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Crimean Tatars return to their native land: are they welcome there?

 

Svitlana Abakumenko prefaces her interview with Mustafa Djemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatars National Movement, with a tragic story of the Crimean Tatars.

 

In 1944, the Crimean Tatars were deported from the Crimea for alleged "collaboration with the German Nazis" during the Second World War. All of the Tatars, who made up the bulk of the then Crimean population. After Ukraine regained her independence, the Tatars were allowed to return and many of them did — only to start life in the land of their ancestors from scratch. The influx of the returning Tatars added to the many problems the Crimea faces — ethnical, economical and political.

 

Deportation and death

It was Lavrenty Beria, head of the Soviet KGB, the most brutal and much feared political organ of suppression in the history of mankind, who “advised” the Soviet dictator, the self-styled “Leader of All Nations” Joseph Stalin to move all the Tatars from the Crimea where they had been living for several hundred years to Central Asia, as punishment for “ treacherously collaborating with the Nazi Germans, archenemies of the Soviet people.” Stalin thought it was a good idea and ordered the deportation to be carried in the shortest time possible. The fact that most of the able-bodied men of Tatar descent were at that time serving in the Red Army was ignored.

In May 1944, special military units were sent to all the villages and towns of the Crimea. The Tatar homes were burst in, and the people were told, “In the name of Soviet power! For betraying your Soviet Motherland you are to be deported from the Crimea. You’ve got twenty minutes to pack.” Then the horrified people — mostly elderly men, women and children — were loaded into military trucks and taken to the railroad terminals. The silent men, wailing women and crying children were next put into freight trains and the trains carried them to the distant lands of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. There is no telling how many were deported, how many died on the way, and how many were shot by firing squads for the refusal to leave their homes. The estimate is 200,000 people were thus dealt with.

One village on the southern Crimean coast was “overlooked,” and after the report that “all of the Tatars have been moved out” had been sent to Moscow, somebody remembered that one village had not been “cleared out of the traitors” and all the villagers were loaded onto a barge, taken to sea and drowned.

 

Bits of history

The name Tatar first appeared among nomadic tribes living in northeastern Mongolia and the area around Lake Baikal from the 5th century A.D. Unlike the Mongols, these peoples spoke a Turkic language. After various groups of these Turkic nomads became part of the armies of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan in the early 13th century, a fusion of Mongol and Turkic elements took place, and the Mongol invaders of Kyivan Rus and Hungary became known to Europeans as Tatars (or Tartars).

After Genghis Khan’s empire broke up, the Tatars became especially identified with the western part of the Mongol domain, which included most of European Russia and was called the Golden Horde. These Tatars were converted to Sunnite Islam in the 14th century. Owing to internal divisions and various foreign pressures, the Golden Horde disintegrated late in the 14th century into the independent Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan on the Volga River, Sibir in western Siberia, and the Crimea. Russia conquered the first three of these khanates in the 16th century, but the Crimean khanate became a vassal state of the Ottoman Turks until it was annexed to Russia by Catherine II in 1783. Several thousand Tatars — Muslim scholars, priests, military leaders and persons of distinction — were massacred in April of that year, soon after the annexation. The Bolsheviks were not the first to solve ethnic problems by savage methods.

The massacre led to the rise of the national liberation movement. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Tatars (estimates vary from five to fifteen hundred thousand people) emigrated from the Crimea to Russia and other countries. The Crimean War of the 1850s triggered another wave of mass immigration.

The Crimean Tatars had their own history in the modern period.

After the February-March Revolution of 1917 and abdication of the Tsar, the Tatars of the Crimea wanted to go independent and the Kurultai, Convention of Representatives of the Crimean Tatar People, proclaimed the Crimean Democratic Republic on December 10 1917. Ukraine, that proclaimed its own independence, supported the Crimean Republic hoping they would join forces in the face of aggressive monarchist movements on the one hand and imminent Bolshevik aggression on the other.

The Bolsheviks did not lose time and soon after the proclamation of the Crimean Republic, they crushed Tatar independence and murdered Numan Chelebedzhikhan, head of the republic. But it took the Bolsheviks much more time and effort to establish their power in the Crimea firmly enough to proclaim it “the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Republic” in 1921. There was no real autonomy, of course, but as a propaganda ploy anything went.

The famine of 1921–1923, continuing deportations and firing squads, further reduced the Tatar population. When the Crimea was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War, some of the Tatars, not quite understanding the true nature of Nazism, hoped they would be given a chance to regain independence. The “sobering up” came when so many Jews, Gypsies and other ethnics began to be killed en masse by the Nazis who turned out to be hardly a lesser evil than the Soviets. Incidentally, the Nazis planned to deport the Tatars from the Crimea and bring in ethnic Germans instead.

