades and the ex­pec­ta­tion of all kinds of hor­rors from them, the dan­ger of this kind of pho­bia is very real. This means that Ukraine’s state in­sti­tu­tions, its press and its com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions need to en­gage in a wide­spread pub­lic aware­ness cam­paign to ex­plain that giv­ing the Crimean Tatars the right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion within a Ukrainian state will not con­sti­tute a threat for the rest of the res­i­dents liv­ing in Crimea, or for their rights and in­ter­ests.

As to hy­po­thet­i­cal wor­ries that a Crimean Tatar in­de­pen­dent state might be de­clared, there def­i­nitely are mar­ginal el­e­ments in­clined that way in the Tatar com­mu­nity. So far, how­ever, it’s not en­tirely clear whether they are toss­ing such ideas around at their own ini­tia­tive or spurred by Moscow. In par­tic­u­lar, there is an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Mil­liy Firqa, which was a Crimean Tatar pa­tri­otic party founded in 1917 and banned in 1921 un­der the sovi­ets. To­day, how­ever, it is led by on Vasvi Ab­du­ray­i­mov who, back in 2008 at the height of the Russo-Ge­or­gian war, wrote an open let­ter to Vladimir Putin beg­ging him to bring the Rus­sian army into Crimea to “pro­tect eth­nic mi­nori­ties from Ukrainian na­tion­al­ists.”

Such pro-Moscow Tatars are morally iso­lated de­tri­tus in the Crimean Tatar com­mu­nity. Turn­coats who were ac­tivists in the Crimean Tatar na­tional move­ment yes­ter­day do not ap­pear to have strength- ened their ranks—in­clud­ing Remzi Iliasov, Rus­lan Bal­bek, Zaur Smirnov, and Crimean Mufti Emi­rali Ablayev. ATR, a Kyiv-based Crimean Tatar chan­nel, shows how, prior to March 2014, all these men praised Mustafa Dzhemilev and Re­fat Chubarov and are now do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to hound and brand them. Un­der Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion, need­less to say, no word about “in­de­pen­dent Crimea” can be heard from their lips.

“CRIMEA WAS TAKEN NOT FROM THE TATARS”

Dur­ing the dra­matic events of the “Rus­sian spring,” the Crimean Tatar lead­ers suf­fered frus­tra­tion and de­spair as they watched Ukrainian troops give in to the in­vaders with­out re­sis­tance. They felt that the post-Maidan gov­ern­ment had thrown them un­der the bus, along with Crimean Ukraini­ans. Now it was clear they could only count on them­selves and try to some­how sur­vive. And so there were some at­tempts to cut deals with the in­vaders about “non-ag­gres­sion” and “peace­ful co­ex­is­tence.”

For this pur­pose, Lenur Is­liamov, the owner of ATR who was a Rus­sian cit­i­zen and lived in Moscow, was brought into the new “Crimean gov­ern­ment.” Here’s how he would later de­scribe his time as “deputy premier of the Crimean Gov­ern­ment:” “I un­der­stood from the first few days that this was all in imi­ta­tion of ‘re­solv­ing the Crimean Tatar ques­tion’ and that they re­ally wanted to de­port us all again from the very be­gin­ning. At one of our ses­sions, I fi­nally blew it and said: ‘What’s go­ing on here? You want to de­port us?!’ The meet­ing was im­me­di­ately brought to a close and I re­al­ized that I had guessed right.”

Is­liamov left this “gov­ern­ment,” and Crimean Tatar lead­ers un­der­stood that there was no pos­si­bil­ity of com­ing to an agree­ment and that the sta­tus of their peo­ple had been much bet­ter un­der the be­nign ne­glect of the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment than it could ever be un­der the Rus­sians. But the po­si­tion of of­fi­cial Kyiv was hardly en­cour­ag­ing, ei­ther. As Is­liamov wrote: “Within two months of com­ing to Kyiv, I un­der­stood that no one cared about us there, ei­ther. They were ready to feel sorry for us, to kiss us, to cheer us, but not to help us... Ukraine thinks al­most the same as the oc­cu­piers: ‘Here’s the cir­cus and the bread—live like the rest of us. What do you have there? May 18 [the Day of Com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Vic­tims of De­por­ta­tion]? Light a few can­dles, say a few prayers down there...’” As far as Is­liamov could see, a gov­ern­ment that so care­lessly gave up Crimea would be just as care­less about the is­sue of de-oc­cu­py­ing and re­turn­ing the penin­sula. Is­liamov’s con­clu­sion: “Crimea was not taken from the Tatars. It was taken away from Ukraini­ans. And Ukraine proved in­ca­pable of pro­tect­ing Crimean Tatars, the un­armed Crimean Tatar peo­ple.” And in­deed, the loss of Crimea was hardly just a prob­lem of the Crimean Tatar peo­ple. It’s a Ukrainian prob­lem that needs to be re­solved based on a proper un­der­stand­ing of this fact.

Three years un­der oc­cu­pa­tion have vis­i­bly and clearly tes­ti­fied that “in­de­pen­dent Crimea” is no utopia. Iron­i­cally, Crimea was the­o­ret­i­cally just that, on pa­per at least, a few days in 2014 prior to be­ing an­nexed to the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion. It turned out that, with­out Ukraine, Crimea is not vi­able eco­nom­i­cally and re­source-wise—even with the help of such a great power as Rus­sia. With­out main­land Ukraine, the lack of potable and in­dus­trial wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and qual­ity food­stuffs, and the in­abil­ity of lo­cals to es­tab­lish nor­mal eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity have en­sured stag­na­tion, degra­da­tion and few prospects for de­vel­op­ment.

