Early May was marked by political tension in the Crimea, because this year the population of the peninsula marked 60 years since the Stalinist deportation of local ethnic groups. Some time before it, the peninsula was visited by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who promised to celebrate Holy Easter in the Crimea, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, who called on the residents of this problem-ridden part of Ukraine "to abandon the obsolete ideology of racism and nationalism." Ethnic relations are far from harmonious on the peninsula, and some experts think it may repeat the fate of Kosovo or Cyprus.
The tragedy of Crimean Tartars differs from that of the other national groups "punished" by Stalin. Unlike Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachayevs and Kalmyks, the Crimean Tartars were not partially rehabilitated during the Khrushchev "thaw" and were not granted, as political compensation, "an autonomous area" of their own. In this sense, their case is similar to the history of the Volga Germans, who lived as an ethnic community in the current Saratov region before their deportation. On the other hand, the Volga Region has never been the Russian Germans' proper fatherland, and those who wanted to leave Stepmother Russia have done so.
But Tartars and the Crimea are quite another matter. The very image of the peninsula is the core of the ethnic self-identification of the Crimean Tartars, who had a state there from the late 15th century to 1783. Though the Crimean Khanate was subordinate to the Ottoman Empire and pursued the sultan's policy, the general public views the Girei Dynasty as the golden age of the Crimean Tartar state, which was respected on the world scene.
The last Tartar raid on the outskirts of the Russian Empire came in 1769 but the Russian reformer tsar, Peter the Great, sent "gifts" to the Crimean Khan as late as in 1709. This explains the political passion of the ethnic movement of the Crimean Tartars and the radicalism of their slogans, which Russian and Ukrainian experts note. The 55th anniversary of deportation five years ago was marred by political excesses, including extremist calls for transforming the Crimea into the ethnic property of the Crimean Tartars, the appearance of militant Tartar youths, and the dispatch of Ukrainian military hardware to Simferopol. Happily, the problem was settled at the time.
But spontaneous demonstrations and rallies are held in the Crimea sporadically and highway and railway lines are blocked, not to mention the illegal seizure of land by the Crimean Tartars. The return of the Tartars to the Crimea, which was aptly called "self-return" by a journalist, proceeded without a substantiated economic plan or an ethnic development strategy for the returning and reviving Tartar community. Vasvi Abduraimov, head of the Centre for Applied Information Technologies of the Crimea, said the peninsula "is not a Crimean Khanate or Turkish Vilayet [province]."
Alas, the new realities of Ukrainian sovereignty and the domination of the Russian population holding Russian passports and entertaining strong pro-Russian views went unnoticed by many leaders of the Crimean Tartar national movement. They advanced the idea of the Crimea as the collective ethnic property of the Crimean Tartars and claimed that the latter had the exclusive right to economic and political domination in their "homeland." Hence the striving to create Tartar bodies of power (majlis, kurultai) and to set Tartar authority against the official structures of the Crimean autonomy and Ukraine.
What did the authorities do in this situation? Ukraine gained not just independence but also an acute problem of national identity and a seat of double-edged ethnic separatism. On the one hand, there is the mass desire of the dominant Russian community in the Crimea to achieve a union with Russia. On the other hand, the movement of the Crimean Tartars, though it has frequently advanced anti-Russian slogans, is largely xenophobic also with regard to the Ukrainian authorities.
Meanwhile, Russia knows that it cannot "regain the Crimea" and has no plans to this effect. Did Khrushchev have the right to "present" the Crimea to Ukraine in the 1950s? Was Yeltsin right when he did not fight for Sevastopol? These are issues of history, and emotions should be left on one side. Our policy must be guided by common sense.