The Soviets used the pretext of alleged collaboration for “solving the Tatar problem” once and forever. May 18, the day when the deportation which destroyed eventually or directly about fifty percent of all the Tatar ethnics in the Soviet Union and depopulated the Crimea, is still marked by the Tatars as the Day of Grief.

Even the use of the Tatar language was forbidden. The Tatars regained some of their civil rights in 1956 under the de-Stalinization programme of Nikita Khrushchev, but they were not allowed to return to the Crimea. The Tatar national movement began to revive but the Soviets ignored the pleas to allow the Tatar to return to their native land. The KGB was as always on guard, weeding out the most active leaders of the Tatar national movement. The international awareness began to grow with the human rights organization appealing to the governments of western democracies to raise the issue with the Soviet government.

It was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that many Crimean Tatars, taking advantage of the loosening of the Soviet tight political grip and actual break-up of the Soviet central government’s authority, began returning to settle in the Crimea after nearly five decades of internal exile.

They faced hidden and open hostility on the part of the local authorities — most of whom were former communists — and some segments of the local population. The thing is that in 1954, the Crimea, which was part of the Russian Federation (R.F.S.S.R.), was “given” to Ukraine, then also a “Soviet Socialist Republic” within the Soviet Union, in a gesture of “fraternal love and friendship.” With the central authority absolutely concentrated in Moscow, it did not seem to change anything. Besides, the Crimea was repopulated by mostly ethnic Russians after the 1944 deportation of the Tatars.

In 1991, a referendum whose results were predetermined supported the idea of an autonomous republic but rejected independence. The Organization of the Crimean Tatar National Liberation Movement (OCTNLM) boycotted the referendum but the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada which was still dominated by the communists, used the results of the referendum for instituting the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on February 1991. OCTNLM representatives were denied the right to take part in parliamentary voting on this matter.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union later in the year, Tatars began returning to the Crimea in ever increasing numbers. In some areas they met with hostility and resistance from the local population, there was even bloodshed, and the state authorities of now independent Ukraine had to interfere.

By the end of 2002, 270,000 Crimean Tatars are estimated to have returned to their native land, with 150–200,000 Crimean Tatars remaining to live outside the Crimea. The Crimean Tatars National Movement headed by Mustafa Djemilev was instrumental in making it possible for Tatars to return.

 

Mustafa Djemilev, 54, is also chairman of the Mejlis (parliament) of the Crimean Tatar People, deputy of Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, member of the Nasha Ukraine faction in parliament.

In the Soviet times, he was repeatedly arrested and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment for his views and activities — all in all he spent 18 years in Soviet prisons in GULAG camps. Ronald Reagan, US President, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident and later Czech President, and Andrey Sakharov, the nuclear physicist turned dissident, spoke out in defence of Mustafa Djemilev and his heroic efforts to bring the Tatars back to the Crimea. After his release from prison, he returned to the Crimea and settled down in the town of Bakhchisaray. In 1998, he was awarded the UN Nansen Prize for championing the cause of human rights. He is an honorary citizen of several Turkish cities and in Ankara a street and a park were named after him.

It is widely believed that it is thanks to Mustafa Djemilev and the policy he pursues that the National Movement of the Crimean Tatars has avoided separatist conflicts with Ukraine and preserved a peaceful and democratic character. Mustafa Djemilev, a prominent human rights activist, is a much respected, even revered figure among the Crimean Tatars.

 

Mr Djemilev, what kind of problems do the Crimean Tatars, returning to their native land, have to deal with?

Roughly, they can be divided into social and political. The major political problem — the restoration of legal rights of the Crimean Tatars in the Crimea — there is still no law that would determine the status of the Crimean Tatar people in Ukraine. We are treated as “one of ethnic minorities” though the Crimea is our native land, the land where our independent state existed for centuries. The republic was created because the majority of the population were the Tatars, and naturally after the deportation there was no more need for an ethnic autonomy. Now, when we, after many years of struggle, have begun to return to our native land, we again find ourselves in an autonomous republic but not of the Crimean Tatars but that of the local population who are mostly Russian speaking because it was Russians who were brought to the Crimea to settle down in the land vacated by the Tatars. The present constitution of the Crimean autonomous republic does not mention the Crimean Tatars altogether.

The Russian speaking part of the Crimean population makes up about 60 percent of all the people living in the Crimea — and Russian-speaking people are not necessarily Russians, there are other ethnics among them, including ethnic Ukrainians raised in the Russian-speaking environment, and these Russian-speaking people are pro-Russian, and they want to return “into the bosom of their Mother Russia.” Or maybe to be citizens of a union which would include Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, that is union based on racial and ethnic principles. By contrast, the Crimean Tatars see their future only as part of Ukraine as a national-territorial autonomy. And it means that we find ourselves in political opposition to the majority of people in the Crimea. The Russian media often speak of the Crimean Tatars as a potential for provoking a situation similar to that in Chechnya. Are they envious that Russia has Chechnya and Ukraine does not?

