Askold Krushelnycky: 4-part series about Crimean Tatars on RFERL
the RFE/RL website. Below please find the links to all four parts:
Ukraine: Crimea's Tatars -- A Return To A Homeland Burdened By Ethnic Divisions
Crimea's Tatars -- For Russian Settlers, Resentment And Anger
Crimea's Tatars -- Mustafa Dzhemilev: Hero, Leader, Statesman
Crimea's Tatars -- Clearing The Way For Islamic Extremism?
Ukraine: Crimea's Tatars -- A Return To A Homeland Burdened By Ethnic Divisions (Part 1)
By Askold Krushelnycky
Crimean Tatars were brutally deported from their homeland by Stalin in 1944. From that time, the peninsula was mainly inhabited by Russian settlers and military officials. But since the 1990s, Tatars have been returning to Crimea -- a beautiful and historically rich peninsula in Ukraine with complex ethnic problems.
Simferopol, Ukraine; 25 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Crimea's complex ethnic problems stretch back centuries.
It is the historic homeland of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic-language-speaking people practicing a liberal form of Islam.
Under its princely leaders, the khans, the picturesque peninsula -- which stretches into the Black Sea -- was rich in both commerce and culture.
But Russia forcibly annexed Crimea in 1783. And in 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation to Central Asia of all Crimean Tatars, on the pretext they had collaborated with Germany.
Seventy-four-year-old Iskender Ablaev recalled how his family was given just 15 minutes to gather their belongings and leave their home near Bakhchiseray.
"We couldn't take anything. Just the clothes we were wearing, no food, nothing," Ablaev said. "They loaded us into vehicles and drove us to a railway station and put us into wagons. I don't remember exactly, but I think we traveled for 17 days to Central Asia."
Some people died during the trip, but Ablaev and his family survived. He was put to work on a collective farm.
In 1954, Crimea was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and remained a part of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From that point on, tens of thousands of Crimean Tatar exiles began to return to what is now an autonomous republic within Ukraine -- including Ablayev, who came back in 1995."Crimean Tatars have returned to their homeland not to live here as an average citizen, but to return to their roots and to revive these roots."
Some 260,000 Crimean Tatars now live in their historic homeland. As many as 150,000 more may follow.
But it hasn't been an easy homecoming. Many of Crimea's postwar settlers -- mainly Russians -- resent the Tatars' return. The local government has made it difficult for returnees to get land, homes, or jobs.
Despite the hardships, however, most Crimean Tatars say they have no regrets about returning.
Ablayev's wife died just two years after their return. He now lives with his 43-year-old son Shakir and his family in a settlement near Simferopol, the Crimean capital.
The settlement, called Kamenka, is home to 1,500 Tatars. It has poorly maintained roads, and the Ablaev family home is uncompleted due to lack of money.
The aid they receive from the government amounts to less than $100 a month. Still, Ablaev said he is glad to be back in Crimea.
"Yes it's home," Ablaev said. "It's not necessarily easy, but it's better to live in your own homeland than in a foreign country."
Ablaev said that Crimean Tatars work hard to preserve their national identity. One of the most important elements of this is religion. Ablaev said he is proud his son helped build Kamenka's mosque.
The day our correspondent visited Kamenka, the local imam was presiding over the circumcision of Ablaev's grandson. According to tradition, the ritual was performed as the men of the family and the settlement's male elders sat on the carpeted floor and sang religious songs.
Many Tatars held on to their traditions and beliefs as a way of surviving the cruelty of enforced exile, said Rustem Chyiogoz, a district administrator in Bakhchiseray, the historic Crimean capital.
Bakhchiseray escaped the dismal fate of many Crimean Tatar towns, and remains an enchanting city, surrounded by high cliffs that guard the khans' delicately arched and carved 16th-century palace complex.
The palace boasts high-ceilinged meeting rooms, a harem room, an apartment for one of the khan's wives, mosques, minarets, and fountains -- including one immortalized by Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin.
