Prague, 11 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Crimea has a volatile ethnic mix of Tatars, Russians, and Ukrainians, and tensions are always high. This month, emotions boiled over and police fired shots over the heads of Tatars trying to break into a police station.
Russia annexed Crimea in 1783, and hundreds of thousands of Russians began to settle there while the majority of Tatars began to move away.
In May 1944, Stalin ordered the deportation of all the estimated remaining 200,000 Crimean Tatars for their alleged collaboration with wartime German occupiers. Some estimates say 46 percent of those deported died during transportation to Central Asia or within the following few years.
In 1954, the peninsula was handed to Ukraine as a "gift" from Russia to mark the friendship between the two peoples. At that time, the transfer was meaningless because the Soviet Union was expected to last indefinitely. But when it fell apart in 1991, Ukraine inherited the peninsula and its overwhelmingly Russian population.
Crimean Tatars had started returning in the 1980s. The number increased rapidly after Ukrainian independence in 1991. Official figures show that 244,000 have now returned. Tatar leaders say another 200,000 want to come back.
"Well, we try to ensure that such incidents don't grow into something that causes friction between nationalities. But unfortunately, we don't always manage to do that because the authorities -- regardless of their promises that they will solve all these problems -- do nothing."
The largest section of the population is Russian -- about 1.2 million, according to statistics. Ukrainians number around 500,000. Many of the Russians resent being part of Ukraine and support Russian nationalist calls for the peninsula to be annexed by Moscow. They also resent the return of the Tatars, who have been trying to acquire land for homes, farms, mosques, schools, and other buildings.
Local Crimean authorities erect bureaucratic hurdles for the Tatars. Russian nationalist groups accuse the Tatars of using violence against locals and of nurturing Islamic militants, including supporters of Al-Qaeda.
Tensions have increased because this is the last year that land can be disbursed free by the government. Next year, land will be sold, and Tatars fear that it will go to rich Russian and Ukrainian businessmen instead of being allocated for the needs of the existing Tatar population on the peninsula and for those who have not yet returned.
Brawls between Tatars and non-Tatars are frequent, and Tatars often complain of police harassment. But 1 February saw one of the most serious incidents so far. Police in the Sudak area fired shots over the heads of hundreds of Tatar demonstrators who were trying to free Ismet Saliev from police custody. Saliev was arrested for allegedly attacking and injuring a local man. The crowd dispersed with no one injured on either side. Saliev has since been released but may face court proceedings.
Mustafa Jemilev is the head of the largest Crimean Tatar organization, the Mejlis. He says Saliev did not attack the local man but was himself attacked by a group of 11 Russian-speaking men, including a local government official.
Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Kunitsyn described the incident as "a provocation with a political tinge." He said tensions have recently grown in the Sudak district and accused the Mejlis of behaving "too aggressively."
But Jemilev blames the authorities for provoking confrontation. "Such incidents between representatives of the Crimean authorities and members of the Tatar community happen from time to time because a chauvinistic attitude exists among the authorities towards Tatars, and they ignore basic human rights," he said.
Jemilev will preside over a meeting of the Mejlis on 14 February in response to a call by Kunitsyn to help calm emotions. "Well, we try to ensure that such incidents don't grow into something that causes friction between nationalities," he told RFE/RL. "But unfortunately, we don't always manage to do that because the authorities -- regardless of their promises that they will solve all these problems -- do nothing."
Jemilev accuses some Russian nationalist groups of using incidents of violence to stir up racial animosity. "We try to investigate these cases calmly, whereas they immediately start distributing leaflets saying that a Crimean Tatar has attacked a 'Slav' -- that is, a Russian -- and urging Russians to rise up against the Tatars," he said.
Serhiy Danylov is the co-director of the independent Kyiv-based Institute for Near East Studies. Danylov says the Tatars' chief present concern is about land and that the authorities have a record of being deliberately obstructive. He says they have made it difficult for the Tatars to build mosques or get utilities like water and electricity for their settlements. There is high unemployment among the Tatar community, but few state or local government jobs are given to Tatars.
Danylov and Jemilev believe that Ukrainian presidential elections, scheduled for October, are also playing a part in the increased tensions. The leader of a party fiercely opposed to current President Leonid Kuchma is tipped to win the elections. Jemilev says that because most Tatars support that leader -- Viktor Yushchenko -- the Kuchma administration is trying to portray him as being supported by an extremist Tatar community.
"The Tatars represent 13 percent of the [Crimean] population, and it's obvious that they will support Yushchenko in the elections. Therefore, [the pro-Kuchma majority] are doing everything they can to win the sympathies of the Russian-speaking population and the pro-Russian citizens who are the majority [in Crimea]. And that can be done by stirring up traditional anti-Tatar hatred, and that's why, currently, anti-Tatar propaganda is being stoked. And their propaganda is getting strong support from destructive pro-Russian forces," Jemilev said.
Jemilev rejects accusations that the Tatar community poses a security threat. But he says the longer his people are denied their rights, the bigger the risk that some individuals may, indeed, turn to violence. "Such danger exists because we can't absolutely control the actions of every single Tatar," he added.
Danylov says there are ultraorthodox Muslim groups like the Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia operating in Crimea and that they are providing money for religious education and the construction of mosques. But he says talk of terror groups like Al-Qaeda being active on the peninsula is nonsense.
"These aren't people who will take up arms, but they are people for whom Islam, above all else, constitutes their nationality -- and their identity as a Crimean Tatar comes in second or third or fifth place. I think there are only several hundred such people in Crimea -- 300, if I have to say a figure. That's for the time being, but the situation can undoubtedly change," Danylov said.
Danylov says the Ukrainian government and supporters of Kuchma are playing a dangerous game with ethnic tensions in Crimea to win support in October elections. But he says there is still time to resolve all the issues peacefully. However, he says the Ukrainian government must draw up a coherent strategy for tackling the problems and show a desire to implement it.