On May 18, 1944, Russian leader Joseph Stalin ordered the entire Crimean Tatar population of 193,865 persons to be physically removed from Crimea and deported to Central Asia. With an efficiency that exceeded that of Nazi Germany in rounding up European Jews, the Russia’s NKVD gave the Crimean Tatars 30 minutes to gather their belongings before being herded into cattle cars bound for Uzbekistan and beyond. Within two and a half years, 109,953 (46%) of the deportees had died of disease, malnutrition and effects of deportation.
On March 16, 2014, a hastily organized “referendum” on the Crimean peninsula produced a 96.77% vote in favor of joining Russia with 83.1% of voters participating according to “official results”. It was a mathematical result that is only produced in elections in modern Russia, Zimbabwe and North Korea. Two days later Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
In 1783, Russia broke a treaty with the Ottomans guaranteeing Crimean independence and annexed the peninsula. Three Russian annexations of Crimea is bad enough, but the overlooked issue is the plight of the Crimean Tatars. Following their deportation in 1944, they were finally allowed to return to Crimea only in the late 1980’s, resulting in 250,000 persons making the journey home. Ironically, the Russia rule they escaped twenty years ago has again been forced upon them.
Some argue that Crimea has always been part of Russia because it was only “given” to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet Premier Khrushchev. However, they fail to point out that later Russian leaders (Brezhnev, Andropov, and Gorbachev) never reversed this decision. The reality is that the Crimean Khanate, from which the Tatars originate, preceded the Russian claim on the territory by almost 350 years (beginning 1441). Furthermore, the Tatar population exceeded the Russian population in Crimea as late as the Russian census of 1897. The last Ukrainian census put the Tatar population at 12% of Crimea, although that number is higher now and closer to 300,000 persons. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the Crimean Tatars have been steadfast in their support of Ukrainian statehood and European values. Post 9/11, such practitioners of moderate Islam, non-violence and European values are exactly who the West should cultivate.
However, the Russian annexation threatens all of this. Given Russia’s authoritarian regime and violent history in Chechnya, the future for Crimean Tatars looks dim. Despite the Tatar boycott of the Crimean “referendum”, Russia devoured Crimea anyway. The Crimean Tatar leadership, represented by the “Medzhlis”, has categorically expressed their desire to remain part of Ukraine’s democracy. However, another Russian enforced deportation is already beginning as the new Crimean authorities have declared longtime Medzhlis leader Mustafa Dzhemilyev “persona non grata” and just last week, the first Crimean Tatars arrived at the Polish border seeking political asylum.
What can be done to help Crimean Tatars and others seeking to retain their Ukrainian citizenship? Ukraine’s Parliament just voted to grant Crimean Tatars the status as an “indigenous people” of Ukraine and to officially recognize the Medzhlis. Both steps are positive and long overdue. Next, humanitarian aid should be provided to Tatars in the form of an initial $200 to each family, in much the same way Ukrainians were eligible to receive a similar compensation for lost Soviet-era bank deposits in 2007. In a country with a per capita income of less than $400/month, this is a practical, interim step to demonstrate that Kyiv has not abandoned Crimea. Next Parliament should pass a law on “occupied territories” to enshrine the rights of its citizens in Crimea and establish “Offices of Occupied Territories” in neighboring Kherson region to provide the legal privileges of Ukrainian citizenship. Additional polling stations for this year’s presidential elections should also be organized in those offices in Kherson to empower Crimeans to continue to exercise their vote in Ukrainian affairs. Current Crimean Parliamentary Members should retain their status and be provided with special “social welfare” budgets to assist Ukrainian citizens in their respective districts. Given Russia’s pattern of “over promising and under producing” financial aid in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, this will be a powerful tool to demonstrate Ukraine’s continued commitment to Crimea. Finally, Ukraine should create a “Working Group” with the EU and Turkey to manage a looming refugee crisis.
Over the last 3000 years, Crimea has been a part of at least twelve major countries with eight of them controlling the peninsula for at least as long as Russia. Thus there are many ethnic groups that can claim Crimea today, but since World War II, only Putin dared to forcible annex it and change the borders. The Russian annexation of Crimea may stand until Western powers find their resolve, but if immediate action is not taken to assist the Crimean Tatars, the world will have an even larger humanitarian crisis at best, and possibly far worse.