Crimean Tatars split over Russian rule

Some Tatars fear a return to Stalinist repression despite official promises to respect their rights.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: AFP

BAKHCHISARAY Crimea - Seventy years after their families' mass deportation under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, the Crimean Tatars are in a quandary: should they cooperate with their homeland's new Russian authorities or resist them?

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 18 May, 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 marginalised," said Nariman Dzhelyalov, deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars' main representative body.

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 sympathising 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 16 March 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-defence" units and threats to close their organisation 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 organisation, 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 Union collapsed.

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.

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 criticise the annexation.

After the annual march, the Mejlis typically adopts a resolution on its demands to the local authorities.

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 recognise 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 other group."