The Crimean Crisis We Should Have Seen Coming

Barack Obama and Ukraine's new government have warned Russia not to intervene militarily in Crimea—a region long plagued by tensions.
An unidentified armed man patrols at the airport in Simferopol, Crimea, on February 28. (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine—This week's standoff in Crimea was a long time coming.

The emerging crisis pitting ethnic Russians seeking integration with Moscow and Crimean Tatars who wish to remain in Ukraine is emblematic of the smoldering tensions that have been a fact of daily life on the sunny Black Sea peninsula for the last quarter-century.

Because of the region's unique and tortured history, Crimean Tatars are afraid, says Igor Semivolos, director of the Center for Near East Studies in Kiev. He says that the predominantly Muslim minority group feels "threats from the Russian-speaking population, or more concretely, from groups of Cossacks and other formations that are now being created under the conditions of political hysteria that we see now in Crimea. And [Tatars] see a threat to themselves from these groups—including a physical threat."

At the same time, Semivolos adds, Russians in Crimea themselves feel cut off from their own homeland and see themselves and their culture as threatened by Ukrainian nationalism and Tatar claims in Crimea. "I think that the Russians correspondingly feel the same about all actions by the Crimean Tatars—as attacks," he says. "That is, it is a classic situation of conflict in which both sides feel they are defending themselves."

Crimean Tatars stormed the regional parliament in Simferopol on February 26 and the Kremlin launched military exercises near Ukraine's border. The next day, apparently pro-Moscow gunmen seized government buildings and raised the Russian flag.

During a visit to the peninsula earlier this month, it was clear that this simmering cauldron—fueled since by the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's pro-Russian government and increased talk of separatism by ethnic Russians—could easily boil over.

Refat Chubarov, the head of the Tatar community's self-government organ, the Mejlis, and a deputy in the Crimean parliament, said that the Tatars consider the current political crisis an existential threat.

"Any risk or danger that, in our view, could lead to the partitioning of Ukraine or to its loss of sovereignty or part of its sovereignty is unacceptable for us," Chubarov explains. "Because we understand that if—God forbid!—that happens, the first ones to suffer will be us, Crimean Tatars, because we would once again be in a situation where such cataclysms destroy any chance for us to restore our rights or, in general, for us to exist [as a nation]."

In calmer times, ethnic Russians and Tatars in Crimea live side by side, coexisting and sometimes intermingling. In the ancient city of Bakhchyseray, Russian tourists in the former palace of the Crimean khan photograph one another by a fountain that was immortalized by Aleksandr Pushkin in one of the classic poems of Russian literature. As the guide tells the story of the "fountain of tears," a call to prayer rings out from a nearby mosque.

Crimean roads and seafronts are lined with cafes and restaurants advertising the delights of Tatar cuisine. The clientele is overwhelmingly drawn from the 60 percent of the population that is ethnic Russian. But the roads are also lined with primitive block buildings, often without windows or roofs. They are the settlements of Tatar squatters, who build the structures on vacant land as they try to persuade the government to give them the title.

In May 1944, the entire population of 200,000 Crimean Tatars was forcibly deported by Josef Stalin's Red Army to Russia and Central Asia. Nearly half of the population died within the first year of the deportation. Stalin then resettled the strategic peninsula with Russians, moving them into Tatar homes and handing over Tatar property to them.

The Tatars, however, never put down roots in their places of exile, and the dream of returning to Crimea never died for them. Mudeser Dzhelyalov, who owns two restaurants in Simferopol, says he knew his whole life that he would return. "As soon as I learned how to write, I already—according to my father's dictation—wrote a letter to [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev: 'Dear Grandpa Brezhnev! Help our people return to their homeland in Crimea,'" he says.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, they began returning. Now they make up some 12 percent of the population. But they have had to claw their way back among a Russian population that largely denies they suffered particularly under the Soviet government and that still believes in the Stalin-created myth that the entire Tatar nation collaborated with the Nazis in World War II.

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