Tatars living in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, a peninsula located in southern Ukraine, have voiced concerns over recent anti-government protests in the Eastern European country and see a serious threat in the possibility of Crimea breaking away from Ukraine due to the unrest.
Ukraine has been going through political turmoil since protesters began calling for the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych after he refrained from signing an association agreement with the European Union last year in favor of closer ties with Russia. Russia has condemned the ongoing protests in Ukraine as a coup attempt.
Tatars 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, are deeply concerned that the developments in Ukraine will adversely affect their situation.
As Ukraine's unrest fans tensions in 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. "It may happen if the country splits. Anyway, the entire situation is heading towards it," Konstantinov said recently, according to Russian media outlets.
Speaking to Today's Zaman, the head of the Ankara-based Crimean Turks Culture and Solidarity Association, Tuncer Kalkay, stated that the Crimean Parliament aims to take advantage of the chaotic situation in Ukraine and break away from Ukraine with the support of Russia -- a situation which Kalkay says would be “the end of Crimean Tatars.”
“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. Soldiers in Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sevastopol are ready to invade Crimea. 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,” said Kalkay.
Crimean Tatar National Assembly President Refat Chubarov called Konstantinov's comments “treason,” further raising the possibility of ethnic conflict if Crimea were to separate.
“Konstantinov's remarks and a group of parliamentarians' comments over the independence of Crimea from Ukraine and the status of an independent Crimea under the guarantee of Russia has caused a great concern among the Tatars in Crimea and in the diaspora,” said Kalkay, adding that the Crimean Tatars' situation will deteriorate if an autonomous Crimean republic breaks away from Ukraine and the region leans toward Russia.
Early this month, following the violence in Kiev, the parliament of this autonomous region suggested the local constitution be amended to say that Russia is a "guarantor" of Crimea's autonomy from the rest of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia is prepared to fight a war over the Ukrainian territory of Crimea to protect the ethnic Russian population and its military base there, a senior government official told the Financial Times.
On the peninsula, located on the northern coast of the Black Sea where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is stationed, 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.
Kalkay also noted that the diaspora of Crimean Tatars, who only wish to live in their historical lands in Crimea, would never tolerate any negative developments that might emerge from Konstantinov's remarks. He said, “Let it be known that the diaspora of Crimean Tatars will not hesitate to strongly react if a threat occurs towards the life and property of Crimean Tatars."
Crimea under control of Russia a serious threat to Crimean Tatars
The Crimean Tatars' highly politicized struggle is fueling a much wider struggle in which Ukraine and Russia are vying for influence in the idyllic and strategic Black Sea peninsula. Crimea is a historical battleground of rival powers Russia and Ukraine, which cautiously support the Tatars.
Apart from its military importance, Crimea is historically valued by Russians more than other Ukrainian regions because of the controversy over a decision made by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev -- who was born in Ukraine -– to sign it over from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.
Kalkay noted that if Crimea is under Russian rule, it could pose a serious threat to the Crimean Tatars. “Such remarks have led us to worry, as we remember the days when we were under the control of Russia,” said Kalkay.
Crimean Tatars 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. Tatars argue that this was a fabrication created by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to justify a brutal ethnic engineering program. The deportees and their descendants have been returning since the late 1980s, particularly after Ukrainian independence.
“Crimean Tatars have followed the developments in Ukraine closely and calmly. The hope of Crimean Tatars is that the violence in Ukraine will de-escalate. We hope for the maintenance of peace and stability in Ukraine,” concluded Kalkay.