27 February 2014, 17:51

Ukraine in crisis: history behind Crimea's aspiration for autonomy

Ukraine in crisis: history behind Crimea's aspiration for autonomy

Alongside Crimea's multinational backgrounds and long list of past battles, the peninsula has, time after time, been the intersection of cultures and skips away from encountering some form of conflict. Ever since Ukraine has gone into crisis mode, different ethnic groups all residing in the Crimean region have their own perception of how they want the future to pan out.

Crimea, officially named Autonomous Republic of Crimea, is a breath-taking peninsula jetting out into the Black Sea from mainland Ukraine. For many centuries, it was colonized and taken over by famous empires and nomads alike. In fact, Greeks, Scythians, Byzantines, and the Genoese have all left their mark as can be seen in Crimean archeological places of interest. Invasions from nomads such as from the Goths and the Huns tended to readjust the ethnic view of the area.

The longest stay was from the Turko-Mongols who conquered the peninsula and settled down in the territory. They mixed with indigenous and other Turkic individuals living in the area and by 1441 created the Crimean Khanate. Locals in the area, who spoke in Turkic, became known as Crimean Tartars. As the Khanate asserted its independence from the Golden Horde, it soon transformed into a Turkish colony.

It soon became clear that the Crimean Khanate was labeled as notorious for its harsh slave raids into East Slavic areas, where tens upon thousands of people were kidnapped on a yearly basis on Russian, Polish-Lithuanian, and then some time later on in territories which belonged to the Ukraine. One infamous pillage, known as the Crimean-Nogai raids made up for the Khanate's economy by completing a huge transaction –trading off slaves with the Ottoman Empire along with the Middle East. They were also the reason why areas named Wild Fields, were ghost towns for many centuries.

While the ruling tsardom of Russia built up in power, one of the most pressing issues for its leaders was to watch over the southern perimeters of the nation against the raids. Moscow, for this very reason, welcomed with open arms the loyalty of Cossack-ruled Zaporizhian Sich—this moment was also a highlight as it played a role in the forming of the Ukraine seen today.

Eventually, the Russian Empire got rid of its rival in the 18th century by winning many battles during the time of the Russo-Turkish wars. In compliance with the 1774 Kuchuk-Kainarji peace treaty, the Crimean Khanate was to position itself with Russia. However, it is important to note that Catherine the Great quickly annexed its lands, naming them the ancient Greek title Taurida.


© Photo: ru.wikipedia.org

Once the Crimean War hit the region between 1853 and 1856, history repeated itself as the peninsula was in the crossfire of battle after battle during the war. Although the Russian Empire did not claim victory after the blood-filled Siege of Sevastopol—the Ottoman Empire's British and French partners did— Crimea was kept intact due to the win on the Turkish side. Defeat was in the air while total destruction flooded into the city, the 11-month protection of Sevastopol was recognized as a noteworthy event in the history of Russia, which since then has been linked to the bravery shown by the Russian military forces.

During the second half of World War II, Sevastopol's battle against Germany earned it the nickname Hero City, reigniting its unique historic association for the Russians. By the time the war came to an end, the city had no other choice but to be built from the ground up for the second time around since its existence.


Photo: RIA Novosti

From the threshold of the 20th century, Russians along with the Crimean Tatars were both perceived as predominant ethnic units in Crimea, followed only then by Ukrainian, Jewish, and other forms of minority groups. It is believed that Crimea was such an inspirational place to elites in the arts. Some of the greatest Russian poets, writers, and artists either lived there or were born in the area.

Turmoil took place during the Russian Civil War, which deeply changed the territory, with both the "Red Terror" and hard hit economy. These factors alone caused the population of Crimea unable to deal with the great famine of 1921-1923. At least 100,000 people were affected by the food shortage, with 75,000 of those being Crimean Tatars solely because they depended on the livestock and what very little land they had a small output of crops. Perhaps even more of a disastrous scenario was with the aftershock of WWII where 20,000 of them teamed up with German occupants. Still, loads of others fought for the Soviet side, against the Germans.

After many Crimean Tatars collaborated with the German side, Joseph Stalin demanded that the entire ethnic group be removed from Crimea to various Central Asian Soviet republics. An official tally up of people, 183, 155, were removed from the area through deportation measures from Crimea. In addition, 9,000 Crimean Tatar WWII veterans were pushed out of the region as well. All of those individuals made up for around 19 percent of the population in the area right before the war, close to 50 percent were by that time Russian.

The move though, was heavily criticized by the communist leadership as early back as 1967, as the Tatars were not able to return to the region until the late 1980s. The unforgettable events encompassing Stalin's deportation move undoubtedly molded the ethic group's opposing feelings toward the Soviet regime. Some Soviet citizens became familiar with Crimea as an "all-Union health resort". Many Soviet residents were able to reminisce over summer camps visits to seaside vacations they had in the region.

Crimea was ripped away from Russia around the time of 1954, when ethnic Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to Ukraine, pulling it out of the hands of the Russian region. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the gift Khrushchev had given to Ukraine has been put under harsh criticism by a growing number of Russians, including the majority that make up those residing in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

Adding what looked like insult to injury, there was also the Soviet Sevastopol that was noted as the largest Crimean city as well as keeping a special tactical and military status. In 1948, Sevastopol broke away from the region and was made into a direct subordinate to Moscow, Russia. Utilized as a key Soviet naval unit, in the past it was a "closed city".

Tiring debates between Russia and Ukraine went on in the 1990s over what would become of Sevastopol. After negotiation talks, the city along with the surrounding regions were given a unique "state significance" status inside Ukraine with parts of the naval buildings leased off to Russia for its Black Sea Fleet up until at least 2047. To this day, many Russians and outspoken Russian political figures still believe it to be part of Russia.

Fast forward to present day and the majority of those residing in Crimea are ethnic Russians. Close to 1,200,000 are Russian in the region, according to national census survey taken from 2001 data. While 58.3 percent are said to be of Russian origin in the area, 24 percent are Ukrainian, and 12 percent are Crimean Tatars. If Sevastopol is just taken into account, almost no Crimean Tatars live in the area, while 22 percent are of Ukrainian origin and 70 percent are Russian. A whopping 97 percent in Crimea speak Russian as their primary language, according to Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll.


Photo: RIA Novosti

Right now, the region is in utter turmoil. The Russian majority in the area started up protests outside of the parliament demanding that local members of parliament not support the political events emerging out of the capital, Kiev. Instead, they are urging politicians to request for the Autonomous Region to restart its 1992 constitution, where Crimea for a brief moment in time had its own president residing over the territory and independent foreign agenda.

Conflict can be felt in the area as the Tatar community opposes the idea and is in full support of the new central authorities organizing the politics of the nation in Ukraine's capital. The next step may be to hold a referendum on what should happen to the territory where so many Russians claim the land is closer to their heart compared to any other group in the district.

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