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Russia Tries To Win Over Crimean Tatars

Crimean Tatars listen to a sermon in the Khan Chair mosque in Bakhchisaray, near Simferopol.
Crimean Tatars listen to a sermon in the Khan Chair mosque in Bakhchisaray, near Simferopol.
As pro-Moscow authorities consolidate their hold over Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, the region's Tatars have found themselves on the receiving end of a Kremlin-backed charm offensive to win their support. But it appears to be falling flat.

The charm offensive comes ahead of a controversial referendum scheduled for March 16 in which voters will decide whether the Black Sea peninsula should leave Ukraine and become part of Russia. Kyiv says the vote is illegal.

A series of delegations from Russia has descended on Crimea in recent weeks and pro-Moscow authorities in the region are promising Tatars expanded rights.

On March 12, a veteran leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev, was in Moscow at the invitation of Russian authorities for talks about the crisis in Ukraine. He met with the former president of Russia’s Tatarstan Republic, Mintimer Shaimiyev.

He also spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was in Sochi.

But Dzhemilev says he told Putin that a referendum on the status of Ukraine's Crimea region is illegitimate and will be boycotted by Crimean Tatars.

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, Dzhemilev said he told Putin that the secession of Crimea from Ukraine to join Russia would violate a 1994 diplomatic memo in which Russia, Britain, and the United States all vowed not to violate Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Earlier, before his meetings in Moscow and his phone call with Putin, Dzhemilev said that his delegation would continue to insist that Russia respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.

"Our main condition is the withdrawal of Russian forces [from Crimea]," Dzhemilev said.

"Then we can talk about everything else. From the point of view of Crimean Tatars, none of the decisions or declarations [adopted by the Crimean parliament] have any legal validity because the [Crimean] parliament is illegitimate as it has been conducting itself like a separatist structure."

In Crimea, pro-Moscow authorities are also moving to win the support of the region's Tatars.

On March 11, the Crimean parliament passed a resolution declaring it will "guarantee the rights of the Crimean Tatar nation and its integration into Crimean society."

The resolution promised reforms including the Tatar language official status, placing it legally on par with Russian and Ukrainian in the region.

'A Bribe'

It also calls for Crimean Tatars to hold at least 20 percent of the cabinet posts in the region's government, to be represented local government structures, and for the Mejlis to be recognized as a legitimate institution of self-governance.

Lawmakers also pledged to guarantee religious freedom for the predominantly Muslim Tatars and to fund programs to support the Crimean Tatar community -- including the repatriation of those deported on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Fear Rife Among Crimea's Minority Tatar Population

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, Dzhemilev dismissed the offers as "a bribe."

In addition to Dzhemilev's invitation to the Russian capital and the Crimean parliament's resolution, Moscow also dispatched Rustam Minnikhanov, the Tatarstan Republic's current president, to Crimea twice over the past two weeks.

Minnikhanov stressed the cultural and historic ties between Tatars in Russia and in Crimea and met with Crimea's chief mufti, Amirali Ablayev, and the current head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov.

But shortly after Minnikhanov’s visit, Chubarov called on all Crimean residents to boycott the March 16 referendum on whether to join Russia.

He also wrote an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama saying that Crimean Tatars are "pinning their hopes" on the United States for a resolution to the Crimean crisis, which he described as being caused by "irresponsible Crimean separatist politicians [who] have staged a coup" with the help of Russian soldiers.

The charm offensive from Russia and the pro-Kremlin authorities in Simferopol comes at a time of heightened concerns among Tatars -- who fear their community could face reprisals should Crimea join Russia.

Crimean Tatars have already complained about various forms of harassment including having their houses vandalized. Some also allege their passports were confiscated by Russian-speakers who came to their homes posing as election officials.