Turkey has always used "determined diplomacy" to protect the rights of Crimean Tatars and will continue to do so, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the day after the Crimean parliament's vote to join Russia, which pro-Ukraine Tatars see as a threat to their rights.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Turkmen counterpart Raşit Meredow on Friday, Davutoğlu stated that Turkey has been following the developments with concern and the latest situation in Ukraine is worrying for everyone.
“The future of our kin, the Tatars in Crimea, is the primary issue for us. Their peacefulness and composure are essential for Turkey. We are dedicated to doing everything necessary within this remit,” Davutoğlu said while addressing reporters.
The Crimean parliament voted unanimously on Thursday "to enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation" amid increasing calls from the international community for Russia to withdraw its troops from the peninsula. Crimea, which is at the center of the standoff between Ukraine and Russia, will hold a referendum on the status of the autonomous peninsula on March 16 -- which was previously scheduled to be held on March 30 -- to ratify parliament's Thursday decision. The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0, with eight abstentions, in favor of holding the referendum and joining Russia. In the referendum, local voters will also be given the choice to remain part of Ukraine but with enhanced local powers.
The Turkic Muslim Tatars, who largely support the new administration in Kiev, have said the Crimean parliament's decision to join Russia is “illegal” and that Tatars will boycott the referendum, at a press conference held shortly after the announcement of the parliament's decision. They also called on the United Nations to take action.
Davutoğlu welcomed the fact that no casualties had occurred in the Crimean peninsula during the tension, saying that the Tatars' calm behavior gave no cause for violence incidents.
Davutoğlu said Turkey is focused on two points in the Ukraine crisis. “One of these principles is the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The second one is to form a participatory political structure that includes all the different parts and religions of society. Isolating any part of Ukraine will cause unrest,” Davutoğlu noted, underlining that a discussion of Ukraine's territorial integrity will cause instability in the Black Sea basin.
He said Turkey has been exerting great efforts to prevent new tensions from arising between Ukraine and Russia, which he defined as “two strategic partners of Turkey.” Davutoğlu said he had also discussed the situation in Crimea with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Rome on Thursday.
One reason that the Crimean peninsula, which juts into the north of the Black Sea, is important to Turkey is its population of Turkic Muslim Tatars, who were exiled en masse in the 1940s by Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin and now make up around 12 percent of Crimea's population. Ankara, which has reiterated the importance of preserving Ukraine's territorial integrity, political unity and sovereignty -- a sign of its opposition to the secession of Crimea -- has refrained, however, from directly confronting Moscow, one of Turkey's key energy suppliers, instead calling for dialogue leading towards a resolution.
Releasing a statement on the Crimean parliament's decision to hold a referendum on the status of the autonomous peninsula late on Thursday, the Foreign Ministry said the decision was a “wrong and dangerous step.”
The statement repeated Turkey's position that the political crisis in Ukraine needs to be resolved on the grounds of Ukraine's political unity and territorial integrity and on the basis of democratic principles, international law and international agreements.
Turkey also underlined that the conditions in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which is also home to the Crimean Tatars, are sensitive and called for common sense and restraint to ease the tensions in Crimea.
“We believe that the decision to hold a referendum won't help the efforts to solve the crisis in the country [Ukraine]. We see the decision as a false, dangerous step that could cause considerable splits between different groups in Crimea and yield negative results in the [Black Sea] region and elsewhere,” the statement said, reiterating that the political crisis in Ukraine should be resolved through dialogue and reconciliation rather than as a “fait accompli.”
While addressing people in the Anatolian city of Eskişehir, which has a significant Crimean Tatar population, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke of the situation in Crimea, saying that during his phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, he had asked Putin to protect the rights of Tatars. “We haven't left Crimean Tatars alone up to now, and we won't leave them alone in the future,” he said.
Although Turkish officials did not comment immediately after Thursday's vote, European Union Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was among the first officials to speak on the latest developments in Crimea.
On Thursday evening, during his visit to the Anatolian city of Çorum, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“Ukraine's Crimean Tatars want Crimea to remain within Ukraine's borders. That's why everyone should give up steps that might jeopardize this [Ukraine's territorial integrity]. Russia should also avoid [taking such steps] … Turkey supports and recognizes Ukraine's territorial integrity, including its autonomous Crimea region,” Çavuşoğlu said, stressing that Crimea is linked to Ukraine and should remain so.
Turkey is seen to be against Russia's advance into Crimea, but it is wary of creating tension with Russia. According to an article published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a prominent American think tank, written by Turkish researcher Soner Çağaptay and former US Ambassador to Turkey James F. Jeffrey, “Energy dependence, deep-rooted fears of the Russian military and Black Sea navigation policy all offer clues to Prime Minister Erdoğan's vacillating response to Russian activities in Crimea.”