Russia’s annexation of Crimea is rapidly becoming the new reality on the ground. But the battle for Crimea is not over, even if this battle will be waged not with weapons but by legal maneuvers and diplomatic tugs of war for years to come. In this legal battle, the Crimean Tatars may turn out to be an important asset, despite making up only around 12 percent to 15 percent of the Crimean population. Since the start of the conflict, both Moscow and Kyiv have tried to woo the Crimean Tatars. So far, Kyiv seems to be winning, with Ukrainian parliament adopting a resolution March 20 designating Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people. As a result, we may see new sets of arguments being introduced to the war of words over control of Crimea.
Why did Russia make overtures to the Crimean Tatars, and why did it not succeed in buying Crimean Tatar loyalty or at least neutrality on the referendum and the annexation? For Putin and Russia, to receive — if not outright support — at least no open opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from the Crimean Tatars was important for several reasons. First, the Crimean Tatars’ opposition to the annexation sours the image of Russia as responding to an overwhelming local demand for unity. Second, the possibility of armed insurgency carried out by the Crimean Tatars — while remote given the tradition of the group’s peaceful struggle for their rights — has not bee completely ruled out, as Crimean Tatar leaders indicated, since there is a radical minority among the Crimean Tatars. So it is not surprising that as preparations for the March 16 referendum were taking place, Russia and pro-Russian leadership in Crimea made several overtures to the Crimean Tatars.
After Refat Chubarov, chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, called on the Crimean Tatars and other residents of Crimea to boycott the referendum, the Crimean parliament on March 11th adopted a declaration “On guarantees for the restoration of rights of the Crimean Tatar people.” The declaration stated that in a future Crimean constitution, the Crimean Tatar language will be given the status of official language (together with Russian and Ukrainian), that in executive organs of state power in Crimea at least 20 percent of positions will be reserved for Crimean Tatars, that Crimean Tatar self-government organs, the Kurultai and the Mejlis, will be officially recognized, and that financial assistance, as well as assistance for the restoration of historical monuments and native language education, will be provided. Mustafa Dzhemilev, the former head of the Mejlis and the informal leaders of the Crimean Tatars, was also invited to Russia, officially by the president of Tatarstan. While there, Vladimir Putin spoke with Dzhemilev on the phone and reportedly promised “to do everything” to protect Crimean Tatars from any possible aggression. Several official delegations from Tatarstan also visited Crimea and offered material assistance to the Crimea Tatars, many of whom still lack adequate housing after returning from places of deportation.
The carrots offered by Russia and the pro-Russian Crimean leadership did not sway the Crimean Tatars’ opposition to the referendum and Crimea’s annexation by Russia. The Crimean Tatar leaders did not recognize the new Crimean leadership, boycotted the referendum, and did not recognize the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea. In his March 18 address, citing the official referendum result of over 96 percent favoring accession, Putin stated that the result shows that Crimean Tatars “also lean towards Russia.” Crimean Tatar leaders, however, say that less than 1 percent of Crimean Tatars took part in the referendum, and claim that overall, only 34 percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia in the referendum. The exact size of the boycott — or the vote, for that matter — is impossible to verify, given that precinct-level data on voter turnout and election results were not released for the referendum, as has been customary for all prior elections in Ukraine. But journalists and commentators confirm that in areas with large numbers Crimean Tatars the boycott took place. In some areas, polling stations did not open at all; in others turnout was very low. This journalist, for example, visited a precinct where a member of the precinct election commission told him on camera that in the precinct of 1,750 voters, 1,545 of whom are Crimean Tatars, by noon on the referendum day only 15 to 20 Crimean Tatars had come to vote.
The reason why the Crimean Tatars were not lured to the Russian side has to do with their lack of trust in promises coming from Crimea’s pro-Russian forces and from Russia. For over 20 years, local elites in Crimea strongly opposed the very measures they are now offering, and the offer came amidst worries of anti-Tatar violence from armed pro-Russian militia, reported markings of Crimean Tatar houses, and the burning of a Crimean Tatar home and business. Crimean Tatar leaders remain skeptical of the Crimean authorities’ offer, suspecting, for example, that even if the declaration on the restoration of Crimean Tatar rights is implemented, the 20 percent quota will be occupied by carefully selected Crimean Tatars loyal to the new authorities, or even Tatars from Tatarstan — as Mustafa Dzhemilev said – if there are not enough loyal Crimean Tatars. The Crimean Tatars distrust not only the pro-Russsian Crimean authorities but also Russia. This distrust has deep roots, going back to the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea. In the post-Soviet era, Russia had not provided assistance for the Crimean Tatar resettlement until Putin began to reach out to the Crimean Tatars on the eve of the referendum — even though Russia signed, with heads of nine other CIS states, the 1992 Bishkek agreement on “On Questions of the Restoration of Rights of Deported Individuals, National Minorities, and Peoples.”
