Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has stated that Turkey attaches great importance to the territorial integrity and stability of Ukraine as the eastern European country faces the risk of separation due to ongoing political turmoil, adding that the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is part of Ukraine.
“For Turkey, Ukraine's territorial integrity, stability and prosperity are crucial. Crimea is of great importance to Turkey as it is the doorway to Ukraine. It is also important due to the presence of Tatars [a Turkic ethnic group] and Turkey's cultural heritage. Our greatest wish is the maintenance of stability in Ukraine,” said Davutoğlu at a joint press conference with his Bulgarian counterpart, Kristian Vigenin, on Thursday.
Ukraine's unrest further fanned tensions in Crimea, which is situated in the south of Ukraine and is roughly comparable in size to Belgium with a population of more than 2 million, after pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country after months of protests. Russia condemned the protests that led to the subsequent removal of Yanukovych as a coup attempt.
Tensions in Crimea grew after armed men seized government buildings in Crimea and hoisted a Russian flag over a barricade on Thursday.
Tatars living in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, where clashes between pro-Russia protesters who want to secede from Ukraine and mainly Tatar protesters supporting the new administration took place on Wednesday, are deeply concerned over the breaking away of Crimea from Ukraine and the possibility of a Russian intervention in the region, particularly after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered massive military exercises just across the border.
Davutoğlu noted that Crimea is part of the territory of Ukraine and said all problems could be solved through consensus. “Turkey calls on all the leaders of ethnic and religious groups in Crimea to come together for the stability and peace of the region. We will continue our efforts regarding Crimea,” said Davutoğlu.
Crimean Tatar National Assembly Turkey representative Zafer Karatay welcomed the remarks of Davutoğlu, adding that Crimean Tatars expect Turkey to take an active role in engaging in dialogue with Russia -- a country that enjoys good economic and bilateral ties with Ankara -- over the situation of Tatars, who believe that the current turmoil would adversely affect them.
“Our concern is the breaking away of Crimea from Ukraine and the area leaning towards Russia, which aims to create a chaotic situation in the region by provoking ethnic Russians against Tatars. Russia aims to prepare the grounds for an intervention,” said Karatay in remarks to Today's Zaman on Thursday.
One of the issues that bind Turkey and Ukraine together is their cooperation in the resettlement of Crimean Tatars, who were deported to Central Asia in 1944 at the hands of the Soviet Union, which accused the ethnic group of collaborating with the German Nazis.
Crimea is a particularly important region for Turkey. Ankara has very good ties with the local leadership and the Tatar community, which numbers some 300,000 and with which Turkey has very close cultural and religious links.
The Turkish foreign minister also added that he would be paying a visit to Ukraine in the coming days. Turkey has stated that it will continue to support all efforts for a political solution made within a democratic context in its strategic partner and neighbor state Ukraine and will continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Turkey on Wednesday called for “restraint and common sense” in Crimea.
‘Crimean Tatars will not fall into Russia's trap of separation'
Amid mounting tension in the region, Russia ordered 150,000 troops to test their combat readiness on Wednesday in a show of force that prompted a blunt warning from the United States that any military intervention in Ukraine would be a “grave mistake.”
Putin put the military on alert for massive exercises involving most of the military units in western Russia and announced measures to tighten security at the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet on Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
“Soldiers from Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sevastopol were on Crimean streets. This concerned us greatly. We believe that Russia will try to drag ethnic groups into a conflict in order to intervene in Crimea. But we Crimean Tatars will not fall into this trap and will remain restrained,” said Karatay.
In Crimea, ethnic Russians make up almost 60 percent of the population, with Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars accounting for the rest. The current number of Crimean Tatars living in their homeland is about 300,000, or about 14 percent of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
Vladimir Konstantinov, the head of the strongly pro-Russian Crimean Parliament, has stated that Ukraine's southern territory may break away from the conflict-ridden nation if the political crisis spirals further out of control.
“The parliament of the Autonomous Region of Crimea is under the control of Russia, is predominantly of Russian ethnicity and is against the Crimean Tatar National Assembly and Crimean Tatars,” Ankara-based Crimean Turks Culture and Solidarity Association head Tuncer Kalkay told Today's Zaman.
According to Crimean Tatars, the Crimean Parliament aims to take advantage of the chaotic situation in Ukraine and break away from the country with the support of Russia -- a situation which Kalkay says would be the “end of Crimean Tatars.”
Tatars believe the ultimate goal of the ethnic Russian population protesting in Crimea is to hold a referendum over whether the region should retain its current status as an autonomous region in Ukraine, become independent or become part of Russia again. Tatar protesters say: “We are ready to fight for Ukraine and our European future."