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.
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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.

Analyst Semivolos says the Crimean Tatars, as a nation, have a "post-genocidal mentality." "Crimean Tatars in many ways are still living through the experience of genocide to the present day. For them, in many ways, it isn't over, the process of returning, in many ways it is continuing," he explains. "That is why there is this perception of threats, of existential threats, threats to their lives, their physical existence. And they view all sorts of actions, even ones that Russians themselves consider defensive, but for Crimean Tatars, they are attacks."

Officials in the Russian-dominated local administrations have resisted the returning Tatars ever since they began coming back. Tatars have had to fight to get land and build homes, to open schools, and to build mosques.

Perhaps the most eloquent symbol of official resistance is an open field on the outskirts of Simferopol. It is surrounded by a high wall of rough blocks—the same blocks the Tatar squatter huts are made of. The land will be the site of Simferopol's future central mosque, the biggest one in Crimea, that will serve the 60,000 Muslims in the surrounding area. Although under Ukrainian law, the government is supposed to provide free land for houses of worship, the Tatar community struggled for about a decade before securing this site in 2011. The government continues to throw up obstacles that have blocked the beginning of construction.

Aider Ismailov, the deputy mufti of the Crimea Muslim Spiritual Directorate, is a soft-spoken, measured young man. But when asked about the new mosque, the anger rises quickly in his voice.

"Our request [for land] was justified. How? By the fact that for more than 15 years, Muslims in Simferopol have been holding their holiday prayers—that is, twice a year—in a rented gymnasium in the Palace of Labor Unions," he says. "Fifteen years! This is shameful, for Crimea, for the capital, and for the whole country. That is, Muslims have been demanding land for the construction of a new mosque for 10 years because they are holding their holiday prayers in a gymnasium."

The current central mosque, a neat little whitewashed building in the center of town that was used as a book bindery in Soviet times, is the oldest building in Simferopol. It has been the city's main mosque for more than five centuries.

Mejlis head Chubarov says that such perceived injustices explain why Tatars are arguably even more insistent than ethnic Ukrainians that Ukraine's future must be with the European Union. "We know that if Ukraine gains even associate status [with the European Union], then the government and politicians will have to—at least to some extent—follow [international] standards and not just do things like they do now," he explains. "There won't be corruption like now. There won't be such lawlessness in the courts. And there won't be such injustice to such a large group of people as the Crimean Tatars."

Despite the growing tensions on the peninsula, restaurant owner Dzhelyalov is looking to the future. On a corner lot on the very edge of Simferopol, with a view of the airport on one side and a mosque on the other, he is building his dream—a vast, two-story restaurant and event center in the traditional style of Tatar khans. In every detail, from tiles to fountains, it recalls the Khan's palace at Bakhchyseray.

One night earlier this month, construction crews were busy on both floors at nearly midnight, and light was pouring out of the vast windows into the dark night. Standing on a concrete floor under a bare light bulb, Dzhelyalov explained with a smile that the hall had already been booked for a Russian couple's wedding in April.

Despite all the obstacles he has overcome since he returned to Crimea in 1992—or perhaps because he has overcome them—Dzhelyalov is confident and optimistic. His restaurants bustle with a mixed crowd huddled around plates of traditional Tatar dishes—meat pies, stuffed grape leaves, shish-kebab, plov, and more.

And that is the recipe for his optimism. "From the very beginning, from the very beginning, they came eagerly. And the more they learned about us and about me and about the food...," he explains. "Today in Simferopol and everywhere in Crimea the most developed cuisine is ours. People like our food, Crimean Tatar food, best of all."


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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