Simferapol, Ukraine; 25 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Crimea was transferred to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic as a "gift" in 1954, when it seemed the Soviet Union would last forever.
But when the USSR disintegrated in 1991, Ukraine held onto Crimea and also inherited its complex ethnic problems.
Russians form the majority of the population. Many residents would like the peninsula to become part of Russia and many resent the return, encouraged by Ukraine, of Crimean Tatars deported by Josef Stalin in 1944. Ethnic Russian leaders have accused Tatars of wanting to grab land, encouraging Islamic fundamentalism, and eventually aiming to declare an independent Crimean Tatar state.
Brawls between Tatars and Russians are common. The Russian Orthodox Church has drawn historic parallels of conflict between East and West and engaged in what Tatars have labeled as provocative actions.
Earlier this year police fired above a crowd of Crimean Tatars trying to secure the release a fellow Tatar they said had been wrongly arrested. Militant uniformed Cossack organizations have confronted Tatar groups.
"You know all these tensions are the result of many years of anti-Tatar propaganda." - Umerov
The deputy chairman of the autonomous Crimean parliament, Ilmi Umerov -- a Crimean Tatar -- has no doubt ethnic tensions are being deliberately stirred up. "You know all these tensions are the result of many years of anti-Tatar propaganda," Umerov told RFE/RL. "On a street level, there are no serious problems -- people live together as neighbors, friends. The problems are caused by certain political organizations and these are called the Russian Community organization, the Communists, and in recent years severe problems have been caused by a structure calling itself a Cossack organization. Earlier they did not exist, but now they are here and, if I can say so, they are fighting against us and our rights."
Umerov said property and land issues are the most critical, as Russian investors are buying up much of the land. Next year, when land privatization is due to become easier, Umerov said Crimean Tatars will have even more problems trying to outbid rich Russians for land.
The leader of the Tatars' biggest civic organization, the Mejlis, is Mustafa Dzhemilev, who is also a member of the Ukrainian parliament. He blames the Kremlin and Crimean Russian organizations for fanning fear of Crimean Tatars and encouraging prejudice.
One of the most prominent Russian ethnic leaders in Crimea is Serhiy Tsekov, who is chairman of an organization called the Russian Community of Crimea. He is the leader of a political party called the Russian Bloc, a member of the Crimean parliament. Tsekov was against Ukrainian independence. He now accepts it, but wants close integration between Russia and Ukraine.
The organization has a reputation for encouraging aggressively nationalist Russian Cossacks. Tsekov believes the Crimean Tatars are being given too many advantages. He said politics should not be conducted on the basis of "an eye for an eye," and that today's Russians should not be blamed for the past mistreatment of Crimean Tatars.
"The Mejlis claims some special rights for the Tatars in Crimea. These are special rights for property, special status rights. They believe they have a separate national status and therefore they feel they deserve the right to special powers," Tsekov told RFE/RL.
Tsekov said he thinks the Tatars are exploiting the land issue for political ends. "Today the core problem is land. In the past there was another problem," he said. "In the past, the problem was representation in the organs of power in Crimea. They [Tatars] said that they had to have a guaranteed number of places in the Crimean government, in the Crimean parliament, in the town administrations. And when they did not succeed in attaining their demands, the problem of land appeared. And [in the future] they will raise the issue of Crimean Tatar national autonomy and then some kind of statehood."
Tsekov blames the Ukrainian government for working with the Mejlis, which he regards as an illegal organization, and for creating a climate he said could lead to serious conflict.
Another source of tension has been the Russian Orthodox Church. It has aggressively defended its dominance on the peninsula and virulently opposed the construction of Ukrainian Orthodox or Catholic churches. It has also been accused of deliberately provoking the Islamic Crimean Tatar population.
In 2002 it mounted a campaign to place large crosses at places that Mejlis leader Dzhemilev said were specifically chosen to ignite political anger. Many were placed at former Tatar settlements or sites sensitive for Muslims. "We have nothing against the cross, but the cross has its proper place," Dzhemilev said. "If you place a cross at the entrance to a city you are trying to emphasize that it's a Christian city. But these are not just Christian places -- they contain Jews and Muslims also."
Dzhemilev said in the past, the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church were supported by Crimea's openly Russian nationalist, communist-led government. This, he said, was a deliberate calculation meant to drive the situation to the brink of conflict. "Some of their actions overstepped the bounds of patience. They brought one huge cross from Russia and erected it at a place where Crimean Tatars were buried. Precisely at that place. That nearly caused bloodshed. We regarded that as a calculated provocation," he said.
The Russian Orthodox Church denies that it established the crosses as a provocation, and says it halted the program in order to prevent serious conflict.
(This is Part 2 of a five-part series. See also:Crimea's Tatars -- A Return To A Homeland Burdened By Ethnic Divisions (Part 1)Crimea's Tatars -- Mustafa Dzhemilev: Hero, Leader, Statesman (Part 3)Crimea's Tatars -- Clearing The Way For Islamic Extremism? (Part 4)Crimea's Tatars -- Uneasy Relations With Russian Cossacks (Part 5)