Crimean Tatars Are the Wild Card of the Region

BAKHCHISARAY, Ukraine—The stone minarets of the 16th-century * Khan’s Palace that dominate the skyline here, a city of about 50,000 a 30-minute bus ride south from Simferopol, are a reminder that while today Ukraine and Russia are jousting over Crimea, for most of the past millennium, another group ruled the peninsula: the Crimean Tatars.Muslims and speakers of a language closely related to Turkish, the Crimean Tatars are the descendants of the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan who settled here in the 13th century. Their historical legacy is nearly invisible today, systematically destroyed first by the czars and then the Soviets.

But the Tatars, improbably, have revived themselves and are once again political players in Crimea. They are no longer the rulers, but as a politically active minority, they could act as the wild card in an eventual conflict over Crimea.

The Tatars established a khanate that was allied with the Ottoman Empire and ruled Crimea for five centuries. But they eventually got in the way of a rapidly expanding Russian empire, which, attracted by the Black Sea ports, annexed Crimea in 1783. That year, the population of Crimea was 83 percent Crimean Tatar, but Russian occupation occasioned a mass exodus by the Tatars, mainly to Turkey. Russia assimilated the Crimean Tatar nobility and destroyed Tatar buildings.

By 1937, the Tatar population had declined to only 21 percent of Crimea’s population. During World War II, Stalin ordered the coup de grâce: Crimea was occupied by Germany, and he accused the Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis. In a period of just three days, every Tatar man, woman, and child was deported from Crimea—most loaded on train freight cars without food or water and shipped to Central Asia. Tatars estimate that 46 percent of their population died within a year of the deportation. It was barely a footnote in the history of World War II, but it became the defining event of the Crimean Tatar nation.

(Incidentally, some Tatars did collaborate with the Nazis. But the deportations seemed motivated more by Stalin’s mistrust of ethnic minorities—there were similar expulsions of other Muslim groups like Chechens, Ingush, and Balkars, who were behind Soviet lines such that there wasn’t even an option to collaborate. And, besides, some Ukrainians collaborated. Krushchev, in his 1956 “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress, said the Ukrainians would have been deported, too, except that “there were too many of them.” Today, Crimean Tatars take pains to emphasize their role in fighting on the Soviet side—for example, by naming streets and squares after their war heroes.)

The Tatars were allowed to return in the late 1980s, and Ukrainian independence has given them political weight for the first time in centuries. About two-thirds of the Tatars—300,000 in total—have returned to Crimea from Central Asia. But the deportation and return seems to have given them a drive that is lacking in most post-Soviet peoples.

Communism created a welfare-dependent mentality among many of its subjects, who expected the state to give them everything. Tatars, though, having been screwed repeatedly by the state, ended up far better prepared for the end of communism. When they returned to Crimea, there was no land for them, so they squatted and built houses themselves. While early iterations of those settlements were flimsy and muddy, today they have been rebuilt into honest-to-goodness suburbs. In the early 1990s, racism kept Tatars from getting state jobs, so they started small businesses, like Simferopol’s now-ubiquitous private bus system.

Crimean Tatars have become politically active, too. In 1991, they formed an informal but influential representative body, the Mejlis, and a handful of Crimean Tatar representatives serve in the local and national parliaments.

From the beginning of their return from exile, the Tatars have taken the side of Ukraine in any Moscow-Kiev rift. Tatars proudly point out the key role they played in keeping Crimea part of Ukraine in the early years: During the 1991 referendum on independence, every part of Ukraine voted to break with the Soviet Union. But in Crimea, the pro-independence vote was just barely 52 percent. Crimean Tatars, who voted overwhelmingly for independence, provided the crucial margin of victory. In the two decades since then, the Mejlis has given strong and vocal support to Kiev.

Centuries of bad experiences with Russia have convinced the Tatars that they are better off with Ukraine than with Russia, said Refat Chubarov, the deputy leader of the Mejlis who once served in the Ukrainian parliament. * “Ukrainians don’t have any imperial ambition,” he said. What’s more, Ukrainians and Tatars share a bond from being on the wrong side of Russian imperial ambition: “Many unfortunate parts of our history come from Moscow, and it’s the same with Ukraine,” he said.

In an especially ghoulish coda to the deportation of the Tatars, Soviet tourists—a million a year—streamed to Bakhchisaray to visit the Khan’s Palace in a town that had been repopulated with Slavic residents. Part of the reason it was such an attraction was Russians’ passion for literature: Pushkin wrote a much-loved poem—”The Bakhchisaray Fountain”about the palace, and it’s likely that the place only survived the fate of most other Crimean Tatar monuments because of the poem. Tatars say that Stalin even wanted to change the name of the town to Pushkin but decided he couldn’t because everyone knew Bakhchisaray from the poem’s title.

