And now, Tatars of Crimea want their independence too

The 18 of May Tatars in Crimea commemorated 70 years since their people were deported to Central Asia by Josef Stalin, but the self-proclaimed authorities of the peninsula didn’t welcome the commemoration. Crimean Tatar leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, is banned by de facto authorities from entering Crimea, while the community calls for its self-determination and territorial autonomy.


 Photo Reuters / Stringer

Crimean police looked over the demonstrators with two loud military helicopters. Many eyewitnesses claimed they were flying very low over the rally with the clear intention of disrupting it. Nevertheless, at least 10,000 people gathered on the outskirts of Crimea's capital, Simferopol, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their people deportation from the native Crimea to the steppe of Central Asia, where another Tatar community still populates the Tatarstan republic. The commemoration – the first since the independence of Crimea from Ukraine – already before its beginning soon turned in a call for "self-determination" against the newly established Russian authorities.

Like in the Soviet times

Parallel between Stalin era and present days came easily due to the ban from entering Crimea imposed to Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, and the threat of Mejlis (the Crimean Tatars' main representative body) banned by Crimean authorities. "The situation is now almost the same as it used to be during the Soviet regime”, said Dzhemilev to journalists during his “exile” in Kyiv. “Soviet authorities did not recognize our national movement and used to refer to it as anti-Soviet or extremist. The same thing is unfolding today”. Dzhemilev, who was also a prominent Soviet-era dissident, was stopped from returning home from a trip to Kiev in early May, and banned from entering Crimea for five years. “Russian authorities want to impose Russian citizenship. Crimean Tatars do not want to accept Russian citizenship. However, those who refuse Russian citizenship and Russian passports are being treated as foreigners”, Dzhemilev said. Imposing Russian citizenship to Crimean Tatars would eventually mean erasing their presence on the peninsula as an ethnic minority. This would could not probably compare with the deportation of 1944, when Soviet authorities forced 200,000 Crimean Tatars to move to Central Asia letting many of them die on their way into exile, but it is a clear violation of human rights. In addition, many still associate Russian rule with oppression, exile and discrimination.

A call for independence

Crimean Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov, had issued last Friday a ban for all public gatherings until June 6, citing violence in southeast Ukraine as the reason for his decision. The ban came just two days before the 70th anniversary, suspiciously enough to link it to the commemoration. The Mejlis announced that no mass rallies would take place in the center of Simferopol, and straight after called for Tatars to gather in a different location, in the outskirt of the city. It is clear that there are some frictions between Tatar community and authorities, which could make the situation even tenser. Dozens of people who demonstrated for Dzhemilev’s return have been detained. A couple of days before the anniversary, the homes of several Crimean Tatars were raided by officers from Russia’s FSB, as suspected of “terrorist activity.”

A resolution adopted during the gathering will probably not help to calm the situation down. Tatars called to have autonomous status and have their rights protected. Also demanded new laws that guarantee their representation in Crimea's government. Many of them claim discrimination against Tatars had increased since the region became part of Russia.

Nevertheless, some good signs can be seen in the very last days. Russian president, Vladimir Putin, met representatives of Crimean Tatars in Sochi on May 16. “We, including the federal authorities, regional and local power bodies, are ready to work with all people who genuinely want to improve the life of people on their land,” Putin said. Following the meeting, Remzi Ilysaov, a representative of the Mejilis, was appointed vice-speaker of Crimea’s parliament, ITAR-TASS reported. Tatars represent more than 12% of Crimea's population of two million and have been so far the strongest opponents of Russian annexation of Crimea.


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