Chyiogoz said the returning Tatars have worked hard to restore the splendor of the remarkable complex. "Crimean Tatars have returned to their homeland not to live here as an average citizen, but to return to their roots and to revive these roots," Chyiogoz said. "The Crimean Tatar people are like other peoples -- they have history and culture, they have prominent figures who made the Crimean Tatar people known throughout the world. That's why our aim is not just to establish ourselves here but to revive historical, cultural, and other things."
Many of the original plans and documents related to construction of the sites were destroyed by the Russians. It has proved difficult to restore some of Bakhchiseray's most precious structures -- like the mausoleum of Crimea's most famous khan, Mengli Girai, and the magnificent school of religious and secular learning he ordered built.
Tatar restorers have sought out records in Turkey and Poland, or studied similar buildings in other countries, for clues on how to conduct their work.
The restoration of certain traditions has sometimes proved problematic as well. During the time of the khans, Bakhchiseray was filled with scores of craftsmen creating fine jewelry in silver and gold. Chyiogoz described the challenge of bringing back that tradition.
"And when we started to search for a master craftsman who knew how to do this, we found that among all our people there was only one left, just one," Chyiogoz said. "We searched for him and found him. We gave him the means to live and gave him some apprentices to teach. And now he is a master craftsman and he has taught three master craftsmen."
Amid the hardships, said Chyiogoz, that sort of success gives the Crimean Tatars hope for the future.
Ukraine: Crimea's Tatars -- For Russian Settlers, Resentment And Anger (Part 2)
By Askold Krushelnycky
Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula is a volatile ethnic mix where the return of Crimean Tatars, deported in 1944 by Stalin, has provoked resentment, particularly among the largest national group there, the Russians.
Simferapol, Ukraine; 25 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Crimea was transferred to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic as a "gift" in 1954, when it seemed the Soviet Union would last forever.
But when the USSR disintegrated in 1991, Ukraine held onto Crimea and also inherited its complex ethnic problems.
Russians form the majority of the population. Many residents would like the peninsula to become part of Russia and many resent the return, encouraged by Ukraine, of Crimean Tatars deported by Josef Stalin in 1944. Ethnic Russian leaders have accused Tatars of wanting to grab land, encouraging Islamic fundamentalism, and eventually aiming to declare an independent Crimean Tatar state.
Brawls between Tatars and Russians are common. The Russian Orthodox Church has drawn historic parallels of conflict between East and West and engaged in what Tatars have labeled as provocative actions.
Earlier this year police fired above a crowd of Crimean Tatars trying to secure the release a fellow Tatar they said had been wrongly arrested. Militant uniformed Cossack organizations have confronted Tatar groups. "You know all these tensions are the result of many years of anti-Tatar propaganda." - Umerov
The deputy chairman of the autonomous Crimean parliament, Ilmi Umerov -- a Crimean Tatar -- has no doubt ethnic tensions are being deliberately stirred up. "You know all these tensions are the result of many years of anti-Tatar propaganda," Umerov told RFE/RL. "On a street level, there are no serious problems -- people live together as neighbors, friends. The problems are caused by certain political organizations and these are called the Russian Community organization, the Communists, and in recent years severe problems have been caused by a structure calling itself a Cossack organization. Earlier they did not exist, but now they are here and, if I can say so, they are fighting against us and our rights."
Umerov said property and land issues are the most critical, as Russian investors are buying up much of the land. Next year, when land privatization is due to become easier, Umerov said Crimean Tatars will have even more problems trying to outbid rich Russians for land.
The leader of the Tatars' biggest civic organization, the Mejlis, is Mustafa Dzhemilev, who is also a member of the Ukrainian parliament. He blames the Kremlin and Crimean Russian organizations for fanning fear of Crimean Tatars and encouraging prejudice.
One of the most prominent Russian ethnic leaders in Crimea is Serhiy Tsekov, who is chairman of an organization called the Russian Community of Crimea. He is the leader of a political party called the Russian Bloc, a member of the Crimean parliament. Tsekov was against Ukrainian independence. He now accepts it, but wants close integration between Russia and Ukraine.
