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Ukraine: Crimea's Tatars -- Uneasy Relations With Russian Cossacks (Part 5)

Ethnic relations are uneasy between Crimean Tatars and Russians on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. A particularly ominous development has been the increase in activity by self-styled "Russian Cossacks" who are confronting the Tatars -- particularly over the sensitive issue of land.

Simferopol, Ukraine; 27 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At a beautiful sandy bay near southern Crimea's grape-growing Koktebel region, vacationers splash in the Black Sea or bake in the sunshine.

But the atmosphere on a nearby cliff top is more solemn.

There, uniformed men gather at a camp of so-called Russian Cossacks to declare they are ready to fight to keep the local land from being handed over to Crimean Tatars. They listen to a service by a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Vladimir Melnyk, who has come to bless them.

The men's uniforms are partly modern, but reminiscent of military style from before the Bolshevik Revolution.

After the service, they listen to their officers or grab a bowl of barley kasha from the large tent where they have just prayed, and which also serves as a field kitchen and gathering point. It is surrounded by smaller tents for sleeping.

These men proudly call themselves Cossacks and believe it is their mission to defend Russian Orthodoxy. They claim as their opponent the Crimean Tatars, whom they accuse of wanting to grab land or seeking to build an independent Tatar state on the peninsula.

The potential battleground in this war: this kilometer of pretty beach and numerous hectares behind it. Authorities say the land will be transferred to Tatars, who want to build a cultural center and resort area there. The Cossacks have vowed to prevent this -- by force, if necessary.

Men loyal to the largest Crimean Tatar group, the Mejlis, have also set up a camp near the beach a half-kilometer from the Cossacks. Using binoculars, each side warily watches the other.

Around 260,000 Crimean Tatars, survivors of and descendents of those deported by Stalin in his 1944 ethnic cleansing of the peninsula, have returned since Ukrainian independence in 1991.

But the local Russian-ethnic authorities have made it difficult for them to get land on the southern Crimean shores where many traditionally lived.

The Cossacks are outraged that the authorities in the peninsula's capital, Simferopol, seem to have agreed to Tatar demands this time.

The Cossack leader in the Feodosia region that includes the beach area, Ataman Boris Stepanov, does not disguise his dislike for the Crimean Tatars, repeating Stalin's justification for their original expulsion.

"The Crimean Tatars who came from Uzbekistan, they were deported there because during the war they betrayed a lot of Slavs and went over to the German side," Stepanov said. "They wiped out whole families, entire streets of Orthodox Christian people, handed them over to the Germans. They tyrannized us."

Stepanov echoes the accusations and angry stories that can be heard from ethnic Russians all over the peninsula -- that the Tatars will eventually demand their own independent state and will attract Islamic fundamentalism to Crimea.

"Now they [Tatars] have returned here and they don't behave lawfully," Stepanov said. "They want to live well. Not just well, but they want their nation to be above all the others. They don't obey the laws of Ukraine or Crimea. They've created their own government, an illegal body which they call the Mejlis."

Mejlis leader Mustafa Dzhemilev said Tatars are angered by what they see as attempts by local authorities to obstruct the distribution of land to Tatars. Dzhemilev said that the Mejlis has mostly been able to prevent angry young Tatars from confronting the Cossacks in the past. But he warned that things could spin dangerously out of control if the Tatars' situation grows worse.

Dzhemilev said the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Cossacks is sending a negative signal to all Crimeans.

"Currently it has become very fashionable to talk about Muslim extremism and extremist and radical organizations," Dzhemilev said. "But the thing is that Islamic radicalism is no different from Christian radicalism, especially that among the [Russian] Orthodox."

He said that Tatars had previously camped on the land in Feodosia they were claiming, but had departed after the Crimean government promised to officially transfer the area to them.

Dzhemilev said he believes the Cossacks are being urged on by businessmen eager to get land for themselves.

"Most of them [Cossacks] are from Russia -- from Rostov, Krasnodar, there are some from Donetsk and Zaporizhya (in eastern Ukraine). There are different types of Cossacks," Dzhemilev said. "There are Ukrainian Cossacks, with whom we have good relations, and there are Russian Cossacks. But I must say that Cossacks in Crimea are clearly a provocation because there were never Cossacks here -- they are yesterday's Komsomol members [Communist youth organization] who have no links to real Cossacks."

Stepanov said that he personally comes from an old Cossack family but admits most of his men have no links to Cossacks. Many of the younger members look like skinheads. Stepanov said recruits swear an oath of loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church.

He said all his men have undergone military training as conscripts and are ready to fight if necessary. Although the Tatars claim the Cossacks have access to weapons, Stepanov denies that and said they rely on long bullwhips tucked into their belts.

"We've got these whips and we can defend ourselves with these whips -- I mean, in those circumstances when our lives are threatened," Stepanov said. "And during the winter, most of the Cossack groups rent out sports facilities and we train in Russian-style unarmed combat."

(This is Part 5 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 -- Mustafa Dzhemilev: Hero, Leader, Statesman (Part 3)

Crimea's Tatars -- Clearing The Way For Islamic Extremism? (Part 4))