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What of the Tatars?

No one can claim to speak for all of Crimea, but its Tatars, returned from Soviet-era exile, can hardly welcome Russia’s embrace.

by Halya Coynash 3 March 2014

Victims of any military action are inevitable, and Russia’s pretence that it is bringing troops into another sovereign country “to protect Russian nationals” should convince nobody.  Among the planned victims are the indigenous Crimean Tatars, who in just over two months will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of their deportation as a people from their native land. In May 1944 it was Stalin who used defamation and propaganda to try to justify a terrible crime. In March 2014, it is Vladimir Putin. 

 

Tatar women take part in a commemoration last year of the Soviet-era expulsion. Photo from the website of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.

 

There is probably no reason to doubt the sincerity of those ethnic Russians in the Crimea who are loudly welcoming the moves by Russia that began with the effective seizure of Simferopol on 27 February.  Neither Russian flag-waving crowds nor the unprecedented 95,000 ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers who have in the last 36 hours told Putin that they don’t want Russia’s “help” can in themselves prove what the majority in the Crimea want. 

 

Nor can the deployment of Russian troops. 

 

The reports in the Western media on Saturday that only Russian supporters were visible were superficial and misleading. Ukraine’s leaders in Kyiv and the leaders of the Crimean Tatars had called on people to avoid escalating the situation. Certain moves, such as the attempt to seize the building of the Mejlis (the representative body) of the Crimean Tatars, were almost certainly aimed at provoking confrontation between the Tatars and pro-Russian groups. 

 

When the Crimean Tatars did not succumb to provocation, Russia came up with a supposed attack, resulting in casualties, on the Interior Ministry building in Simferopol.  Although the police shortly refuted the entire story as never having happened, an appeal for “Russian help and support” was issued by Sergei Aksenov. A Russian national, Aksenov supposedly ousted the Crimea’s prime minister, Anatoly Mohylyov, during a vote in the seized parliamentary building on 27 February. In the last parliamentary elections, Aksenov’s Russian Unity party received only 4 percent of the votes and just three seats in parliament.  

 

The plans for a referendum allegedly “adopted” in a parliament surrounded by gunmen should not be seen as even providing a thin democratic coating. According to Article 73 of Ukraine’s constitution, any referendum on changes to Ukraine’s territory must be nationwide. On 1 March, Aksenov announced not only that he was seeking “Russian protection,” but also that the “referendum” would be held at the end of March. With gunmen presumably protecting Russian nationals’ interests at the polling stations.

 

The basic recipe for intervention has been used before – in Transdniester, in Abkhazia. The situation in Ukraine is different. This is in part due to Putin’s impatience and obvious rage after all plans to bring Ukraine into line through large loans brokered with former President Viktor Yanukovych failed. Only his domestic audience, fed by a largely subservient media, can possibly believe the pretence about “protecting Russian nationals.”

 

The permission from Russia’s rubber-stamp legislative bodies to deploy troops on Ukrainian territory, not just the Crimea, also steeply raises the stakes.

 

Even if this carte blanche proves to be saber-rattling and interference is confined to the Crimea, there remains one other vital difference. The Crimea is the homeland of the country’s indigenous population, the Crimean Tatars. Once deported en masse, they always dreamed of returning, and were welcomed back, if not provided with adequate measures to meet their needs, as soon as Ukraine gained independence. The Crimean Tatars are happy to be Ukrainians and are adamant that their native homeland is a part of Ukraine. They have no other, and any attempt to change the Crimea’s status would leave up to 15 percent of the peninsula’s population, its indigenous people, without a place to go. After years of strained relations with pro-Russian groups, as well as for historic reasons, any measures to bring the Crimea closer to the Russian Federation would meet with strong resistance. 

 

It is likely that this resistance is what Putin is trying to provoke, with inevitable bloodshed used to justify intervention, greater control in Ukraine, or simply to avenge himself for yet another aborted attempt to rebuild Russia’s empire. 

 

There would be more than merely moral betrayal if the West does not adequately enforce the Budapest Memorandum and all international guarantees of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This would particularly betray the Crimean Tatars, whose rights the OSCE and EU have repeatedly called for the reinstatement of.

 

There would also be political danger. Ukraine is now so vulnerable because it gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for guarantees from the United States and Russia of its territorial integrity. What price any such agreements if this one is flagrantly breached? It is no accident that the Munich Agreement has been repeatedly recalled over recent days, nor that Poland is at the forefront of demands that the EU and NATO take strong measures. Poland has every reason to remember the fake elections used after World War II to provide justification for Stalin taking control of the country. It understands, as we all should, that unimpeded acts of military aggression against a neighboring state pose a danger far beyond Ukraine’s borders. 

Halya Coynash is a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on whose website this commentary originally appeared.
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