The organization has a reputation for encouraging aggressively nationalist Russian Cossacks. Tsekov believes the Crimean Tatars are being given too many advantages. He said politics should not be conducted on the basis of "an eye for an eye," and that today's Russians should not be blamed for the past mistreatment of Crimean Tatars.
"The Mejlis claims some special rights for the Tatars in Crimea. These are special rights for property, special status rights. They believe they have a separate national status and therefore they feel they deserve the right to special powers," Tsekov told RFE/RL.
Tsekov said he thinks the Tatars are exploiting the land issue for political ends. "Today the core problem is land. In the past there was another problem," he said. "In the past, the problem was representation in the organs of power in Crimea. They [Tatars] said that they had to have a guaranteed number of places in the Crimean government, in the Crimean parliament, in the town administrations. And when they did not succeed in attaining their demands, the problem of land appeared. And [in the future] they will raise the issue of Crimean Tatar national autonomy and then some kind of statehood."
Tsekov blames the Ukrainian government for working with the Mejlis, which he regards as an illegal organization, and for creating a climate he said could lead to serious conflict.
Another source of tension has been the Russian Orthodox Church. It has aggressively defended its dominance on the peninsula and virulently opposed the construction of Ukrainian Orthodox or Catholic churches. It has also been accused of deliberately provoking the Islamic Crimean Tatar population.
In 2002 it mounted a campaign to place large crosses at places that Mejlis leader Dzhemilev said were specifically chosen to ignite political anger. Many were placed at former Tatar settlements or sites sensitive for Muslims. "We have nothing against the cross, but the cross has its proper place," Dzhemilev said. "If you place a cross at the entrance to a city you are trying to emphasize that it's a Christian city. But these are not just Christian places -- they contain Jews and Muslims also."
Dzhemilev said in the past, the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church were supported by Crimea's openly Russian nationalist, communist-led government. This, he said, was a deliberate calculation meant to drive the situation to the brink of conflict. "Some of their actions overstepped the bounds of patience. They brought one huge cross from Russia and erected it at a place where Crimean Tatars were buried. Precisely at that place. That nearly caused bloodshed. We regarded that as a calculated provocation," he said.
The Russian Orthodox Church denies that it established the crosses as a provocation, and says it halted the program in order to prevent serious conflict.
Ukraine: Crimea's Tatars -- Mustafa Dzhemilev: Hero, Leader, Statesman (Part 3)
By Askold Krushelnycky
For Crimean Tatars, deported from their homeland by Stalin but returning in large numbers for more than a decade, their most venerated leader is Mustafa Dzhemilev, who combines the roles of hero, political leader, and elder statesman. RFE/RL interviewed him in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, where Dzhemilev continues to battle for the rights of Crimean Tatars, a Turkic people who have inhabited the Black Sea peninsula for more than seven centuries.
Simferopol, Ukraine; 25 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Mustafa Dzhemilev is probably the most respected living figure for Crimean Tatars.
During the Soviet era, he become a hero for speaking out to keep the Crimean Tatar identity alive and to demand that his people -- deported en masse from their homeland by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944 -- be allowed to return home. For those activities, he was twice imprisoned in the Gulag -- 15 years in all.
Now, in almost Biblical manner, Dzhemilev has led his people home. Some 250,000 Tatars have returned to Crimea from exile, mostly in Central Asian, since the late 1980s. But despite such progress, Dzhemilev warns that Russia is seeking to use the Tatar issue to destabilize Crimea, and that Ukrainian authorities aren't helping the matter by reneging on promises to assist the Tatars. "They definitely fear that the Crimean Tatars would do the same to the Russians as was done to the Crimean Tatars -- if the Crimean Tatars here had enough power."
Russian and Ukrainian officials deny such accusations. And ethnic Russians -- the majority on the peninsula -- accuse Crimean Tatars of seeking to obtain special privileges for their people, such as land concessions.
