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Ukraine: Crimean Tatars Want Land, Political Representation

  • Askold Krushelnycky

In Ukraine, a protest by Crimean Tatars is entering its third week, as the Tatars use the peninsula's lucrative vacation season income as a bargaining chip in their bid to get land. RFE/RL's Askold Krushelnycky spoke to an expert on Crimean issues who explains the complex political situation.

Prague, 31 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For a decade now, Crimean Tatars have used the May 18 anniversary of the 1944 mass deportation of their forefathers from the peninsula as a date to stage protests about the raw deal received by those who returned.

But this time, the protests have continued past that date. More than 100 Tatar activists are still camped in tents outside the parliament of Crimea, a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine.

They are demanding that the local authorities honor promises by Ukraine's central government to parcel out land to the returnees.

And they know that if their protest continues into the summer, it could seriously disrupt tourism -- Crimea's most important source of income. Last week, Tatar protesters blocked railway lines, and some Crimeans fear that a minority of Tatars could pursue their aims violently.

Crimea, with a predominantly ethnic Russian population, was given as a gift to Ukraine in 1954 by the then Soviet government when the idea that the Soviet Union would disintegrate was unthinkable.

But since Ukrainian independence in 1991, Crimea has become a Trojan horse of a gift. Many of its ethnic Russian population yearn for unity with Russia and chafe against Ukrainian rule. Russia has insisted on maintaining a naval base in Crimea, and Russian nationalists periodically visit the region and call for Russia to annex it.

The return of some quarter of a million Crimeans in recent years to the land they were expelled from during the Second World War turned an already highly-charged situation into a political powderkeg.

The Ukrainian government promised the returnees help with resettlement. Last year, authorities said that Tatars could share in the division of state-owned farmland into private smallholdings.

But the Crimean parliament is dominated by pro-Russian, Communist separatists who have blocked moves to give residence rights to Tatars or parcel out land to them.

The Ukrainian editor of a magazine called "Crimean Tatar Issues," Volodymyr Prytula, says that Tatars are not only asking for land. He says they want the Crimean parliament to begin a dialogue with the Tatars' council, called the Mejlis, about Tatar political representation in the Crimean parliament. If that does not happen, Prytula says, the Tatars want the Crimean parliament to be dissolved and the region ruled directly by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

"The participants in this tented village near the Crimean parliament, among other demands, want the president to introduce direct presidential rule in Crimea. But the main demand, which they say if fulfilled they will dismantle the tent village and stop their protests, is to do with creating a dialogue with the Crimean parliament."

No such dialogue has been forthcoming. The leader of the Crimean parliament, Russian nationalist and Communist Leonid Gratch, has won popularity among Crimea's ethnic Russians by his hostility towards the Tatars and his attempts to secure financial and political independence from Ukraine. Prytula doubts Gratch will compromise with the Tatars.

"The Crimean parliament, which is led by the Communist Leonid Gratch, is refusing any contact with the Mejlis and categorically refuses to allow Kyiv to hold a dialogue with Crimean Tatars. And in fact the Crimean parliament has adopted an anti-Tatar stance."

Another twist in the complex scenario is that last week, Gratch spearheaded a successful no-confidence vote in the pro-Kuchma, appointed Crimean government. The Crimean parliament and the Ukrainian government are deadlocked over whether the parliament had the right to do that.

The Ukrainian government is usually reluctant to do anything in Crimea that might annoy Russia. But this time Kuchma's authority is being challenged directly, and his administration has reacted strongly. If the Crimean parliament does not revoke the no-confidence decision, the president's administration has threatened to dissolve the Crimean parliament.

Prytula believes that Kuchma does not want to go as far as rescinding Crimea's autonomous status, but that he cannot tolerate seeing Ukrainian authority eroded further on the peninsula.

"The Communists and Leonid Gratch are all Russian-speakers and they call for Ukraine to join the Russia-Belarus union. They say that their main task is to turn Crimea into a bridge for Ukraine to cross over into the Russia-Belarus union."

Prytula believes the Ukrainian government thinks it is in its interests to bolster the Tatar position as a political counterpoint to the Russian nationalists.

Senior government officials have been trying to get a fairer allocation of land for Tatars. Under the privatization law, land is divided among former collective and state farmers. In Crimea, such farmers have received between five and seven acres each.

Because the Tatars were deported in 1944, they did not work on Crimean farms. The Crimean parliament has used that as a pretext to deny them a share of the land or in some cases to give them small plots of inferior land.

But Prytula says that some ethnic Russian and Ukrainian landholders have been voluntarily giving a portion of their smallholdings to Tatars. He says they know that if Tatar demands remain unfulfilled, there could be an economic penalty to be paid because of the negative impact on the holiday industry. Worse, the peaceful protests could be replaced by something more dangerous.