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Irish Times

11/16/2006 | !
TATARS INHABIT THE MARGINS IN CONTESTED CRIMEA

LETTER FROM CRIMEA: By Michael Foley
Irish Times, Dublin, Ireland, Wednesday, Nov 01, 2006

For many it is where they spent some of the best months of their youth, at
Young Pioneer camps or on holidays.

Talk to Ukrainians driving around the peninsula and they will point to where
their camp was and what mountains they climbed. It can only be compared to
Irish people recalling their time in the Gaeltacht.

Crimea is a beautiful place. Ride the cable car up Ai Petri mountain and you
see eagles soaring. Its coastline is full of little inlets and beaches and
the landscape is dotted with vineyards.

As Ukrainians tell their stories someone will propose a toast. Vodka will be
held aloft: "to Ukrainian Crimea". Then down goes the vodka.

The salute is politically loaded because Crimea is a contested place. In the
Black Sea resort of Alushta, the main rival to the more famous Yalta a few
miles up the coast, the season is coming to an end.

The bars and restaurants are only half-full, but it is still warm and many
people are out walking until late on the long promenade that borders the
beach.

Ukrainians like to live life outside when the climate allows, so groups of
young people sit and talk on the promenade and drink a few beers. Others
pay a few kopiyas to sing a song to the home-made karaoke machines. The
atmosphere is friendly.
UNIFORMED RUSSIAN NATIONALISTS
But a little later small groups of young men stand around, eyeing other
similar groups. Some are wearing T-shirts proclaiming "Russia" or "Ukraine".
A few insults are thrown, but little else happens even if the atmosphere is
tense.

Someone is wearing what looks like an old-fashioned military officer's
uniform, with large peaked Russian- style cap, tunic and trousers, with a
wide red stripe tucked into boots. Beside him is another solider-like
figure, wearing a beret. Both are armed with long whips. They provide
security, we are told.

But who are they? Cossacks, is the answer. A walk around the town shows
the "Cossacks" are providing security everywhere.

Crimea never had Cossacks.

They were in other parts of Ukraine, and the country is quite proud of its
Cossack connection. One of the best Ukrainian vodkas, Hetman, is named
after the title of a Cossack commander.
THEIR ENEMIES ARE THE TATARS, & UKRAINE
Here in Crimea though, the Cossacks are Russian-speakers, whose main
function, they claim, is to defend the Russian Orthodox Church.

It is also a moot point as to whether they are all actually Cossacks at all,
but uniformed Russian nationalists. Their main enemy are the Tatars, and
secondly Ukraine.

The Tatars, under Genghis Khan, were once part of an empire that stretched
from Mongolia across central Asia and into eastern Europe. The Crimea Tatars
converted to Islam in the 12th century.

Crimea later became part of the Ottoman Empire and remained so until
Catherine the Great took Crimea, so giving Russia access to the Black Sea.
Catherine encouraged others, especially Russians, to settle in Crimea in
order to change the population balance. By 1863 the Tatar population was
outnumbered by immigrants.

In 1944 Stalin ordered the deportation to central Asia of all the estimated
remaining 200,000 Crimean Tatars for their alleged collaboration with the
German occupiers.

In 1954 the peninsula was handed to Ukraine as a "gift" from Russia to mark
the friendship between the two peoples. In 1991, when Ukraine gained its
independence, it inherited the peninsula and its overwhelmingly Russian
population.

Crimean Tatars started returning in the 1980s. The number increased rapidly
after Ukrainian independence. Official figures show that 244,000 have now
returned. Tatar leaders say another 200,000 want to come back.

Today there is tension. Both Russians and Ukrainians say the Tatars want
returned to them the houses and land that belonged to their families before
the expulsion. The Cossacks also claim that Tatars are linked to Islamic
fundamentalist organisations.

The Tatar legacy is used as part of the tourism industry. Restaurants offer
an "authentic" Tatar experience. Real Tatars, though, are a marginal,
dispossessed group.

There are frequent fights between Tatars and members of the Russian
majority. The Tatars also complain of police harassment.
Meanwhile, the Cossacks provide "security" armed with their bullwhips,
claiming they are making Crimea safe for the Russian majority.

There are not many Irish links with Crimea, but there is one. It is now 150
years since the end of the Crimea War. That was covered for the London Times
by a man named William Howard Russell. Russell is considered the father of
war correspondents and could be considered the first reporter in the modern
sense.

His coverage had a huge impact. One government fell, a "War Department" was
created and Florence Nightingale brought her nurses to the Crimea to tend to
the British wounded. Russell, who is commemorated in St Paul's Cathedral,
was from Tallaght in Dublin.


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