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Ukraine: Q&A With Crimea's Mustafa Dzhemilev -- 'How Can We Right The Injustices Inflicted On Our People?'

  • Charles Carlson

During a recent conference in Berlin on the deported peoples of the former Soviet Union, RFE/RL interviewed Mustafa Dzhemilev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and the head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (parliament). Dzhemilev spoke of the current challenges facing the Crimean Tatars.

Prague, 2 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic people who inhabited the Crimean Peninsula, now part of Ukraine, for more than seven centuries. They established their own khanate in the 1440s and remained an important power in Eastern Europe until 1783, when Crimea was annexed to Russia. In 1944, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the Crimean Tatars deported en masse to Central Asia on suspicion of having collaborated with the Nazis.

Mustafa Dzhemilev, chairman of the Mejlis (parliament) of the Crimean Autonomous Republic and a member of the Ukrainian parliament, has spearheaded the Crimean Tatars' campaign to be allowed to return to Crimea since 1961. Dzhemilev was arrested several times in the 1960s and 1970s and sentenced to labor camps for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.

Although the Soviet leadership acknowledged in 1967 that the collaboration charges brought against the Tatars were unfounded, little was done to enable them to return to Crimea. The repatriation process began spontaneously during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" in the late 1980s. Today, some 250,000 Crimean Tatars who have managed to return to Crimea are engaged in a new struggle with the Ukrainian authorities to obtain housing and preserve their language and culture.

RFE/RL spoke with Dzhemilev on the sidelines of a recent conference in Berlin that focused on the plight of deported peoples from the former Soviet Union.

RFE/RL: May marked the 59th anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. What memorial events took place this year?

Dzhemilev: Every year we commemorate the day of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars [18 May]. This day is not only a day of recollection of those who died during the Soviet regime but also a day of unity for our people. We are now summing up the situation we are in now, and how we can right the injustices inflicted on our people and also discuss what else we have to do further, and to set out our main demands in the form of a resolution adopted by the participants at the meeting. The same things happened this year. Our demonstrations and meetings always take place peacefully and in a well-organized manner.

RFE/RL: Have all the Crimean Tatars returned from exile? And what are the Ukrainian and Crimean governments doing to rehabilitate them?

Dzhemilev: It's a pity that not all of our people could come back. According to our data, 150,000 to 200,000 Crimean Tatars still live in other countries of the former Soviet Union. They have not yet been able to return. Most of them live in Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan. They have not yet been able to return, mostly because of social reasons. But also there are some legal obstacles to giving up the right to residence in Uzbekistan and to obtaining Crimean residence permits. But the main thing is that there are financial possibilities [for returning to Crimea]. And there is no doubt that nearly 90 percent of Crimean Tatars living in Uzbekistan want to come back. Even the problem of coming back, there is a problem of [reuniting] with their families. Most Crimean Tatars living in Central Asia have relatives in Crimea. That's why the question of their returning is only a question of time.

As for the government of Ukraine, it's a pity Ukraine is the only country which gives some money from its budget to solve some of our social problems. We have, of course, some complaints about how much they deliver, but nevertheless Ukraine takes some measures. And every year a certain amount of [financial] means [for our problem] is planned and put in their budget. We have also some demands in deciding our rights, on defining the [legal] status of the Crimean Tatars.

RFE/RL: What demands are the Crimean Tatars making to broaden their civil rights?

Dzhemilev: The problems of the Crimean Tatars can be divided into two parts: legal problems -- this means consolidation of all legal rights -- and social problems. The most important of our legal demands is for us not to be considered as a national minority in the territory of Ukraine, when there are some 150,000 to 160,000 Crimean Tatars in Ukraine. We want Crimean Tatars to be recognized as indigenous to our land with all ensuing effects.

Firstly, the recognition of the Crimean Tatar language as the official language on the territory of the autonomous republic. And we want adequate representation in the structure of representative and executive power in the Crimean Autonomous Republic. This can be achieved by introducing a quota at least proportional to our numbers, or giving Crimean Tatar representatives a veto on questions that relate directly to urgent problems of the Crimean Tatars.

It's a pity that during the 12 years since it became independent, Ukraine has not yet passed a law on the elected parliament of the Crimean Tatars.

RFE/RL: You mentioned legal issues. What social issues are involved?

Dzhemilev: There is also a social aspect. In any law-based state, if something was taken from a person, it should be given back. We understand the situation. We are not saying that the authorities should give us back all our houses, all our belongings. That is impossible because other people are now living in our houses, or our houses are destroyed. What the state gives is very little, but again we understand the position of the state. It cannot give enough. But the state should pay more attention to the question of land. There is a law according to which only people who were kolkhoz [collective farm] members before privatization may own land. But Crimean Tatars couldn't be kolkhoz members in Ukraine. They are only just returning there. It's a pity the Ukrainian law didn't consider these peculiarities, that Crimean Tatars coming back to their own land couldn't get the land of their ancestors and have to be hired laborers on their own land.

RFE/RL: What is the present status of the Crimean Tatar language?

Dzhemilev: There are a lot of other problems, including restoring education in our language. At present, only about 10 percent of Crimean Tatar schoolchildren can study at schools in their native language. But 90 percent of schoolchildren have to go to Russian schools. A total [linguistic] Russification is going on. Russification is even faster than in the places of deportation. If we are doomed to lose our identity on our land and to become Russians, why did we come back and become victims of our struggle?

RFE/RL: Is Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma favorably inclined toward the Crimean Tatars?

Dzhemilev: Kuchma is a person who considers the distribution of political forces in the country. If he sees that there are more supporters of not resolving a given problem, he tries to distance himself from that problem. But we should give him credit for his positive attitude. He visits Crimea regularly, meets the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars, listens to our problems and gives corresponding orders. But as a rule, these orders are not implemented; they are sabotaged.

RFE/RL: What is the situation in the villages? Do they have adequate funding and representation?

Dzhemilev: The situation here is like this: when we started coming back to our native land, we didn't ask for our former houses back. We only asked them to give us some land for us to build houses there. But the authorities rejected that request for different reasons, either because the land belonged to collective farms or that something else is planned to be done there. But at the same time, they began mass propaganda among Crimea's Russian inhabitants, encouraging them to lay claim to land for dachas or orchards, and there was an open propaganda to take possession of the land as soon as possible or the Crimean Tatars will return and if you don't take the land, the Tatars will take it, and Crimea will belong to the Tatars. There were even appeals to invite relatives, friends from Russia, in order to occupy this land quickly.

As a result, we had serious clashes with the state. Sometimes there was violence and even bloodshed, but nevertheless Crimean Tatars took possession of 90 percent of the land allocated for them because the state hadn't enough strength to throw us out. Eventually, the authorities started to allocate land to the Tatars, but much of it was in places where it is difficult to build. And by then inflation had started, and many Crimean Tatars had lost their savings. That's why many Crimean Tatars did not have enough money to build, even though they received land plots. That's why today approximately 100,000 Crimean Tatars have very bad housing conditions.

The budget the state gives for construction is very small. Many of these settlements are without roads, water, heating. In some places, there is even no electricity. It looks like the Middle Ages. In the last few years, Ukraine has allocated more funds to improve conditions, but the money is only enough for 10 percent of what is needed.

RFE/RL: Have any other countries contributed help?

Dzhemilev: An international fund for the integration and development of Crimea was established under the auspices of the UN. We hoped that this meant that other states would participate in the discussion of this problem, but our hopes didn't come true. This fund was created in 1994, but nearly 10 years have passed and only $7.5 million was collected, most of it contributed by Turkey. It's a pity that we didn't get what had been expected.