Ethnic Tatars are deeply attached to their native Crimea, but risk again becoming the first victims of the maneuvering of greater powers.
SEVASTOPOL — They live in the midst of the world's central geopolitical showdown. But the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority that account for 13% of the region's population, are watching events unfold with a backseat view.
Persecuted during the eras of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Muslim group of Turkic descent have lived as Ukrainian citizens – and most say they don’t want to return to Russia.
Still, even after the overwhelming referendum Sunday in favor of Crimea seceding from Ukraine to become part of the Russian federation, the Tatar voice risks disappearing amidst the quarreling of the major world powers.
What country is this? Look to the right, and there is a Russian flag. Look to the left, and there is the Ukrainian one. During a rally last week in front of the parliament of the autonomous Crimean Republic, someone asked what country this is. “The strongest Orthodox Christian country in the world!” somebody screams back from the podium.
In the eye of the cyclone, Tatars are being ignored — again. They watch TV or fidget restlessly around the building of the Mejlis, the Tatars central executive body, and ask, “Russia?” Or “Ukraine?”
“Imagine a cow walking through a meadow,” says a 77-year-old Crimean Tatar named Izzet. “It left a patty behind. A man on a bike went through it and cut the dung in two. There is shit on one side, shit on the other and a border in the middle. That’s how our situation looks. It doesn’t matter — Russians or Ukrainians — they all care the same for Tatars.”
A long march
As a seven-year-old, Izzet survived the “sürgünlik,” the mass deportation of Tatars from Crimea that Stalin ordered in 1944. Approximately 200,000 people were forced to move inside the Soviet Union, most of them to Uzbekistan. A staggering 50,000 of them died on the way.
Izzet and his family were relocated to a sovkhoz, a state-owned farm, where they shared a room with four other families and slept on the floor. He recalls eating boiled beetroots in the morning, beetroot soup for lunch and smashed beetroots for dinner. Because of poor sanitation, all three of his siblings died of typhoid.
Tatars were not the only oppressed ethnic minority wiped from the Crimean landscape. A few weeks after sürgünlik began, Crimean Germans, Kurds, Romani, Armenians and Greeks shared the same fate. Cypresses, gardens and vineyards were destroyed, and cemeteries were plowed. Crimea was transformed into a land of summer resorts.
Izzet was able to return to his homeland only after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Under the Ukrainian governance of Crimea, he enjoyed freedom, but no recognition.
“For the last 20 years, no law regulating the status of the Crimean Tatars has been created,” he says. “They never admitted that we have been living on this land for centuries and that our language is one of the languages of Ukraine.”
Although disappointed by Ukrainian politics, Izzet has no desire to become part of Russia ever again. “On TV they say that Russia will bring us welfare,” he says. “I thank them very much for that, but I don’t need it. I’ve seen enough of it.”
Zera was born in exile in Uzbekistan, but she always felt her home was Crimea. “We were all brought up that way,” she says. After studying Russian philology, she started working at a Tatar newspaper, first published in Crimea and reprinted in Uzbekistan. “We could write in the Crimean Tatar language, but terms like ‘Crimea’ or ‘Crimean Tatars’ were banned until the ’80s,” she says.
When Tatars were allowed to move back to Crimea, editors fought to transfer the newspapers’ headquarters “back home.” But they weren’t prepared for what they found there. “Our parents told us such stories about this land that we expected to see a paradise with thousands of palm trees,” Zera says. “Instead, we had to cope with poverty.”
Still, despite the initial disillusion, there were no regrets. “I am not a nationalist,” Zera says. “I do not deny rights to other ethnics. But I didn’t come back to Crimea to live again in Russia.”
Sergei Korenchenkov, a member of the pro-Russian voluntary self-defense unit in Crimea’s capital of Simferopol, says ethnic Russians "will somehow manage to live together with Tatars under the Russian flag.”
He invokes his Tatar friend Beket, with whom he practices martial arts, to illustrate the point. The two recently saw one another on the street. Korenchenkov was with his pro-Russian unit, Berket with the Tatar pro-European self-defense troop. “We said hello to each other and each one went his way. That’s all.”
Korenchenkov often goes to a Tatar coffee shop in his neighborhood. “When they saw me there last time, everyone got scared because they knew I’m in the self-defense unit,” he recalls. But he told everybody that they needn’t be afraid, and that everything would be all right. “Ordinary people will always get along,” he says.
He acknowledges that concepts such as multiculturalism and tolerance are foreign to Russian people. They instead use a single word: “respect.”
“But that is something you have to earn, and that concerns Tatars too.”