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Ukraine: Crimean Tatars End Protests After Agreements

Simferopol, 25 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A group of Crimean Tatars have ended protests in the regional capital Simferopol after word of an agreement between Tatar leaders and officials of Ukraine's Crimean republic on language and other rights.

Protestors late yesterday took down tents that had ringed republican government buildings.

The action came after Mustafa Jemilev, leader of the Mejlis (the unrecognized Crimean Tatar political council), announced key demands had been met by republican Prime Minister Sergei Kunitsin. Jemilev said the agreement will allow Crimean Tatars to own land and open their own schools. The Tatars were also given the right to set up a council representing their interests.

The concessions follow a similar agreement reached by Jemilev in talks with Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma in Kyiv last week (May 17). After those talks, Kuchma issued a presidential decree setting up a council of representatives of the Crimean Tatar people with Jemilev as chairman. Part of the committee's mandate is to resolve the question of the status of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar council, and the Kurultai, the Tatar congress.

The agreement also follows massive demonstrations by Crimean Tatars last week, when an estimated 18,000 Tatars converged on Simferopol from across the republic. The march was organized by the Mejlis to protest discrimination.

The Tatars comprise just 12 percent of the Crimean population, but their cause carries great weight in view of the history of the peninsula. The Tatars were deported on mass from their Crimean homeland during World War II on orders from Josef Stalin, who suspected they had collaborated with the Germans. Between one-third and half of them died on the way to exile in Central Asia.

Many Tatars have returned to Crimea, now part of Ukraine, since the 1980s, but they continue to suffer from political and economic discrimination.

Only half of the returned Tatar population has gained Ukrainian citizenship and with that the right to vote, meaning Tatars are underrepresented in Ukraine and Crimean political institutions. Tatars say, therefore, a guaranteed number of seats should be set aside for them in the republic's parliament. Tatars also demand their language be given official status as a state language and that more Tatar schools be established.

At the moment, according to Tatar organizations, there are only six schools for 39,000 Tatar children. The Ukrainian constitution guarantees the right for all national minorities to use and study in their own language. Mejlis member Kurtveli Khiyasidonov, speaking last week, said:

"We are demanding what is written in the constitution and what existed up to the war; that the Tatar language be recognized as a state language. If it isn't recognized, our language will be absolutely lost. If it's written that yes, there is such a language, that will bring a full revival."

The Mejlis, which has no official standing, is demanding that it be recognized as the council of the Tatar people. Mejlis member Khiyasidonov says that would be a step toward restoring the situation before the second World War, when Tatars enjoyed a special status.

"Now autonomy has been founded here, but it is not based on national features but on territorial features. Our demand, as it is our land and we are the indigenous people, is that we should have national autonomy. Let us be a minority, but it should be national autonomy because up to the war there was such autonomy and now they won't grant it. Other nationalities [represented on the peninsula]: Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians and so on, have their own state, where their language develops, their culture can develop. We don't have that. Except for Crimea, and we can develop only in Crimea."

Last week's protest march, in addition to highlighting current grievances, also marked the forced deportations the Crimean Tatars endured 55 years ago.

Safie Yakubova was seven years old when she and her family were sent away. She began to weep as she spoke:

"The Germans burned the village. When our side came back, they announced that the Soviet power had arrived. We all returned to the village, 'hurrah hurrah, our side has returned'. In a few days everyone at gunpoint on foot, from the village, from Bakhchiserai, naked, barefoot, hungry, in such a hard state. There was nothing to eat. The wheat was burned, and we little children, who couldn't stand being hungry, ate the burnt grain. I'll never forget. Noise, cries, tears, we thought our soldiers had come to save us, but they put us in cattle wagons, hungry, they said they didn't know where we were going. All crying, many died, and nowhere to bury them so they just threw them outside."

But Yakubova, who spent two days walking to Simferopol, said that she was marching not because of the past but because of the present:

"This is why we are meeting, because we are still alive, and so that our children will never see this day again. We thought to come here and build a good life. It turned out otherwise. We suffered and still suffer so that our children and grandchildren will not suffer."

Several Rukh party deputies of Ukraine's parliament turned out at the gatherings in Simferopol to express solidarity with the Tatars. The Rukh party is led by moderate ethnic-Ukrainian nationalists. The leaders used the opportunity to lambaste their Communist opponents who dominate the Crimean parliament. Oleg Fomushkin, the head of the Crimean Organization of the Rukh party:

"We support the action of the Crimean Tatars because we think their poverty is linked to the fact that the leadership of our republic is Communist. As long as the Communists remain in power, the problems of the Tatars will not be solved. The Communist leaders are carrying out genocide against the Crimean Tatars. For example, there are free places on the farms. Russian get them, Tatars don't."

Highlighting the rights of the Tatars, however, is seen by many, especially Russians and Ukrainians, as needlessly stirring up ethnic tension. Events in Kosovo were not far from the minds of many who took part in the rally and those who observed it. One Tatar banner called Crimean parliament speaker Leonid Grach a "mini-Milosevic," and speakers drew parallels between recent actions against the Kosovars and the deportation of the Tatars in 1944.

Ukrainians and Russians on the streets said they were afraid and angry at what they called 'agitation.' Many resent the Tatar towns that have sprung up all over the peninsula putting a heavy strain on Crimea's already weak infrastructure. And although a representative from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarch) spoke out for peace and understanding at the rally, some Orthodox inhabitants of Simferopol, with the Serbian and Bosnian conflict in mind, said it was impossible for Christians and Muslims to live together peacefully.

In Kyiv, Georgiy Popov, head of Ukraine's parliamentary committee for human rights, minorities and ethnic issues, said the problems of the Tatars should not be given special status but have to be solved along with the overall economic problems of the country. Popov said that "these problems are felt especially painfully by those repatriated to Crimea, to the place where their ancestors lived". But he said "this same difficulty is the general situation in Ukraine."