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Ukraine: Crimean Tatars Campaign For Kuchma

Brutally deported by Stalin and only recently returned to their homeland, the Crimean Tatars remember the Communist era with horror. Fear of a Communist comeback has encouraged their political organization, the Mejlis, to actively campaign for Kuchma. Correspondent Lily Hyde reported on (Nov. 12) from Crimea on the Tatars' efforts.

Gvardeyskoe, 15 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the village of Gvardeyskoe, about 15 kilometers from the Crimean capital Simferopol, the only patches of color on the streets are red posters for the Communist presidential candidate, Petro Symonenko. Outside the village shop, a group of elderly Russian women complain about their unpaid pensions and their children's unemployment. They say they voted for Symonenko in the last round of the presidential elections and will do so again.

The Tatars who live in the area are also suffering in today's poor economic climate; they point out the empty plots of land where owners cannot afford to build houses. Nevertheless, the Tatar political organization, the Mejlis, is encouraging Tatars to put politics before economics, and vote against the Communists.

The Crimean Tatars were deported from Crimea under Stalin and could not return until after Ukraine achieved independence in 1991. Their sense of nationhood is strong. Remzi Ablaev, deputy head of the Mejlis, says the collective memory of Communist persecution has led the Mejlis to campaign actively for Kuchma.

"We are one of the nations that suffered a great deal under the Communist period, and now there's a real threat of restoration of the Communist system if they come to power. We of course don't want that and will do all we can to prevent it."

The Crimean Tatars make up about 12 percent of the Crimean population, with up to 120,000 registered voters, says Ablaev. Their pro-Kuchma vote could be decisive in Crimea, where Communist candidate Symonenko narrowly led in the first round. The Mejlis has carried out a major campaign in the two-week run-up to the second round, touring all Tatar villages and distributing fliers for Kuchma and leaflets detailing Communist crimes against the Tatars.

It might seem that Crimean Tatars with any sense of history would never vote for the Communists. But Dilyaver Ablaev from the Gvardeyskoe district chapter of Mejlis says otherwise.

"It's no secret that among us there are people of advanced age who are nostalgic for the old times, when bread was cheaper. They don't think about the political side of things, they think about a piece of bread, about economics. So if we don't agitate, if we don't explain things to them, they could give their vote to Symonenko and the Communists."

The flurry of activity by the Mejlis is also driven in part by disappointment in the group's effectiveness before the first round of voting, said Remzi Ablaev. The Mejlis and the Tatar assembly (the Quiriltai) decided to support Hennadiy Udovenko for president, a candidate from the Rukh party who has strong ties with the Tatars. But Udovenko received less than 2 percent of the vote in Crimea. Most Tatars voted for Kuchma, a few for the Communists.

Most Tatars are less than enthusiastic about Kuchma, who has done little to help them in their quest for a representative Tatar quota in the government. They do not expect his thanks if he is elected on Sunday. Still, earlier this year the president did establish a Tatar-led committee to consider ethnic questions. For that, Dilyaver Ablaev gives him grudging praise.

"Now the Crimean Tatars before this round have a dilemma. They have just two options, either Kuchma or Symonenko. So I can't say if Kuchma will do anything for us, but I definitely know that all the same he has better relations with us than Symonenko [does]. His recent attitude toward Crimea Tatars and their problems, because he founded a representative organ which was backed by our Mejlis, shows already a big step on his side."

Kuchma will need all the help he can get in Crimea in the election on Sunday. The region is mostly populated by Russians and tends, like the Communist candidate Symonenko, to lean toward Russia.