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16 April 2014, Wednesday
 
 
Today's Zaman
 
 
 
 

Tatars push to regain their historic lands in Crimea

CRIMEAN LEADER MUSTAFA CEMILOĞLU
29 March 2007, Thursday /TODAY'S ZAMAN WITH WIRES
Six decades after the Soviet deportation of their entire ethnic group to Central Asia, returning ethnic Tatars are pushing to regain their historic lands.
However their highly politicised struggle is also fuelling a much wider struggle in which Ukraine and former master Russia are vying for influence in this idyllic and strategic Black Sea peninsula. Crimea has a history as a battleground between rival powers. Today the issue of what to do with Tatar returnees and their land claims is pitting the country's increasingly pro-Western leadership in Kiev, who cautiously support the Tatars, against the administration in Crimea, which is part of Ukraine but strongly pro-Russian. It is also feeding into disagreements between Kiev and Moscow over a naval base Russia leases from Ukraine in Crimea.

The base sits uneasily with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's goal of joining NATO, while Moscow is inclined to see the installation as a bulwark against foreign powers, notably Turkey. Turkey is "reaching for a piece... of the Crimean pie," Russia's Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper warned in a recent piece on the Tatars. When eastern Europe broke free from Moscow in 1991little attention was paid to the plight of the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim people who trace their roots to Mongol leader Genghis Khan, although they have also long inter-married with Turks and Russians.

The Tatars bear a painful collective memory of the day in May 1944 when Soviet soldiers swept through Crimea giving each household 15 minutes to pack and deported over 180,000 of them by train to the deserts of Central Asia.

Officially they were being punished for alleged collaboration with Nazi Germany. Tatars argue this was a fiction cooked up by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to justify a brutal ethnic engineering programme. The deportees and their descendants have been returning since the late 1980s and there are now 260,000 of them in Crimea.

But unlike in the Baltic states, which also suffered in Stalin's deportations, the Tatars have no rights to reclaim property as they have not been officially exonerated by Ukraine's government. Many have resorted to seizing greenfield sites, some of which had already been allocated to Russian landowners. There are now 300 such villages.

"My grandmother died on the way to Central Asia and her body was thrown off the train and left in Kazakhstan without burial," said a resident, Zira Budor.

"We're blamed for everything, but it was so that my sons wouldn't turn into hooligans or criminals that I came to get this land," she said, showing off a meticulously tidy one-room cabin, its floor made of warehouse storage palletes.

Russian community leaders have lobbied against the Tatars' "rehabilitation" and say they should simply buy their own houses on the market. There have been occasional clashes. The two sides nearly came to blows last August when Tatars demanded the removal of a market from a 15th century Muslim cemetery in their historic capital, Bahçesaray. Oleg Rodivilov, an ethnic-Russian member of the Crimean regional assembly, warns against granting privileges on an ethnic basis and does not hide his scorn for the Tatars' unofficial assembly, the Mejlis. He says what is happening is a chaotic land grab.

This is dismissed by Mustafa Cemiloğlu, the Mejlis' head, who sports a Turkish-style fez at public functions. cemiloğlu says land seizures should be orderly and coordinated, with proper consideration by local Mejlis councils of conflicting claims.

"We're doing everything we can to prevent a conflict," said Cemiloğlu. "We believe there are still 100,000-150,000 Crimean Tatars outside Crimea. They'll also come back."

But behind the scenes Tatars are split over the seizures as some worry it will discredit their cause, says the deputy curator of the 16th century palace of the Crimean Khans in Bahçesaray, Oleksa Haiworonski. He suspects covert Russian backing for land seizures and says some in Moscow would like to provoke a conflict. He points to increased activity in Crimea by far right Russian youth groups as well as the youth organisation Proryv (Breakthrough), which backs separatists in nearby Moldova's Transdniestr region.

"The story o f the land is just part of a larger project of splitting the Crimean Tatars," said Haiworonski. "Russia is waiting to accuse the Crimean Tatars of Islamic terrorism."

His concern is echoed in Kiev. "I'm struck around town by how worried people are about" Crimea, said a Western diplomat.

"It's all about a deliberate and malign legacy from Stalin and it takes a lot of hard work to work through this. In the meantime there is a real risk of problems," he said.

Tensions are also growing over the base that houses Russia's Black Sea fleet. For the Tatars the base symbolises their marginalisation during more than two centuries of Russian dominance.Kiev has agreed to let the base stay until 2017, but the arrangement is strained. Russia has recently deployed small groups of soldiers to guard lighthouses that it controls along a swathe of Crimea's western and southern coast, says Yury Leshchenko, the Ukrainian-appointed keeper of the lighthouse at Crimea's southern point, Sarych. Leshchenko has refused to move out of the lighthouse compound, which now flies the Russian flag, but is barred from entering the lighthouse itself.

"This is a sovereign state. How can a sovereign state not be responsible for the shipping off its own coast?" he demanded.

 
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