But according to Dzhemilev, ethnic Russians feel intense resentment toward the Tatars, a minority along with Ukrainians in Crimea. He told RFE/RL that tensions between Tatars and Russians are deliberately stoked by propaganda that Tatars will take revenge on Russians by dispossessing them of land. "Therefore, they definitely have a fear that the Crimean Tatars would do the same to the Russians as was done to the Crimean Tatars -- if the Crimean Tatars here had enough power," he said. "That's their mentality."
A member of the Ukrainian parliament, Dzhemilev is considered his people's most influential political leader. He also heads the Mejlis, which is both a political body and community organization whose members are elected by Crimean Tatars.
Born in Crimea, Dzhemilev left in May 1944 when Stalin ordered the deportation of its entire Tatar population of around 200,000, after accusing them of collaborating with Nazi Germany during World War II. In 1967, the Soviet leadership acknowledged that those accusations were unfounded.
Most Tatars were deported to Uzebekistan. But nearly 30,000 died en route, cramped into train cattle wagons, or from malnutrition or disease after arriving.
Dzhemilev said land remains his people's most pressing problem. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, it promised to give Crimean Tatars passports and to help them get new homes. But Dzhemilev said Tatars have immense difficulty obtaining land in their traditional areas on the southern coast, a prime resort spot mostly claimed by ethnic Russian-owned businesses.
The situation is set to get worse next year when land privatization officially begins. Wealthy Russians are widely expected to outbid Tatars for the choicest bits of territory.
Another painful issue, Dzhemilev said, is educational opportunities in the Crimean Tatar language -- or rather, the lack of them. "Well, it's sufficient to say that until the deportation, one of the official languages on this peninsula was the Crimean Tatar language along with Russian," he said. "But now it is not an official language. The great majority of our children cannot get education in their native tongue. A total process of Russification is in progress. Children have not learned some of the most elementary words of their native language."
There are 13 schools for Crimean Tatars, sufficient for about 10 percent of school-age children. But even these can hardly be called Tatar schools, Dzhemilev said. Many have poor facilities, a narrow range of subjects, and too few qualified teachers. Many Tatar parents send their kids to Russian schools, fearing they will be disadvantaged by a Tatar-language education.
Dzhemilev said that Russian nationalists along with the communists -- who until two years ago ruled in Crimea -- play on fears that Crimean Tatars will pursue their claims for land violently.
He also believes the Kremlin aims to prevent Ukraine from growing into a strong regional power -- and that it is prepared to stoke ethnic conflict in Crimea to help keep Kyiv in line. "I want to say simply this that very powerful forces at [the Russian] government level are working to destabilize Crimea," he said.
Dzhemilev said the future of the Crimean Tatars depends on having a sympathetic and democratic government in Kyiv. To that end, he said, much depends on the outcome of the Ukrainian presidential race in October.
The Mejlis has stifled attempts by outsiders to introduce radical forms of Islam. But Dzhemilev said that the more Kyiv fails to deliver on promises to help the Tatars, the more the authority of the Mejlis will be eroded. "When it's unavoidable we [the Mejlis] give permission to organize pickets or demonstrations and then we're called extremists and radicals despite the fact -- and they have no idea -- that if we didn't do such things then Tatar national sentiments would slip away from our control," he said. "And that could lead to the possibility of bloodshed."
But he said that with goodwill, Crimea -- with its benign climate, golden shores, and cultural sites bursting with history -- could become a wonderful place for all its inhabitants to live in peace.
Ukraine: Crimea's Tatars -- Clearing The Way For Islamic Extremism? (Part 4)
By Askold Krushelnycky
Crimean Tatars traditionally practice a moderate form of Islam. But there are fears that ethnic tensions between Tatars and Russians in Crimea could provide fertile ground for fundamentalism to take root. RFE/RL looks at how the Crimean Tatars have tried to stop that from happening.
Sinferopol, Ukraine; 26 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Crimean Tatars' main mosque on the peninsula is right in the heart of the old part of the Crimean capital, Simferopol.
It is the poorest section of the city. The houses are dilapidated and most of the area does not have a proper sewage system. Cars drive warily through streets riddled with potholes. Above the noise, the call to Friday prayer rings out through loudspeakers on the mosque's minaret.
