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Ukraine: Crimean Tatars Demand Ancestral Lands

Land distribution is a thorny issue throughout Ukraine, but nowhere more so than in Crimea. Thousands of Crimean Tatars who have returned after decades of Communist-enforced exile are demanding rights to their ancestral land, but Ukrainian laws on land distribution have so far failed to grapple with a potential source of civic unrest. Lily Hyde reports for RFE/RL.

Simferopol, Ukraine; 27 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the Crimean villages of Chervonoe red tulips fill the gardens, and peach orchards are blooming. Locals boast that the land here, north of Simferopol, is the best in the peninsula. But Ukraine's latest attempts at land reform are threatening to set the inhabitants of these peaceful villages at loggerheads over the earth they are so proud of.

A series of presidential decrees last year, aimed at finally breaking up the collective farm system, allowed land from the farms to be distributed among all former collective members. But the land distribution did not include most of the Crimean Tatars who returned to Crimea at the beginning of the 1990s after years of exile imposed by Stalin. Fewer than one-fifth (16,000) of the 270,000 Tatars were granted membership in the collective farms upon their return, so they were not eligible for land when the farms broke up. Now the rest are demanding that they too be given land plots.

Tevfik Shevki is one of the 342 Crimean Tatar adults in Chervonoe who want to receive land. These Tatars are demanding a moratorium on land distribution until a new law is passed that recognizes their claims.

"We see that here the starting opportunity for every citizen who lives in Crimea is equal and has to be equal. If we want stability, if we want a guarantee that all will always be alright in Crimea, it means no people living here should be offended. That's our demand, and I think it has to be so in the future."

The government's solution is to grant reserved land from the collective farms to deported peoples such as the Tatars, as well as to workers from the social sphere like teachers and police. But the Tatars have many objections to using this land. Mustafa Djemilev, head of the Tatar political organization the Medjlis, explains.

"First of all, the reserve land isn't enough to solve this problem, and second, it differs in quality from the land used by the KSP [collective farms]. Third, it's placed a long way from places where people live, so it's hard to work on. And finally, reserve and spare land should stay as spare and reserve, because around 200,000 more Tatars are getting ready to return to their homeland. What should we tell them when they return, that there's nothing for them?"

In some regions, the shortage of spare land is particularly acute. Around Simferopol, for example, an average plot of reserve land is less than one hectare. All over Crimea, the average size of plots allotted to collective farm members varies from around five hectares to around 30.

Local authorities have had mixed reactions to the Tatar demands. Volodymyr Zakoretsky, head of the Simferopol region administration, says the outcry is just political agitation from the Tatar group Medjlis. The Simferopol council has only received about 100 applications for reserve land, and he says that indicates that ordinary Tatars are not really interested in land.

Zakoretsky is opposed to changing the law, saying redistribution would only offend the Russians and Ukrainians who have already received land. "We've already agreed with these people, many have concluded an agreement. In what way should I explain and why should I now explain to them that we have to collect it again and give it to another? Other regions are more sympathetic to Tatar claims to their ancestral land. In Bakhchisarai region, which also has an acute shortage of reserve land, the administration has already worked out a system of re-allocation that would take around 30 percent from existing land plots for redistribution among Tatars. Volodymyr Tsihansky of the Bakhchisarai regional administration said Russian and Ukrainians would agree to this proposal if it were carried out soon. "We've collected people together to talk about it and they aren't against it. Because it's an abstract proposal, we've just given them a theoretical document and in reality the land hasn't been distributed yet. No one has invested his own money or seeds yet, they haven't got them and it's all just a future prospect. Today there's no personal interest in this land and no material investment, no material expenditure for people, so in principle people don't object."

Tsihansky has identified a larger problem facing land reform not just in Crimea but all over Ukraine. The argument over who gets what land remains theoretical while individuals have no resources to put into farming.

In Bakhchisarai region, all the collective farms have remained intact even after the land distribution, because no one can afford to farm outside the old structure. And until that problem is solved, neither Tatars nor anyone else will be able to reform land use in Ukraine.