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Moscow Uses Divide-And-Conquer Strategy With Crimean Tatars

Crimean Tatars pray in the Khan Chair mosque in Bakhchisaray, near Simferopol.
Crimean Tatars pray in the Khan Chair mosque in Bakhchisaray, near Simferopol.
A small group of activists and local residents will gather in Kazan this weekend to mark the 70th anniversary of Josef Stalin's brutal deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.

The May 18 gathering in Kazan to mark the Red Army's roundup of more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars, who were shipped in cattle cars to remote destinations in Russia and Soviet Central Asia, will take place without the participation of Tatarstan's pro-Kremlin authorities.

The small event in the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan illustrates the complex relations between the two Tatar communities -- relations that are further complicated by the Kremlin's efforts to use the loyal officials in Kazan to help minimize resistance from Crimean Tatars to Moscow's unrecognized annexation of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula in March.

"[The Russian authorities] are actively recruiting Crimean Tatars right now, but it's not working," Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev said at a Kyiv press conference on May 5. "That's why they are bringing in Tatars from Kazan, Kazan Tatars. As you know, the top Kazan Tatar in Crimea is the deputy prime minister -- his name is Rustam Temirgaliev."

"They continue trying to divide us," Dzhemilev concluded.

In an interview with RFE/RL in April, Dzhemilev said the authorities in Tatarstan are acting as "the main propagandists of the idea that everything is good in Russia, that it will be good for Crimean Tatars to be part of Russia."

Kazan-based political analyst Rashit Akhmetov says the Kremlin is using Kazan Tatars to execute a "classic divide-and-conquer" strategy.

Early Overtures

Even before the annexation, Moscow used officials from Tatarstan to try to break the solidarity of the Crimean Tatar community, which staunchly favored remaining with Kyiv and endorsed the Ukrainian government's European-integration policy as part of its own effort to bolster its rights as a minority group.

In early March, Tatarstan's pro-Kremlin president, Rustem Minnikhanov, visited Crimea twice as part of a Kremlin charm offensive aimed at peninsula's Tatar community. When Minnikhanov met with representatives of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, the community's self-government body, it was the first official contact between the two Tatar communities in two decades.

Other concessions that Moscow offered in those early days included official status for the Crimean Tatar language, quotas for Tatar representation in government, and legal recognition for the Mejlis.

But the effort largely fell flat.

When a troupe of folk performers from Tatarstan toured Crimea, very few Crimean Tatars came out to see them. One performance took place on a Russian military base to a half-empty house.
(WATCH: Tatar folk troupe from Tatarstan performing in Crimea in March)

Days after the meeting with Minnikhanov, the Mejlis urged Tatars to boycott the controversial referendum on Crimean independence, signaling resolute opposition to Russia's takeover of Crimea that has grown stronger in the ensuing weeks.

Since Russia's annexation of the peninsula, relations between the Crimean Tatar community and the de facto authorities in Crimea have soured, with the region's prosecutor threatening earlier this month to ban the Mejlis as an extremist organization. Dzhemilev himself has been barred from entering Russia (including Crimea) for five years. The de facto authorities in Crimea have instructed the Tatar community to avoid politics in their commemoration of the May 18 deportation anniversary.

Speaking in Kazan on May 13, de facto Crimean parliament head Vladimir Konstantinov said the Mejlis has "long been seeped in anti-Russianness" and is now being financed by the West through Kyiv.

Still, Moscow continues to bring in Tatarstan officials. Tatarstan has been tapped to coordinate the development of the region of Bakhchyseray, the ancient Crimean Tatar capital of the peninsula.

Ilmir Timergaliev, Tatarstan's official representative in Crimea and the father of de facto Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Timergaliev, told RFE/RL that experts from Tatarstan's oil company are helping settlements that have poor access to drinking water.

"Two experts, scientists from Tatarstan, came to the Bakhchyseray district to search for water," Ilmir Timergaliev said. "They are working with exploration geologists [from the Tatneft oil company]. There is no water in the village of Skalyste and they said they will find water."

Other Tatar communities around the world, however, are concerned about Moscow's tactics of manipulating relations between the Kazan and Crimean Tatars.

Jerzy Szachuniewicz, head of the Polish Tatar Culture Center in Gdansk, has asked the European Parliament to establish a permanent independent Tatar representation in Brussels. He argues that the government of Tatarstan and its proxy, the World Tatar Congress, are "under Russian control."

"[We are proposing an] alliance between Tatars and Europe, so that everyone is in it -- Romanian Tatars, Crimean Tatars, Tatars everywhere -- so that they would all belong to this structure, so that they would all send one or two people and all be represented," Szachuniewicz told RFE/RL on May 7.

Crimean Tatar leader Dzhemilev is careful to distinguish between the pro-Kremlin authorities installed in Tatarstan and the Kazan Tatar nation.

"We do not identify the leadership of Tatarstan with the [Kazan] Tatar nation," he told RFE/RL in April. "The leadership of Tatarstan acts like a branch of the Kremlin -- and that is understandable since if they didn't, they wouldn't be in power."

A Troubled History

There is a long history of difficult relations among the various Tatar communities that emerged after the collapse of the Golden Horde in the 15th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were efforts to strengthen ties among them.

These beginnings, however, were nipped in the bud after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, when the Soviets encouraged each national group to develop in isolation.
Crimean Tatars Climb Chatyr-Dah Mountains To Honor 1944 Deportation Victims
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(WATCH: Crimean Tatars Climb Chatyr-Dah Mountains To Honor 1944 Deportation Victims)

Moreover, there were efforts to foster enmity among them -- for instance, many of the camps used during the 1944 deportations, in which half the Crimean Tatar nation perished during the first year, were commanded by Kazan Tatars.

"Nonetheless," says Kazan-based analyst Akhmetov, "the basic fraternity of these two nations has been preserved. Despite everything, the majority of Kazan Tatars support the Crimean Tatars. To some extent, even, [the Crimean Tatars] are seen as a moral example that one should never betray one's principles."

That "moral example" can be seen in Dzhemilev himself. Born in late 1943, he was just six months old when he and his family were caught up in the 1944 deportation and sent to Uzbekistan. At the age of 18, he began a lifetime of activism on behalf of Crimean Tatars. He was arrested six times for anti-Soviet activity between 1966 and 1986. He returned to Crimea in 1989.

Among the Kazan Tatar activists that will mourn the May 18 anniversary of the deportation in Tatarstan will be representatives of several local NGOs that in April nominated Dzhemilev for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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