In centuries past, when the peninsula was ruled by a Crimean Tatar khan loosely allied with the Turkish sultan, there were 21,000 mosques. After the Russian empire invaded and annexed Crimea in the 18th century, the number of mosques began to decline. By 1944 -- the year Stalin ordered the deportation of all Crimean Tatars to Central Asia -- the number of mosques had dropped to just 1,700.
Since then, under the influence of first the Soviet Union and then post-Soviet Ukraine, many of those remaining buildings have also been destroyed, or converted for other purposes, such as storage depots. Adzi Ablaev says only about 160 mosques are now functioning and many of those are in poor condition.
Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, around 260,000 survivors of the deportation and their descendants have returned from exile, mostly in Uzbekistan. The Ukrainian government pledged the returnees land, financial help and the return of cultural sites such as mosques. But local authorities, many of whom are ethnic Russians, have been slow to deliver on the promises.
Many ethnic Russians and their political leaders openly resent the return of the Tatars and accuse them of wanting more than their fair share. They also accuse the Tatars of seeking to eventually form an independent Islamic Crimean state. Brawls between Russian and Tatar youths are frequent. There have been tense standoffs between crowds of Tatar protesters and police. Earlier this year police opened fire above the heads of one such crowd.
Most of the Tatar men are officially unemployed. Among the younger men, there is a smoldering anger that has often been barely controlled by their elders.
Many of the ingredients here seem dangerously similar to the volatile cocktail of frustration and prejudice that turned into violence and civil war in former Yugoslavia or the Middle East.
And Muslim missionaries preaching a stricter form of Islam than the more liberal version traditionally practiced by Crimean Tatars have been visiting Crimea in the hope of winning converts. The missionaries, usually from rich Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, have ragged full beards and their wives and daughters are covered and veiled from head to toe. It is a distinct contrast to the Western look of most Crimean Tatar men and women.
Mustafa Dzhemilev heads the largest Crimean Tatar organization, the Mejlis. He said Crimean Tatar Islam is similar to the moderate brand practiced in Turkey where there is a separation between religion and the secular state. But he said that stricter forms, notably the Wahabbism of Saudi Arabia, is being preached by missionaries from the Middle East who have plenty of money to build mosques and set up religious education establishments.
Dzhemilev said such efforts have had only limited success in convincing Tatars to convert to a stricter form of Islam which, among other things, teaches adherence to Koranic law. "Concerning radical Islamic organizations, there have certainly been people appearing here who we would not call radicals, but who we would say are practicing a form of Islam that is not traditional for Crimean Tatars," he said.
A few years ago, around 30 small Tatar settlements that had received financial aid from Wahabbis accepted clergymen preaching the more radical form of Islam. Dzhemilev said the Mejlis was able to persuade many of the settlements to return to a more moderate form of Islam. But he warns that the longer young Crimean Tatars feel frustrated by their poverty, the more attractive radical Islam -- and possibly extremist violence -- will look.
"Brochures of a provocative nature have appeared which say things like Muslims don't have to obey laws if the head of the state is not a Muslim. So what does that mean? That I should not obey Ukrainian law? That is provocation designed to spark a conflict. Fortunately, we are able to keep such things under control for the moment," Dzhemilev said.
Mufti Emirali Adzi Ablaev, Crimea's senior Muslim clergyman, also said the Wahabbis have failed to make a significant impact in Crimea. He said he is confident that more extremist strains of Islam will not take root on the peninsula. "It [Wahabbism] was artificial. Our nation, our ancestors never had those trends, those sects and they won't have them now," he said. "I'm 100 percent certain that they will not take hold here. And if they do exist here, then we have the state and law-enforcement bodies whose task is to take care of such things. But in our system, among our people, such ideologies and ideas have never been present and never will be. That's why I'm not worried."
He said that the only effect the Wahabbis had was to cause temporary splits among Muslims in Crimea, and he blamed that for causing divisions in the broader Muslim world.
The mufti said Crimean Tatars have opened nine madrasahs, or religious schools, on the peninsula and their curriculum is open to inspection by the authorities to show there is no radical content.