Putin’s speech on the annexation of Crimea also showed a gulf in historical memory of the Soviet experience. In Putin’s words, “There was a time when Crimean Tatars were treated unfairly, just as a number of other peoples in the USSR. There is only one thing I can say here:: Millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians.” Putin’s choice to couch the Crimean Tatar deportation experience in these terms and to not mention “deportation” reveals an image of the past that is drastically distinct from the historical memory of the Crimean Tatars. The brutal deportation (Surgun) in which nearly half of the deportees died during in a harrowing journey in cattle trains and in the first year in exile is the defining event in 20th century Crimean Tatar history and central to the collective memory of the Crimean Tatars. By downplaying the tragedy of the deportation on the eve of its 70th anniversary, Putin could only have reinforced Crimean Tatar suspicions of Russia and the sincerity of its offers. Most recent events in Crimea give little reason for the Tatars to be optimistic about their situation under Russian rule. Crimean prime minister Aksenov stated that some land plots settled by the Crimean Tatars will need to be vacated. A Crimean Tatar man was kidnapped by pro-Russian paramilitaries and later found dead with signs of torture on his body. The Crimean authorities reportedly also decided to ban access to Crimea to members of the Ukrainian parliament, including Mustafa Dzhemilev, who earlier voted to dissolve the Crimean parliament.
Russia’s attempts to woo the Crimean Tatars have not gone unnoticed in Ukraine. As the only mobilized and vocal pro-Ukrainian force on the peninsula, the Crimean Tatars have been a bulwark of pro-Ukrainian sentiment in Crimea since Ukraine’s independence. However, as discussed in my previous post at The Monkey Cage, the Ukrainian state has been reluctant to meet key political demands of the Crimean Tatars if it did not have to, since politically and electorally, placating the much larger local Russians constituency was more important. The Russian invasion and referendum on succession has changed these political calculations dramatically. With Russian troops taking over government buildings and pro-Russian Crimean elites pushing for full succession from Ukraine, no time or space was left for a negotiated compromise between pro-Russian actors in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government. In this context, elites in Kiev finally did what Crimean Tatars have been advocating for for nearly 20 years. On March 20, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a resolution recognizing the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people, recognized their right to self-determination within Ukraine, recognized the Kurultai and Mejlis as representative organs of the Crimea Tatar people, and instructed the Ukrainian cabinet of ministers to start the process of Ukraine’s accession to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to urgently prepare a package of laws that define the status and rights of the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of Ukraine.
These legal steps are unlikely to change the new reality in which the Crimean Tatars find themselves on the ground in Crimea, but the legal designation of the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people — especially if followed by Ukraine’s accession to the UN declaration – may offer an additional set of legal arguments and international norms for Ukraine when challenging Russia’s claim to and annexation of Crimea. It allows Ukraine, and potentially western powers, to push for the demilitarization of Crimea in light of provisions of the UN Declaration. (Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council already instructed the Ukrainian cabinet to appeal to the UN to designate Crimea a demilitarized zone). The right to self-determination granted to indigenous people by the Declaration allows the Crimean Tatars to argue that the March 16 referendum violated their rights since their will was ignored, and they have already indicated that they may want to organize their own referendum. The Crimean Tatar Kurultai (national congress) has been called in Simferopol for March 29, where the Crimean Tatars plan to discuss this and other possible actions.
The success of Ukraine’s possible initiatives in the international arena based on the designation of the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people is uncertain. Within Ukraine, the Rada decision on this designation may awaken a debate on just what ethnic groups are indigenous, titular, and minorities. While Article 11 of the Constitution of Ukraine recognizes the existence of indigenous peoples in Ukraine, along with the titular nation and national minorities, article 92 of the constitution leaves it to the laws of Ukraine to specify the rights of indigenous peoples. To date, no laws defining indigenous people have been adopted. De facto, ethnic Ukrainians have been considered as a titular group, and all other ethnicities as national minorities. Some Russians have resented this national minority designation, and over the past 20 years these debates – who is indigenous, who is titular, and who is a minority in Ukraine – have flared up periodically. To avoid the ultimately unsolvable debate as to which group has the stronger and longer historical claim to a particular territory, in their claim to indigenous people status the Crimean Tatars emphasize that unlike most other ethnic groups in Ukraine, they do not have a home state anywhere else in the world and that their historical roots as a nation is on territory that is part of Ukraine. With Ukraine, Russia, and the West bracing for protracted standoff over the status of Crimea, Crimean Tatars will continue to play an important role in how the situation unfolds.