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