Simferopol, Ukraine; 25 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Mustafa Dzhemilev is probably the most respected living figure for Crimean Tatars.
During the Soviet era, he become a hero for speaking out to keep the Crimean Tatar identity alive and to demand that his people -- deported en masse from their homeland by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944 -- be allowed to return home. For those activities, he was twice imprisoned in the Gulag -- 15 years in all.
Now, in almost Biblical manner, Dzhemilev has led his people home. Some 250,000 Tatars have returned to Crimea from exile, mostly in Central Asian, since the late 1980s. But despite such progress, Dzhemilev warns that Russia is seeking to use the Tatar issue to destabilize Crimea, and that Ukrainian authorities aren't helping the matter by reneging on promises to assist the Tatars.
"They definitely fear that the Crimean Tatars would do the same to the Russians as was done to the Crimean Tatars -- if the Crimean Tatars here had enough power."
Russian and Ukrainian officials deny such accusations. And ethnic Russians -- the majority on the peninsula -- accuse Crimean Tatars of seeking to obtain special privileges for their people, such as land concessions.
But according to Dzhemilev, ethnic Russians feel intense resentment toward the Tatars, a minority along with Ukrainians in Crimea. He told RFE/RL that tensions between Tatars and Russians are deliberately stoked by propaganda that Tatars will take revenge on Russians by dispossessing them of land. "Therefore, they definitely have a fear that the Crimean Tatars would do the same to the Russians as was done to the Crimean Tatars -- if the Crimean Tatars here had enough power," he said. "That's their mentality."
A member of the Ukrainian parliament, Dzhemilev is considered his people's most influential political leader. He also heads the Mejlis, which is both a political body and community organization whose members are elected by Crimean Tatars.
Born in Crimea, Dzhemilev left in May 1944 when Stalin ordered the deportation of its entire Tatar population of around 200,000, after accusing them of collaborating with Nazi Germany during World War II. In 1967, the Soviet leadership acknowledged that those accusations were unfounded.
Most Tatars were deported to Uzebekistan. But nearly 30,000 died en route, cramped into train cattle wagons, or from malnutrition or disease after arriving.
Dzhemilev said land remains his people's most pressing problem. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, it promised to give Crimean Tatars passports and to help them get new homes. But Dzhemilev said Tatars have immense difficulty obtaining land in their traditional areas on the southern coast, a prime resort spot mostly claimed by ethnic Russian-owned businesses.
The situation is set to get worse next year when land privatization officially begins. Wealthy Russians are widely expected to outbid Tatars for the choicest bits of territory.
Another painful issue, Dzhemilev said, is educational opportunities in the Crimean Tatar language -- or rather, the lack of them. "Well, it's sufficient to say that until the deportation, one of the official languages on this peninsula was the Crimean Tatar language along with Russian," he said. "But now it is not an official language. The great majority of our children cannot get education in their native tongue. A total process of Russification is in progress. Children have not learned some of the most elementary words of their native language."
There are 13 schools for Crimean Tatars, sufficient for about 10 percent of school-age children. But even these can hardly be called Tatar schools, Dzhemilev said. Many have poor facilities, a narrow range of subjects, and too few qualified teachers. Many Tatar parents send their kids to Russian schools, fearing they will be disadvantaged by a Tatar-language education.
Dzhemilev said that Russian nationalists along with the communists -- who until two years ago ruled in Crimea -- play on fears that Crimean Tatars will pursue their claims for land violently.
He also believes the Kremlin aims to prevent Ukraine from growing into a strong regional power -- and that it is prepared to stoke ethnic conflict in Crimea to help keep Kyiv in line. "I want to say simply this that very powerful forces at [the Russian] government level are working to destabilize Crimea," he said.
Dzhemilev said the future of the Crimean Tatars depends on having a sympathetic and democratic government in Kyiv. To that end, he said, much depends on the outcome of the Ukrainian presidential race in October.
The Mejlis has stifled attempts by outsiders to introduce radical forms of Islam. But Dzhemilev said that the more Kyiv fails to deliver on promises to help the Tatars, the more the authority of the Mejlis will be eroded. "When it's unavoidable we [the Mejlis] give permission to organize pickets or demonstrations and then we're called extremists and radicals despite the fact -- and they have no idea -- that if we didn't do such things then Tatar national sentiments would slip away from our control," he said. "And that could lead to the possibility of bloodshed."
But he said that with goodwill, Crimea -- with its benign climate, golden shores, and cultural sites bursting with history -- could become a wonderful place for all its inhabitants to live in peace.
(This is Part 3 of a five-part series. See also:Crimea's Tatars -- A Return To A Homeland Burdened By Ethnic Divisions (Part 1)Crimea's Tatars -- For Russian Settlers, Resentment And Anger (Part 2)Crimea's Tatars -- Clearing The Way For Islamic Extremism? (Part 4)Crimea's Tatars -- Uneasy Relations With Russian Cossacks (Part 5)