The main social problem is lack of housing. Upon arrival here form Central Asia we were not given apartments or houses to live in, everybody had to find a place to live in for themselves. We sold our apartments and houses when we were moving out of the place where we used to live in, but as so many people were selling so many apartments and houses at practically the same time, the prices went down, and in the Crimea it was the other way round — the prices went up because so many people wanted to buy houses. But even in that situation there was soon nothing more to buy. We asked the local authorities to give us some land to build houses on but our requests were turned down under different pretexts, and Tatars were forced “to grab land” as it was termed wherever they could — they pitched their tents and said, Here, at this place we’re going to build our houses. About 46,000 plots of land are said to have been occupied in this way by Tatars and it led to clashes some of which ended in bloodshed. Some of the houses that the Tatars had built were ruined but in the end these lots were legally turned over to the Tatars. But it happened when the inflation was rampant, the money lost its value and the prices for construction materials rocketed. About a hundred thousand people are left without more or less decent places to live — they cannot afford to finish what was begun, and their houses lack roofs, plumbing or any conveniences. In 1990 and in 1991 the Russian-speaking residents of the Crimea were given 150,000 plots of land to be used as vegetable gardens or for summer houses to be built on them — and the arriving Tatars did not get anything. These plots were almost imposed upon people — they were told that “the Tatars are coming” and the Crimea would soon be run over by “wild Tatars,” so hurry up and take what you are offered. Several years later I saw ads in the newspapers: “Swap a plot of land for a VCR.” Many of the local people did not want those plots — and at the same time the Tatars’ requests for land were turned down. There are still so many Tatars who want to come to the Crimea but cannot because there’s nowhere to live.

I was told that some of the locals do not show much friendliness toward the Tatars, to put it mildly.

The Soviet power, in order to justify its crimes and atrocities against the Tatars did a lot through propaganda to tarnish the Tatar image, and the local people who knew very little about Tatars, who never saw them before, regarded them as “enemies” long before the Tatars started coming. Very many of those Russians who were brought to the Crimea after the deportation of the Tatars, settled down in the houses vacated by the Tatars and naturally they feared that the returning Tatars would claim their property back. It was easy to convince such people that the Tatars were “up to no good.”

Another problem — very high level of unemployment among the Tatars. You can often read in the local press allegations that the Tatars do not want to engage in “creative labour” and prefer to go into trade, no matter how petty. But the thing is that being a Tatar you can get a job only if no Russian has been found for this job. So Tatars are forced to earn money in any way they can.

Is there any legislation that regulates the status of Tatars in Ukraine?

We are working out legislation that would deal with our problems, we invite legal help from abroad. I must tell you that there is a high international awareness of the problems the Crimean Tatars are facing. In fact, in the Soviet times, the Tatars were the strongest force that stood in opposition to the totalitarian Soviet regime. We adhere to the non-violence principle in dealing with problems. A message from the Roman Pope John Paul II says that the Crimean Tatars are an excellent example of a democratic way of struggling for the national rights. In 2000, our problems were looked into by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Its participants put forward a number of recommendations concerning ways of dealing with our problems. But Ukraine ignored these recommendations, and Ukraine was warned it would be excluded, one of the reasons for expulsion being the problem of the Crimean Tatars which had not been settled. We turned to the Council with a request not to present the Tatar problem as one of the reasons for the expulsion because it would hardly help our cause and only create more problems, making it more difficult for Ukraine to get integrated into Europe.

We have made many attempts to get Verkhovna Rada discuss and adopt laws that we need so badly, but all these attempts were in vain. We have worked out a new bill, “Restoration of Rights and Liberties of the Crimean Tatar People and of Other Ethnic Groups that Were Deported because of their Ethnicity.” We do hope this bill will get through and will become law at last.

What are the main features of this bill?

All the rights are guaranteed, the mechanism of insuring the representation of the Crimean Tatar people in all the structures of power no less than in direct proportion to their numbers included. The Crimean Tatar language will have the same rights as the Ukrainian and Russian; the old Tatar geographical names will be reinstated — most of the villages and towns were renamed after the deportation, with a very few exceptions. The land issue also must be resolved. The thing is that the current law on land does not take into account the specific situation in the Crimea after the return of the Tatars — the law says that only those who work on land are entitled to this land, that is members of former collective farms. But we could not work on this land for a very simple reason — we were deported and lived elsewhere! And our ancestors lived in the Crimea for many generations, but at the moment even those Tatars who lived in the Crimea but were not members of the collective farms cannot be given land to build on or work at. Tatars received three times less land than the Russian-speaking locals. The national injustice has been thus exacerbated by the social injustice. And it leads to a potentially explosive situation. We have tried to get all these things into the bill and will do our best to get it through parliament.

