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Ukraine: Visit By OSCE Commissioner Refocuses Attention On Crimean Tatars

  • Jeremy Bransten

This week's visit to Ukraine by Rolf Ekeus, high commissioner for minorities at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has refocused attention on the plight of the Crimean Tatars. Uprooted and banished from their homeland by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during World War II, the Crimean Tatars began to return to the peninsula only a decade ago. Now, 260,000 of the original exiles and their descendents are trying to reintegrate into a society already divided by issues of Russian and Ukrainian ethnicity.

Prague, 14 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Their predecessors once ruled Crimea and, until the late 18th century when the territory was absorbed into the Russian Empire, Crimean Tatars made up more than 80 percent of the peninsula's population. To many, Crimea meant Tatar and Tatar meant Crimea.

The 19th century saw a weakening of that connection, with the arrival of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants. But it was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin who, in the space of two days -- from 18-20 May 1944 -- forever changed the fate of a nation.

On Stalin's orders, the peninsula's entire Crimean Tatar population, numbering more than 200,000 people, was rounded up and deported in cattle cars to Central Asia -- accused of collaborating with Nazi occupying forces. It was not until 1967 that the Soviet authorities issued a decree admitting the charge of mass treason was groundless. But it took 22 more years before Crimean Tatars were formally allowed to return to their homeland.

Since 1989, 260,000 of the original exiles and their descendents have resettled in Crimea. They now make up 12 percent of the population and although they have made significant inroads in gaining some rights and local representation, Crimean Tatars continue to exist on the margins of society -- one of the reasons prompting a visit to the region this week by the OSCE's high commissioner for minorities, Rolf Ekeus.

Lyutfi Osmanov, who heads the Rebirth of Crimea Foundation, which focuses on Crimean Tatar rights, describes how many of his compatriots live today: "As regards the economic situation of Crimean Tatars, it leaves a lot to be desired. About half of them lack even basic housing -- they live in shacks on the outskirts of outlying housing developments, where they lack basic services such as electricity, water, roads. In addition, there is a big problem regarding the rebirth of Crimean Tatar culture and language. If we take textbooks, for example, for the past few years, they have been published solely thanks to grants from the Soros Foundation."

Although Crimea has managed to avoid the nationalist violence that has plagued so many regions of the former Soviet Union, the peninsula is an ethnic pot that must be stirred carefully if it is not to boil over.

The Crimean Tatars are trapped in a double bind, being in a very real sense a minority within a minority. As they fight for their rights, they are caught between the aspirations of ethnic Russians, who seek to retain their dominant position on the peninsula, where they are the majority population, and ethnic Ukrainians, who are backed by the central government in Kyiv, in their own quest for recognition.

Some progress has been achieved. One of the Crimean Tatars' main demands -- Ukrainian citizenship -- has been largely met with the adoption by legislators in Kyiv last year of a simplified law which allows anyone with at least one grandparent born on current Ukrainian territory to apply for a passport.

Neil Melvin, senior adviser for the OSCE on the CIS, accompanied Ekeus on his trip. He gave RFE/RL his assessment of the situation in Crimea: "It's important to say that over the last 10 years, Ukraine -- the Ukrainian authorities -- have taken some very important steps forward in granting citizenship, for example, to the Crimean Tatars and other formerly deported peoples who have returned to the peninsula and in trying to make available as much in the way of resources as they could in order to foster integration: housing programs and support for the general return of the formerly deported peoples. But, obviously, they have limited resources."

The lack of government money for Crimean Tatar resettlement and reintegration is confirmed by Lilia Ashikova, spokeswoman for the Crimean Tatar Majilis, a body which acts as a shadow legislative assembly advocating Tatar issues. She tells REF/RL that since the breakup of the Soviet Union, "Ukraine remains alone to cope with this problem. No one else is giving money for resettlement, and of course there is a catastrophic lack of funds. People work and earn money as best they can. They are starting to build houses or else they wait for years for government-assigned housing. This is the most serious issue for Crimean Tatars at the moment."