In ad­di­tion to this, the en­tire Crimean Tatar peo­ple lived through a na­tional shock from Rus­sia’s in­va­sion in spring 2014. It turned out that the tiny 300,000-strong na­tion had a hard time hold­ing its own in a con­fronta­tion with a world power. They came to the re­al­iza­tion that dan­ger could ap­pear at any mo­ment and that the only guar­an­tee was in a strong Ukrainian state. Thou­sands of Crimean Tatars un­der­stood that a strong Ukraine was their busi­ness and their main hope, that Ukraine had to be strength­ened in every way pos­si­ble and built up as their own, not a for­eign, coun­try. That they had to, in fact, Ukraine was where they needed to seek and carve out a wor­thy place for their peo­ple.

Mean­while, Ukrainian ac­tivists also saw that, un­less the Crimean Tatar ques­tion was re­solved eq­ui­tably, it was highly un­likely that Ukraine’s ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity would ever be re­stored. In­deed, when Ukraine stands up be­fore the world com­mu­nity as the le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the in­ter­ests and rights of the in­dige­nous Crimean peo­ple, its po­si­tion be­comes stronger and this of­fers prom­ise.

It would be naive not to see that these is­sues are well un­der­stood in the Krem­lin as well. So it was no co­in­ci­dence that Putin tried to cut a deal with Mustafa Dzhemilev in 2014—and failed. At that point, Moscow’s rhetoric of prom­ises switched to us­ing the whip against Crimean Tatars who sup­ported Ukraine, con­sci­en­tiously or not, and to pay­ing off those who were in­clined to col­lab­o­rate. At the same time, it be­gan at­tempts to es­tab­lish “Crimean Tatar” pseudo-or­ga­ni­za­tions such as a par­al­lel Me­jlis, a pup­pet “spir­i­tual lead­er­ship of Crimean Mus­lims,” the Mil­let chan­nel to counter ATR, and other en­ti­ties with the help of a hand­ful of lo­cal quis­lings—ef­forts that con­tinue to this day.

Moscow has been some­what helped by the pres­ence among the Crimean Tatar elite of in­di­vid­u­als that are known as sleep­ers in the lan­guage of con­spir­acy, al­though their num­ber is very small. Sleep­ers are deeply imbed­ded agents who may not re­veal them­selves for many years, sit­ting qui­etly and pre­sent­ing po­si­tions that are at­trac­tive to those around them, but, when a right time comes, they be­gin to fol­low or­ders.

THOU­SANDS OF CRIMEAN TATARS HAVE UN­DER­STOOD THAT A STRONG UKRAINE WAS THEIR BUSI­NESS AND THEIR MAIN HOPE, THAT UKRAINE HAD TO BE STRENGTH­ENED IN EVERY WAY POS­SI­BLE AND BUILT UP AS THEIR OWN, NOT A FOR­EIGN, COUN­TRY

THE AU­TON­OMY THAT IS RE­ALLY NEEDED

The Krem­lin is also be­ing helped some­what by the de­mor­al­iz­ing im­pact of Kyiv on the Crimean Tatar com­mu­nity. Ukraine’s murky of­fi­cial pol­icy to­wards the Rus­sia’s ag­gres­sions, the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries and the need to re­turn these lands to Ukraine has led to enor­mous dis­il­lu­sion­ment on the part of Crimean Tatars. Frus­tra­tion with the un­prin­ci­pled and ster­ile po­si­tion of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment is wide­spread among Ukraini­ans as well, but in the aware­ness of Crimean Tatars, it is cloaked in an eth­nic as­pect as well: it’s hard for them to imag­ine that a pop­u­lous na­tion like the Ukraini­ans can­not man­age to find a few hun­dred suit­able and fully func­tion­ing lead­ers in its ranks. Pub­licly, the Crimean Tatar lead­ers have been im­pec­ca­bly tact­ful and have not ad­dressed any harsh crit­i­cisms to­wards the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment.

No mat­ter what, the door to Crimea only opens with the Crimean Tatar key, so ev­ery­thing must be done to meet this peo­ple half­way. This means that some form of Crimean Tatar au­ton­omy is in­evitable and it’s only a mat­ter of what form that will be. It could pos­si­bly be a clas­sic soviet and post-soviet na­tional au­ton­omy. Or it could be a can­ton-like set up along the lines of Switzer­land, with Crimean Tatar, Ukrainian and Rus­sian coun­ties sep­a­rated, an op­tion that has al­ready been raised among Ukrainian ex­perts. In fact, un­der the sovi­ets this ap­proach of eth­ni­cally-based coun­ties ap­plied in Crimea dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s. Or it could be the Ty­rol model, which deals with Ger­man-speak­ing and Ital­ian com­mu­ni­ties in the Ital­ian Ty­rol, a model that im­pressed Re­fat Chubarov enor­mously when he vis­ited Italy.

Of course, these prob­lems will have to be tack­led and re­solve. Af­ter 2014, main­tain­ing a de facto Rus­sian eth­nic au­ton­omy in Crimea will be both im­pos­si­ble and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

No­ticed at last. Ral­lies in sol­i­dar­ity with Crimean Tatars take place in Kyiv af­ter the Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea

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