Crimean Tatars are reluctantly embracing Russia’s takeover of the peninsula. But in a clear sign that they remain wary of the Kremlin, Tatars are seeking autonomy, even as they profess allegiance to Crimea’s new order.
For most of the post-Soviet era, Tatars and Ukrainian nationalist elements were allies in efforts to bolster Kyiv’s authority in Crimea, and foster a greater sense of identification among ethnic Russians on the peninsula for Ukrainian statehood. It is no surprise, then, that Tatars were outspoken opponents of Russia’s land grab, and, subsequently, sat out the referendum that paved the way for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Tatars comprise approximately 300,000 of Crimea’s 2 million population.
Russian officials and nationalist elements in Crimea were solicitous of Tatars in the days and weeks leading up the independence referendum, evidently in the hopes of persuading a significant number of Tatars to join their cause. When Tatars stayed away from the polls, however, the mood among Russians turned decidedly hostile. Kremlin-controlled media outlets started a campaign targeting prominent Crimean Tatar leaders, labeling opponents of Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “Islamic radicals,” “traitors” and “fascist collaborators.” Much of the venom was directed at Lenur Islyamov, a Crimean Tatar entrepreneur with a wide variety of holdings, including the ATR television channel.
On the streets of Simferopol and elsewhere, several Crimean Tatars interviewed by EurasiaNet reported a noticeable change in local Russians’ attitude towards them. “We feel a significant chill toward us now,” said one, who declined to give his name. Another individual reported being harassed by a group of unidentified young men, who called him a “Tatar
pig” and “Banderovets” (fascist).”
“It was shocking – not only because I was afraid at that very moment, but because I was afraid this could become an everyday reality of life for us here,” he said.
Against this gloomy backdrop, Tatar leaders gathered March 29 for a Kurultai, or national assembly, to discuss annexation-related issues. Delegates tacitly acknowledged that the Ukrainian government in Kyiv is powerless to counteract the loss of Crimea, and thus they voted not to oppose Russian passports. Without citizenship, Tatars would have been unable to hold state jobs or have representatives sit in the regional legislature. At the same time, Tatars are being quietly urged not to give up their Ukrainian citizenship.
"If we do not work with the [new] authorities, how are we going to get our most basic needs addressed? … The progress [Crimean Tatars] have made may be rolled back by 30 years,” said Islyamov, the Tatar magnate, referring to the 1944 mass deportation of Tatars to Central Asia and its consequences. Tatars leaders also requested a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to “obtain resolution of all outstanding issues,” involving Tatars.
While expressing a willingness to engage Putin, Tatars still want to keep the Kremlin at arm’s length. Perhaps the most significant development at the March 29 Kurultai was the adoption of a resolution seek Tatar autonomy within Russian Crimea. Over the past three decades, autonomy bids have been associated with bloodshed, most notably in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Chechnya. It is unclear how tolerant Putin, whose tenure in power has been marked by a concentration of power in the Kremlin, will be of the Tatar quest for autonomy. Chances are, not very.