Ekeus promised the Ukrainian authorities the OSCE would do its utmost to raise awareness of the issue internationally, in hopes of garnering more funds for Crimea.

Money is one issue, but few expect funds to start pouring from the heavens. Now that they have gained citizenship, Crimean Tatar activists have their sights on another goal: recognition as an "indigenous people" of the peninsula.

Crimean Tatar leaders argue that if their community is to move away from the margins of society to a place in the mainstream of economic and political life, Crimean Tatars must be offered some sort of affirmative action, including subsidized housing, an equitable portion of farmland, and guaranteed representation in the regional parliament. Status as an "indigenous people" would serve as the basis for such quotas, meaning Crimean Tatars would no longer be put in what they view as the humiliating position of having to fight for their rights on each separate issue.

Lyutfi Osmanov explains: "We have to clearly define who the Crimean Tatars are in Ukraine and who they are in Crimea. There is an issue of land, there is an issue of schools, there is an issue of elections and other issues as well. To discuss the granting of specific benefits in each situation elicits a reaction of the type: 'You people demand special treatment all the time!' But this whole situation arises not because we are seeking special privileges but because the Crimean Tatars were deported and, when in 1944 they were deported -- because of factors known to everyone -- they today are a minority in their historical homeland."

Melvin says that although the OSCE sympathizes with the Crimean Tatars' predicament, as a point of principle, it does not advocate granting them a special legal status. "The high commissioner has a philosophical approach which seeks to find ways to integrate different communities rather than to give privileges to particular groups or foster activity that might lead to separation. And in general, the office works very hard to prevent separation and distance between communities. So I think legislation on national minorities would be the type of thing where we would be rather cautious about fostering a particular form of identity that distinguishes one ethnic group from other ethnic communities."

Melvin acknowledges that solutions will have to be found to make the Crimean Tatars bigger stakeholders in the peninsula's economy and this will involve compromises, especially on the issue of land distribution, from which Crimean Tatars have largely been excluded.

"Because of the return of the Crimean Tatars, primarily after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their lack of involvement in the collective farm system -- as a result of the fact that they were deported and living in exile in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states for much of the last 50 years -- has meant that they really missed out on the redistribution of land following the collapse of the Soviet Union and many of them are left landless."

Ashikova, at the Majilis, says working the land offers the only means of subsistence for most Crimean Tatars. She warns that failure to devise an equitable distribution plan could have unpredictable consequences. "Today the level of unemployment among Crimean Tatars is very high and working the land is the only way for most people to provide themselves with a minimal standard of living, so there could be unrest."

Melvin reports that the atmosphere at the OSCE talks this week with government officials both in Kyiv and Simferopol, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, was friendly. He says the authorities want to work with the international community to find solutions, but the issues are complex. "Almost all our meetings were very successful, very much an open and free-flowing exchange of ideas and trying to find practical solutions to complicated issues."

Following earlier pressure from the OSCE, in 1999 the Ukrainian president established a special Council of Representatives of the Crimean Tatar People, which meets regularly with members of the presidential administration to discuss policy options.

Results of this year's March legislative elections are providing additional encouragement to Crimean Tatar leaders. Five Crimean Tatars were elected as deputies to Crimea's regional legislature, while two Crimean Tatars gained seats in the national parliament in Kyiv. Most importantly, Ashikova says, is the fact that the Communist stranglehold on the Crimean legislature has now been broken.

"Let's say that before this year's elections, parliamentary power was controlled by the Communists and almost all problems were not being resolved. Now, things have taken a turn for the better."

The CIS has few examples of successful multiculturalism in action. Nationalism and division following the breakup of the Soviet Union have been all too common. But if cool heads prevail, despite the challenges ahead, the hope is that Crimea will buck the trend.