Crimean Tatars
Crimean Tatars Reuters

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine (which has already led to the toppling of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych and the establishment of an interim government) has particular resonance in the autonomous southern province of Crimea, where ethnic Russians account for the majority of the population living uneasily with both ethnic Ukrainians and a people called the Tatars.

In the Crimea, on the northern coast of the Black Sea, ethnic Russians account for 60 percent of the population, while the local ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars (who together form about 35 percent of Crimeans) have formed an alliance to resist any moves by the Crimean regional parliament toward placating Moscow and perhaps seceding from Ukraine. The Tatars, a Turkic people and predominantly Muslim (though primarily secular), once dominated the Crimean peninsula, but they are now a minority there, accounting for only about 12 percent of the population.

In Simferopol, Crimea’s regional administrative capital, street brawls have broken out between protesters who support Moscow’s influence in the region and those who favor a Kiev free from what they view as interference from the Russians. According to reports, during the demonstrations Crimean Tatars shouted "Glory to Ukraine!" and "Crimea is not Russia!," while pro-Moscow demonstrators chanted "Russia!" in rebuttal. RIA Novosti, a Moscow-based news agency, reported that the Russian government is committed to “protecting the interests” of ethnic Russians in Ukraine as well as the Russian naval base in Sevastopol.

But who are the Tatars, and why have they aligned their interests with Ukrainians against the Russians? The Tatars have had a long and troubled history with the Russians, who conquered the Crimea in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said in an interview that the Tatars have a natural hostility toward the Russians given the brutal treatment meted out to them by Josef Stalin, who deported hundreds of thousands of Tatars to Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan, during World War II on the pretext that they were “collaborating” with the Nazis. This would partly explain why the Tatars of today would form an alliance with ethnic Ukrainians against Moscow.

After the war, the Crimea was handed over to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954, one year after Stalin’s death, by new premier Nikita Khrushchev. That decision still rankles many Russians. “The Tatars were not even invited back to their homeland in Crimea until just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Pomeranz said. Rustem Mustafayev, a 55-year-old Tatar agricultural worker, whose father was expelled from the Crimea, lamented to Bloomberg News: “They [Russians under Stalin] almost wiped us out. There are few of us left now. This is our homeland. We have nowhere else to go.’’

World Bulletin reported that a Tatar leader named Refat Chubarov, who appeared at the rally in Simferopol to appeal for calm, was drowned out by the pro-Russian crowd. "We have a long memory of what the Russians did to us Tatars,” Chubarov, who is president of the Crimean Tatar National Assembly, told Reuters. "We are now a minority in our own homeland because of them ... We have fought alongside the Ukrainians more often than against them -- our loyalty is with them.”

Also, given the large Tatar diaspora outside of the Crimea, particularly in Turkey and some of the Balkan nations and parts of Western Europe, overseas Tatars are calling for solidarity with their homeland brethren and have asked the governments of Turkey and Western Europe to support the Tatars in Ukraine. In a statement, the Netherlands-based Western Europe Crimean Tatar Solidarity and Cultural Center said if the Crimean parliament voted to become part of Russia it will have committed a “crime against humanity.” “We do not want a repeat of May 18, 1944,” the center stated, referring to the date that the Soviet military forcibly expelled Tatars from the Crimea. The center’s branch in Turkey even warned: “[The] Crimean Tatar diaspora will not hesitate to use all means which are accepted by international and domestic law to support their people if a threat emerges against the Crimean Tatar people in Crimea.”

The future of Crimea – a strategically key peninsula – remains of paramount concern to all parties involved. Under the current system, Crimea has a “presidential representative” in the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev, while the local government is headed by a prime minister who is selected by the Kiev parliament. The interim president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, has warned that there exists a "serious threat" of separatism in the wake of Yanukovych’s removal. Indeed, Volodymyr Konstantynov, the speaker of the Crimean parliament, has already declared that separation from the rest of Ukraine may be considered if the crisis in the country continued to worsen.

