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Going Nowhere Fast -- Crimean Tatars In The EU

Mustafa Dzhemilev, the head of Ukraine's Crimean Tatars
Mustafa Dzhemilev, the head of Ukraine's Crimean Tatars
There is the high road and there is the low road for outside supplicants in the European Union. Both roads lead to Brussels.

The high road takes in the capitals of the larger of the 27 EU member states (who pull the foreign policy levers); the low road dumps the itinerant in the European Parliament (which can make noise).

Let's take Iceland and Ukraine as examples.

Iceland, once it set its sights on EU membership, sailed straight onto the agenda of EU foreign ministers' meetings. Ukraine, with similar ambitions, got itself endorsed as a "European country" by the European Parliament in 2005 -- useful, if not terribly so.

But there is a third road for those who carry no weight at all in the EU. This road fizzles out in the less-fashionable corners of the massive buildings housing the parliaments in Brussels and Strasbourg, sponsored by MEPs (as members of the European Parliament are known) with less-than-stellar careers, usually in the smaller political groups.

Latest to receive the third-road treatment is Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of Ukraine's Crimean Tatars. The case of Dzhemilev and his people is worth exploring, if only as a cautionary tale.

Unjust Fate

First, Dzhemilev's treatment has no conceivable link to the merit of the case being taken to Brussels. In modern European history, there are few peoples who have suffered a worse or more unjust fate than the Crimean Tatars -- deported in corpore by Stalin in 1944 and still struggling to regain their patrimony. There can be few leaders as dignified, cogent, and dedicated as Dzhemilev, who has unfailingly adhered to the principles of nonviolence.

The net effect of Dzhemilev's effort? Zero. Zilch. Nada.
If Dzhemilev was shocked or otherwise unpleasantly surprised this morning to find himself addressing less than two dozen people in a dusty room capable of accommodating some 150, he did not show it. With seemingly unlimited patience, he made his case to an audience consisting of the MEP who sponsored his presence at the European Parliament (Leonidas Donskis of Lithuania), a handful of (Ukrainian) journalists, NGO representatives, and a couple of diplomatic types (one of whom spoke Turkish).

The net effect of Dzhemilev's effort? Zero. Zilch. Nada. However unfair and undeserved this may seem. Building up political support in the EU for an outside cause is never easy and is virtually undoable from the bottom up. In Brussels, MEPs represent the closest thing to grass roots and their interest is fickle. Two sent their last-minute regrets today -- a Pole (a must-have in any East European context) and the Finnish chairman of the Human Rights Subcommittee (any non-EU minority's last hope of institutional interest).

To get anywhere in the European Parliament (assuming direct contacts with Berlin, Paris, London, Warsaw, etc., are ruled out), sponsorship is needed. The Poles come in particularly handy when it comes to Eastern European causes, given the active interest their government takes in the
region, as do (in a smaller way) Romanians and Balts. Sponsorship at the level of some national delegation must then translate itself into benevolent regard by the Powers That Be in the Foreign Affairs Committee (currently chaired by an Italian MEP) -- which means taking the case to the largest political groupings, the conservatives and socialists.

Once the committee is on board, a parliamentary resolution becomes a distinct possibility. A resolution itself is the crowning glory of any foreign lobbying effort involving the European Parliament. It doesn't mean much in the real world (where Berlin, Paris, and London decide), but it does bring with it a degree of publicity whose official EU flavor makes it difficult to completely ignore.

Firmer Ground

It remains to be hoped that Dzhemilev was explained all this before he took to the floor this morning. That he understands the vagaries of realpolitik was abundantly clear from the Crimean Tatar leader's unflinching support to Ukrainian independence against any and all Russian encroachment (Russia being predominantly interested in building up its own claim to Crimea, very much to the detriment of the indigenous Tatar population). It was reflected in Dzhemilev's curt condemnation of Russia's war with Georgia, which won at least nominal independence
for Abkhazia, a fellow member in the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples' Organization, whose imprimatur today's hearing also carried.

But Dzhemilev could and should have been put on much firmer ground by his Brussels hosts when it comes to what he could expect from the EU. He had a long wish list -- from EU money for essential Crimean Tatar projects to EU pressure on Central Asian governments and Ukraine to arrange for the repatriation of the remaining 100,000-150,000 remaining Crimean Tatars in exile.

All of that appears to have been a waste of effort, given that the European Parliament can deliver none of it (even if it collectively really wanted to). And there was nobody in attendance today from the European Council (representing the member states) or the European Commission (which functions as an EU executive with a limited autonomous remit).

Not to mention that no direct EU aid project is undertaken without the go-ahead of the government of the country involved (even in Uzbekistan).

Thought of the day from Brussels (depressing as it may be): The only way for the Crimean Tatars to win EU attention (and everything that goes with it) is to enlist Kyiv's backing (or set up their own country).

Ahto Lobjakas is RFE/RL's correspondent in Brussels. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL