Who are the Crimean Tatars, and why are they important?

a13-iconOxana Shevel writes: [E]ven if diplomacy fails and the Russian military seizes Crimean territory with the intention of controlling it permanently, it will be much harder for Russia to establish control of Crimea than it was in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria. The main reason for this is the Crimean Tatars. The Tatars — a Muslim group that was deported en masse from Crimea by Stalin in 1944 and that for decades has waged a peaceful struggle for the right to return — have been coming back in droves since 1989. According to the latest Ukrainian census, from 2001, 243,433 Crimean Tatars account for 12.1 percent of the Crimean population of 2,033,700. They represent a highly mobilized and unified constituency that has consistently been pro-Ukrainian and opposed to pro-Russian separatism on the peninsula. Going back to the 1991 independence referendum, the narrow vote in favor of Ukrainian state independence in Crimea may have been thanks to the vote of the Crimean Tatars. Since then, the Crimean Tatars and their representative organ, the Mejlis, have cooperated with the pro-Ukrainian political parties. Leaders of the Mejlis such as Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov have been members of the Ukrainian parliament elected on the party list of Ukrainian nationalist parties such as Rukh in the 1990s and later from Our Ukraine party. On Feb. 26, the day before the Crimean parliament was taken over by the armed men, Crimean Tatars held a large rally near the parliament that was larger than a simultaneous pro-Russian rally. There has been no comparable local mobilized group opposed to Russian takeover in any other of the breakaway regions.

Although the group has been a staunch ally of the Ukrainian government against pro-Russian separatism on the peninsula, the Ukrainian central authorities, while benefiting from this support, have also been suspicious of the Crimean Tatars, who consider Crimea their historical homeland and have advocated measures such as changing the status of Crimean autonomy to make it the national-territorial autonomy of the Crimean Tatars as opposed to simply territorial (and de facto ethnic Russian autonomy given that ethnic Russians constitute more than 50 percent of the population in Crimea). The law on the status of the Crimean Tatars as indigenous peoples of Ukraine that the Tatar leaders have been pushing for many years remains unadopted.

Whatever the Tatar grievances against the Ukrainian state may be, when faced with the choice of being under either Russian or Ukrainian control, the Crimean Tatar leadership has consistently and unequivocally chosen Ukraine. [Continue reading…]

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