It’s unlikely that many of the tourists who visited were aware that the Tatars whose exotic history they were discovering still existed in real life, albeit 2,000 miles to the east in Uzbekistan. “The tours were really ideologically oriented—they barely mentioned the Crimean Tatars, and if they did, it was only negative—that we didn’t accomplish anything,” said a Tatar museum official who showed me around but who didn’t want me to use his name. Tours of the palace emphasized the fact that Russian slaves built it. They also emphasized tawdrier aspects of the palace, like the harem. “In the Russian mind, Crimean Tatars are bandits—they say we steal land, even though it was them who stole our land,” he said.

The number of tourists is down these days—the only other visitors when I was there were some teenagers drinking beer in the palace gardens—but the population of Bakhchisaray has doubled since the Tatars returned from exile, and they now make up half of the people living here. The city is hemmed in by limestone cliffs, but returning Tatars built a sprawling settlement above the city. The current mayor is a Crimean Tatar, and the settlement has paved roads, new shops, and Internet cafes. Near the palace, a medieval madrassah—one of the oldest in Europe—is being restored with aid from the Turkish government.

But as Crimean Tatars get more settled, their support for Kiev is waning. While the leaders of the Mejlis remain firmly in Kiev’s camp, some younger Tatar leaders are beginning to question what, exactly, they’ve gotten for supporting Ukraine. I met Nadir Bekirov, a Crimean Tatar activist at a Simferopol restaurant ironically called “Nostalgia,” a Soviet-themed place decorated with busts of Lenin and Stalin.

While Crimean Tatars have loyally supported Ukraine, Ukraine hasn’t done much to support the Tatars, he said. There was a gentleman’s agreement between Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in the early days of independence: that Tatars would support Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for later attention. “They told us, ‘Wait, we are weak, our first task is to establish independence and establish ourselves in the international arena, and then we will get to your problems and your rights.’ ”

But the Ukrainian state is established now, and Kiev is still dragging its feet on the issues most important to Crimean Tatars, like land rights, language rights, and education. Especially worrying, he said, is the growth in Ukrainian nationalism under the new post-Orange Revolution government. While Ukrainians used to treat Crimean Tatars as partners—at least rhetorically—the language has recently become less inclusive. Bekirov quoted a 2007 speech by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko: “Ukraine is one nation, one people, one language, one religion.” “What are we supposed to think after that?” Bekirov asked.

While most comparisons of Ukraine and Georgia focus on Russian interference in both countries, Bekirov pointed out a crucial mistake that both Georgia and Ukraine have made: mistreating their minorities. One of the first acts of the independent Georgian state in the early 1990s was to revoke the autonomous status that Abkhazia and South Ossetia had enjoyed; Georgian nationalism helped drive Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the arms of Russia. Ukraine is doing the same with the Crimean Tatars, he said.

Western countries, including the United States, share in the blame for Ukraine’s neglect of the Tatars, Bekirov said. While Western officials working on EU or NATO membership do pay attention to the way Ukraine treats its minorities, they tend to get their information from Mejlis officials, who are too cozy with Kiev and don’t represent the will of most Crimean Tatars, he said. “[Mejlis officials] always say ‘Yes, we have problems, but the government is good and they will solve our problems.’ But they haven’t.”

“Step by step, a big majority of Crimean Tatars are turning against the Mejlis and against Ukraine,” Bekirov said. “But when I say we are turning against Ukraine, I don’t mean we’re going to rebel or support any military activities. We’re just going to become outsiders, observers. This is dangerous for Ukraine to lose their allies, but we’re not going to be the tools of the Ukrainian state anymore.”

It’s not clear how this will play out if the conflict between Ukraine and Russia heats up over Crimea, but with Russians forming a majority in the region and many Ukrainians holding pro-Russia sympathies, Kiev needs all the allies it can get here. The museum official told me he’s not sure which side he’s on anymore. “I don’t know what’s better for us—Russia discriminates against us and wants to assimilate us. But on the other hand, Kiev talks about our rights but doesn’t take any action,” he said. “So I don’t know what’s worse—Russian chauvinism, which is very old, and Ukrainian chauvinism, which is new.”

Correction, March 4, 2009: This article originally claimed that the Khan’s Palace was built in the 15th century; it was actually built in the 16th century. The piece also stated that Refat Chubarov serves in the Ukrainian parliament. In fact, he has left the parliament. (Return to the corrected sentences.)