Konstantynov’s remarks were condemned as “treasonous” by some Tatar leaders, including Chubarov. Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Turkey, reported that the chief of the Ankara-based Crimean Turks Culture and Solidarity Association, Tuncer Kalkay, said he fears that Crimea’s parliament wants to exploit the confusion and unrest in Ukraine as an excuse to break away and join Russia. “If the violence in Ukraine were to spread to Crimea, 300,000 Crimean Tatars would come face to face with approximately 2 million Russians living there,” Kalkay said. “Soldiers in Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sevastopol are ready to invade Crimea. The parliament of… Crimea is under the control of Russia, is predominantly of Russian ethnicity and is against the Crimean Tatar National Assembly and Crimean Tatars.”

Vitaly Chernetsky, an associate professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas, explained that Tatars view the Ukrainian state is seen as a guarantor and supporter of their right to live in their ancestral homeland, their cultural autonomy, their language and cultural traditions.

“For them, the Soviet (and before that, Russian imperial) legacy is synonymous with oppression,” Chernetsky said. “By contrast, the Russian community in Crimea is mostly made of persons who moved into the area after World War II and are strongly associated with, and support, both the Soviet and the Russian imperial ideological narratives.”

Daniel Sandford, a BBC correspondent who witnessed the scuffling in Simferopol, wrote that the “low-level violence” illustrates the “complexity of the situation” in Crimea. “Angry Russian Crimeans are denouncing the new government in Kiev, who they fear will undermine their links to Russia,” Sandford wrote. Of particular concern to Moscow is the Russian naval base in Sevastopol – Yanukovych had extended the facility’s lease until 2042. It is unclear if the next government in Kiev will push for the departure of Russian fleet from the area or not.

The BBC noted that in the unlikely event the Crimea secedes from Ukraine, the Russians could pounce on it – since Moscow believes the peninsula belongs to them anyway and should never have been ceded to Ukraine a half-century ago. Russian czars and other privileged elite (from both the imperial dynasty and the Communist period) enjoyed Crimea for its warm climate and coastal beauty. Pomeranz explained that, aside from its status as a key coastal strategic port on the Black Sea, Crimea is an extremely popular tourist destination for both Russians and Ukrainians, particularly pensioners. “Given that Russian is the dominant language spoken in Crimea, the Russian people feel a deep attachment to Crimea and probably would like it back,” he added.

“The Russians in Crimea are treated as third-class citizens in Ukraine,” a 56-year-old retiree named Alla Anichka, who participated in the Simferopol demonstrations, told Bloomberg. “We want to be part of Russia, that is where our roots lie.” There is also a general sense in the Russian-dominated eastern and southern parts of Ukraine that Yanukovich was deposed illegally and inappropriately, said Olga Oliker, an analyst with the RAND Corp. “Many in Ukraine's Russian-speaking population are worried that the next government of Ukraine will discriminate against Russian speakers and that there might be violence against them. This is one factor in the unrest that we're seeing in Crimea and elsewhere,” she added.

An unnamed senior Russian government official vowed to the Financial Times that Moscow is prepared to go to war to protect the ethnic Russian community of Crimea and retain the naval base. “If Ukraine breaks apart, it will trigger a war,” the official said. “They will lose Crimea first [because] we will go in and protect [it], just as we did in Georgia,” referring to the incident in the summer of 2008 when Russian soldiers invaded Georgia after the South Ossetia region attempted to form a separate state.

But Oliker commented that she does not think at this point that Russia is seeking to regain Crimea, “though it does want to maintain influence there (and in Ukraine as a whole) and it does want to keep the Black Sea Fleet where it is.”

Chernetsky noted that historically Crimea was a very diverse place ethnically and religiously (other prominent local communities have included Greeks and Armenians), but the Crimean Tatars constituted the majority of up to 90 percent until the middle of the 19th century. At the end of the Crimean War of the 1850s, about half of the community emigrated to the Ottoman Empire, which had formerly ruled the peninsula -- hence Turkey's strong links and attachment to Crimea.

Economically, the Tatar community are now mostly employed in agriculture, construction, and service industries. “On the other hand, the education level within the community is high,” Chernetsky noted. “Many young people go to Turkey to obtain university degrees; many have also been successfully entering the business professional world in Kiev… [Tatars] are an important voice both within Crimea and within Ukraine as a whole."

Most importantly, Crimea heavily depends on the rest of Ukraine. “[Crimea] is an arid semi-desert and receives irrigation through a canal diverting water from the Dnieper River,” Chernetsky added. “Without water from mainland Ukraine, Crimean economy can quickly collapse.”