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Ukraine falters in Crimean Tatar relationship

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Aug. 29, 2013, 9:51 p.m. | Op-ed — by Andrew Wilson

A file picture taken 18 May 2004 shows a Crimean Tatar man crying during a mass rally held on the 60th anniversary of the deportation of Tatars from Crimea.
© AFP

Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is a reader at University College London. His latest book, “Belarus – The Last European Dictatorship” was published by Yale.

Ukraine is chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2013, which, ironically or not, makes it custodian of a whole range of human rights issues. One of these is the remit of the OSCE’s High Commissioner for National Minorities (HCNM), which has just published a ‘Needs Assessment’ for the Crimean Tatars and the other Formerly Deported Peoples (FDPs) of Crimea. In plainer English, the Report provides a roadmap to resolve the political, economic, social and legal problems related to the restoration of rights and full integration of the Crimean Tatars and other FDPs. I was the academic coordinator for the report, which interested readers can find at www.osce.org/hcnm/104309, or through the following link. 

The report lists the practical steps to improve the situation than can be taken by the national Ukrainian and local Crimean authorities, by other former Soviet states (particularly in Central Asia, where at least 50,000 Crimean Tatars still live), by the international community, and by the FDPs themselves. The report makes uncomfortable reading for the Ukrainian authorities. Ukraine was of course not responsible for the 1944 Deportation (Lavrentiy Beria’s NKVD, the Soviet secret police, organized the operation); but its record as host state since 1991 has been mixed.

Even the number of FDPs is disputed. We still await the successor to the 2001 all-Ukrainian census, but our Report accepts a number of 266,000 Crimean Tatars and 4,900 other FDPs (Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans and Greeks). Numbers have increased, albeit not at the rate expected during the early 1990s because of legal and economic difficulties. The FDPs’ share of the population, however, has risen more rapidly, to 13.8 percent, because the overall population of Crimea has shrunk to under two million. Higher birth-rates mean that the Crimean Tatar population is still expanding at +0.9 percent per annum, while the overall population of Crimea is declining by 0.4 percent. 

Crimean Tatars already make up 20 percent of the school population. However, only 3 percent of children are taught in the Crimean Tatar language (though twice as many take it as an elective). After half a century in Central Asia, most Crimean Tatars are highly Russified; UNESCO categorizes Crimean Tatar as an ‘endangered language;’ Crimean Tatar media is under-developed, and the infrastructure of cultural heritage is badly neglected. Place names were changed overnight in 1944 and have not been changed back. Attacks on Crimean Tatar mosques and cemeteries are frequent. The Kebir Cami Mosque in Simferopol has been returned to active use; the building of the future Central Mosque on Yaltinskaya Street has been endlessly delayed.

The Crimean Tatars are not integrated economically. Unlike before 1944, settlement in the southern coastal tourist zone is minimal. Three-quarters of the Crimean Tatar population is still rural. An estimated 75,000 FDPs are still living in temporary, uncompleted homes without any basic infrastructure. Between 8,000 and 15,000 still live in ‘unauthorized settlements.’ Conflicts over ‘squatting’ (samozakhvaty) are still frequent and often violent. Unemployment is not as high as might be expected, but the Crimean Tatars are highly dependent on self-employment. They are entrepreneurial, but their small trading economy is highly vulnerable in Crimea’s highly criminalized economy.

Various sources estimate that between $160 million and $300 million has been spent in the national Ukrainian and Crimean budgets on the reintegration of FDPs since 1991, which is a substantial sum but still inadequate to the social situation in Crimea. A donors’ conference has been mooted; but the Ukrainian authorities have yet to approve it.

There is no real legal mechanism to define the status of FDPs (the last attempt was vetoed by President Leonid Kuchma in 2004). A law on the ‘Restoration of the rights of deported people on ethnic grounds’ was passed by the Verkhovna Rada at first reading in June 2012, but is now stalled. Bureaucratic hurdles and high transfer costs hinder the return of remaining FDPs, particularly from Uzbekistan. The 1993 Bishkek Agreement regulating conditions for the return of FDPs ran out in May 2013.

The Ukrainian authorities refuse to recognize the Qurultay, which considers itself a quasi-parliament, and passed the radical ‘Declaration of National Sovereignty of the Crimean Tatar People’ back in 1991, which claims that ‘Crimea is the national territory of the Crimean Tatar people, on which they alone have the right to self-determination.’ In practice, however, they are a under-represented minority. Currently, they have only one national parliament member, and five in the Crimean Assembly. Seats are more winnable at a regional level – but Crimean Tatars still only hold around 10 percent of seats on Crimean local councils. Less than 5 percent of local administration officials are Crimean Tatars, excluding the ‘Nationalities Ministry’ (Reskomnats ).

The Crimean Tatar leadership has supported political compromises in the past. A one-off quota system in 1994-8 gave them 14 seats in the Crimean Assembly. A ‘Council of Representatives of the Crimean Tatar People Attached to the President of Ukraine’ was set up by Kuchma in 1999 and met four times, but only once when Viktor Yushchenko was President, in 2005-2009.

Overall, after almost 25 years back in Crimea, progress in integrating the Crimean Tatars and other FDPs has been frankly slow. Politically, this lack of progress might have been expected to produce more of a backlash and the growth of a more radical fringe. In fact, it is the relative unity of the Crimean Tatar movement that stands out. This should be borne in mind, as the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych has been trying to create the opposite impression, that the Crimean Tatar community is increasingly divided and the Qurultay is only one voice among many. Yanukovych’s people have their own motives – a dislike of all independent political activity, the scramble for votes before 2015, the need to secure the power of outsiders from Donetsk in Crimea (where the group from Yanukovych’s hometown of Yenakiyeve in Donetsk Oblast are called the ‘Makedontsy,‘ the Macedonians ruling the Greeks). 

The composition of the ‘Council of Representatives of the Crimean Tatar People’ was changed unilaterally in 2010 (its membership was cut from 33 to 19, only eight of whom were now members of the Mejlis); leading to a boycott by the Mejlis and the parachuting in of a Yanukovych loyalist, Lentun Bezaziyev, to take it over this spring. The authorities have promoted rival and often more radical groups: Milli Firka, Sebat, and the Crimean Tatar Popular Front. Supporters of the Qurultay/Mejlis have been removed from key positions in local government, including the Crimean assembly’s commission for ethnic relations and the Republican Committee on Inter-Ethnic Relations, which oversees the FDP budget.

This risks being a self-fulfilling strategy in the long-run, creating an even more divided and discordant politics on the peninsula. Ukraine’s year of chairing the OSCE is running out. Little progress has been made and there has been regression in areas. May 2014 will be the 70th anniversary of the Deportation in 1944, providing another chance to address the issue if Kyiv is serious about showing some results from its leadership of one form of ‘Europe’ (the OSCE), as it hopes to build closer relations with another (the EU) after November.

Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

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