In the last three months there has been a lot of effort in the media about ethnic minorities in Ukraine and a threat to them as a result of the current political conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which is taking place on the territory of southern Ukrainian Crimea. The leaders of Crimean Tatars, have expressed their grave concern with actions of the Russian government in Crimea and call to the governments of democratic countries, international organizations and communities for help.
Speaking of the latest events in Crimea, the former Head of Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars Mustafa Cemilev said: “It’s hard to believe that in the beginning of the 21st century, the occupation of the Crimean peninsula by the country that calls itself a fraternal state has become possible. There are soldiers on the streets without identification insignia, manifestations under the slogans “Crimea – Russia” are being orchestrated, armed seizures of the governmental buildings take place, blockages of all military units and proposals to swear allegiance to Russia…”
He also noted that the Crimean Tatars have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. “We do understand that the occupation forces need a pretext for bringing in the troops. Silence, peace, the absence of collisions is very fragile. In this situation our main hope lies with international organizations, because if we (both the Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainian armed forces) enter into an armed conflict, there will be a great number of victims,” Cemilev emphasized.
Originally the Crimean Tatars are Muslims of Hanafi school of Turkic origin, who lived in Crimea for centuries. Crimean Tatars had a territory, and a well-defined state, which was the Crimean Khanate and existed between 1441 and 1783. When the Crimean Khanate was annexed by Catherine II in 1783, Crimean national sovereignty came to an end. With that, about 300,000 Crimean Tatars out of a total population of one million left the Crimean peninsula between 1784 and 1790. It was not as such an en masse deportation, but a policy of heavy slavonization of the region. According to the historical documents, around one million Tatars were subject to migration after the Crimean War in 1876. This was the first time ever they became the minority in their own country. Today, the grandchildren of these migrants live in Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.
In 1944, the Crimean Tatars lost half of their nation during the deportation, which was turned into genocide. On May 18, 1944, when the male population of the Crimean Tatars was still fighting against the Nazi’s, Joseph Stalin ordered the en masse deportation of their families. It is best described in the following open letter from the Russian Friends of the Crimean Tatars 1968-1969:
“It was a journey of lingering death in cattle cars, crammed with people, like mobile gas chambers. The journey lasted three to four weeks, and took them across the scorching summer steppes of Kazakhstan. They took the Red Partisans of Crimea, the fighters of the Bolshevik’s underground, Soviet and Party activists, also invalids and the elderly men. The remaining men were fighting the Fascists at the front, but deportation awaited them at the end of the war. And in the meantime, they crammed their women and children into the trucks. Death moved down the old, the young, and the weak. They died of thirst, suffocation, and stench. On the long stops, the corpses decomposed in the huddle of the trucks, and at the short halts, where water and food were handed out, the people were not allowed to bury their dead and had to leave them beside the railway tracks.”
Nowadays, the Russians came to be the majority population in Crimea. They were moved from inlands of Russia to settle down on the lands confiscated from the Crimean Tatars, who had no right to return to their homeland until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Currently more than 300,000 Crimean Tatars, which is about 20 percent of the total population of the peninsula, live in Crimea. The Russian population amounts to about 65 percent.
Notably, according to High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) Astrid Thors, who recently visited Crimea, there is a threat to the communities of the Crimean Tatars and to Ukrainian population in the area. However, he did not notice any threat to the Russian population in Crimea.