MINELRES: Fwd: TOL: Slavs and Tatars in Ukraine's Crimea

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Keeping the Lid On
by Ivan Kolos
24 May 2004 

Despite persisting grievances,
Slavs and Tatars in Ukraine's Crimea seem to be learning
to get along. 

KIEV, Ukraine 
Some 25,000 Crimean Tatars took to the streets in Ukraine's Crimea on 18
May to mark the 60th anniversary of their forced deportation to Central
Asia by Stalin. Many in Ukraine breathed a sigh of relief as the
demonstration went off relatively peacefully, with little sign of the
ongoing standoff between radical Tatar groups and the majority Slavs.
But massive security measures during the event, with 6,000 police on
patrol, indicated just how precarious the calm was.

Thirteen years after the newly independent Ukraine threw its borders
open to the exiled Tatars, and with about 250,000 people now back in
their old homeland, admiration for the Ukrainians' determination to
right the historic wrong has faded. Acrimonious exchanges between the
somewhat weary hosts and slightly disillusioned returnees, as well as
often violent scuffles involving Slav skinheads, are nothing out of the
ordinary these days. But much to both sides' credit, the danger of
significant ethnic strife and violence seems remote, and huge majorities
of both Tatars and Slavs seem determined to avoid that at all costs.

THE WANDERINGS OF THE TATARS

In 1944, it took the Soviets less than three days to deport all the
Tatars in Crimea - more than 200,000 people - to the steppes of Central
Asia. Tatar families across the peninsula were woken up by soldiers at 4
a.m., read a declaration accusing them of collaboration with the Nazis,
and given 20 minutes to collect their belongings. After that came a
nonstop journey in cattle wagons to Uzbekistan. Just over half survived
the first two years in exile. Tatar villages back in Crimea were
repopulated by Russian and Ukrainian settlers. Tatars themselves were
cleared of collaboration charges in 1967 but were not allowed to return,
and there was no talk of any compensation. Small groups of Tatars
started to trickle back in the late 1970s and 1980s, but it was only
after Ukraine declared independence from the former Soviet Union that a
mass movement of Crimean Tatars began. 

The descendants of those who suffered Stalin's wrath returned to find
their ancestral lands and homes occupied by Russian settles, their
villages renamed, and their mosques in ruins. The government in Kiev has
been plowing millions into the resettlement program, and Tatar leaders
make a point of stressing how grateful they are to the country that
welcomed them back. Tatars have made considerable political progress in
recent years. They control seven seats in the 100-strong local
parliament and 14 percent of the seats in local councils. Hopes of
establishing national autonomy have now been abandoned - even after the
return of 250,000 Tatars, they make up only 13 percent of the population
on the Crimean peninsula. But the Tatars are, nevertheless, a
consolidated and influential political force. 

Land distribution remains the most contentious issue. The government
could without difficulty allocate land plots in inland Crimea, and many
Tatars have settled in inland areas. However, it is the lucrative plots
in the coastal areas, where most Tatars lived before their deportation,
that have become the bone of contention. The Tatars' return coincided
with the beginning of (unofficial) land privatization in Ukraine.
Well-connected Ukrainian and Russian companies buying up land in what
was the former Soviet Union's most sought-after resort are unwilling to
share it with the returning Tatars. The sentiment is shared by the local
Slav residents, who make up 85 percent of the population. 

Some of the returnees, exasperated by the local authorities'
foot-dragging over land allocation and afraid of being left out of the
privatization campaign, adopted the tactic of grabbing land.
Unauthorized settlements, described by the Tatars as "protest camps,"
have fueled the anger of local Slavs. Coastal towns such as Alushta and
Sudak have become notorious for ethnic tension. Groups of "Russian
Cossacks," militia groups often encouraged by the Russian Orthodox
Church, have been patrolling some Crimean settlements for years now,
often clashing with Tatars. 

SUBSIDING TENSIONS

Violent scuffles between groups of Tatars and Slav youths broke out in
the Crimean capital Simferopol earlier this year. There have been angry
exchanges between the local authorities and Tatar leaders over police
attempts to disperse some of the Tatar squatter camps. But in a typical
demonstration of how keen both sides are to avoid any further increase
in ethnic tension, an agreement was reached between the authorities and
Tatar leaders to calm the waters ahead of the 18 May anniversary. More
help and better land was promised to the Tatars, who in return pledged
to desist from further protests.

The Majlis, the self-styled Tatar assembly that commands considerable
respect among most Tatars, imposed a ban on green Islamic flags during
the rally in a bid to distance the Crimean Tatars from the radical
trends gaining ground elsewhere in the Muslim world. Tatar leaders
advocate secular democracy and traditional Islam. The Majlis also went
to great pains to stress that the 25,000-strong gathering was a rally to
mark the anniversary of the deportation, not a protest, and that their
occasional quarrels are with some Ukrainian officials, not Ukraine as a
nation. 

That, despite recent scuffles, still typifies the ethnic situation in
Crimea. Majlis leader Refat Chubarov told the leading Ukrainian daily
Den ahead of the 18 May rally that, despite grievances on both sides,
there is actually less tension now then there was just after Tatars
began their return. "You can't compare what existed 15 years ago with
what there is today. Fortunately, the level of confrontation has dropped
considerably," Chubarov said. With a bit of luck, Ukraine, it seems,
will be able to keep ethnic tension in Crimea at a slow simmer.

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