If these basic problems are not solved in a legal way, there is a danger that the Tatar national movement may get badly radicalized. We have been struggling against injustice for half a century now and we have never violated our principle of non-violence. We have tried to reach solutions in a democratic way, but we must not ignore the mounting frustration and anger among the Tatars. Ukraine begins to pay attention to us only when some disagreements come up between Symferopol and Kyiv.

Do you see a way that would lead to solving the problem?

In spite of all the disagreements and misunderstandings that emerge we are very grateful to Ukraine for the help it gives us. Every year Ukraine allocates certain sums of money to us, and this year 45 million hryvnyas were to go to the Crimean Tatars from the state budget. Unfortunately, we do not always get what has been put into the budget for us. Last year, for example, we received only 68 percent of what had been put into the budget for us. We use the money for building houses, roads, for developing some sort of a social infrastructure, for providing some monetary and medical help, but what we get is only one tenth of what we actually need. But we cannot put forward any demands in view of the general economic situation in Ukraine. We are looking for other sources of financing our requirements. There is a Turkish aid programme of which we are the beneficiaries but it does not come to much. The Turks, for example, promised to buy one thousand apartments for us and they are prepared to pay 5,000 dollars for each apartment but with today’s prices… Turkey has helped us buy about 400 houses. Turkey helps us because there are many Crimean Tatars living there — in fact, the number of people of the Crimean Tatar descent in Turkey is ten times greater than the number of Tatars living in the Crimea at the moment.

Is there anything else that Ukraine does to help solve the Tatar problems in the Crimea?

Quite recently a new programme has been adopted — “Programme of Distribution and Settlement of the Deported Crimean Tatars and Other Ethnics Who Have Returned to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea for Permanent Residence for the Period of up to 2005” such is its official name. There are programmes designed to help solve our problems but we find that they are not adequate. If they are fulfilled in full measure though, then they will make some contribution to solving the main problem. We feel that we can solve our other problems easier thanks to the fact that these programmes have been worked out and adopted.

The Narodny Rukh (People’s Movement of Ukraine Party) which is part of Yushchenko’s block of parties gives us a lot of support. Other parties… well, a lot depends on the Ukrainian president — if he decides to encourage them to support us, they may, otherwise… In spite of all that criticism that is levelled against Leonid Kuchma — and there are no presidents who escape criticism! — he does regularly come to the Crimea, invites political leaders to get together and discuss things, and gives instructions to the local authorities to see to it that Tatar problems are dealt with. Unfortunately, all these instructions are brazenly paid no heed to by the Crimean local authorities.

How are the Crimean Tatars represented at various levels of legislative and executive bodies?

The radically minded Crimean Tatars say that the Crimean parliament should have at least 33 percent of Tatar representatives in order to have enough strength to effectively defend and support the Tatar rights. This number would not be sufficient to impose any decisions on anyone but it would be enough to prevent any decisions harmful to the Crimean Tatars from being taken. But it is hardly possible to get so many Tatars into parliament because at present there are only 13 or 14 percent of Tatars in the entire population of the Crimea. It means that we could theoretically have 13 or 14 percent of Tatars in parliament even that is difficult to bring about. At present we have 7 Tatars in parliament. The number of Tatars in executive bodies of various levels varies from none to maximum six percent.

What about culture of the Crimean Tatars? Can there be a national revival without revival of national culture?

Hardly. After the deportation of 1944 the Crimean Tatar language was practically banned — no books, no papers, no education in the Crimean Tatar language. This language was used only in the family. In 1967, after a series of mass demonstrations, the then Soviet communist party leader Brezhnev issued a ukase which supposedly gave back to the Crimean Tatars all their rights. But it remained only on paper, nothing was actually done. Even today we have only 13 Tatar schools which can educate 7,000 — out of 70,000 — Tatar children. Besides, to call them “Tatar schools” would be a misnomer since tuition is given mostly in Russian. It is true though that the Tatar language and culture are studied in these schools as well, hopefully not just perfunctory. There are some cultural and educational organizations that are called upon to encourage Tatar people to learn more about their culture and traditions but in general we are only at the initial stages of this process.

 

Official statistics

In the first six months of 2003, 22.8 million hryvnyas were allocated from the state budget of Ukraine in accordance with the programmes adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine to finance measures connected with the resettlement of repatriates [in the Crimea]. Mostly, this sum was used for the capital construction of houses, roads, and for providing the repatriates with electricity and gas supply. Also, some apartments and houses were purchased with this money. Some of the money provided by the Ukrainian state was used for carrying out social and cultural measures.

In the period from 1991 through 2002 the Ukrainian state allocated 715.19 million hryvnyas (about 140 million dollars at the current rate of exchange) for carrying out measures connected with the resettlement of the [Crimean Tatar] repatriates.

 

Photos by Oleksandr Kadnikov,

Viktor Bulychov

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