Ukraine: An Overview of the Crimean Question at the 63rd Anniversary of the Crimean Tartar Deportation

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Idil P. Izmirli
Idil P. Izmirli
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Ukraine: An Overview of the Crimean Question at the 63rd Anniversary of the Crimean Tartar Deportation
Written: By S-CAR
Published Date: June 01, 2007

May 18, 2007 marked the 63rd anniversary of a grave tragedy. On that day that left a dark spot on the history of humanity in the [former] Soviet Union, Crimean Tatars in their entirety were deported from their peninsular homeland under Stalin's orders.

Deportation was carried out by 20,000 interior ministry troops and thousands of regular army soldiers,[i] who went door to door to wake up sleeping Crimean Tatars and give them only 15 minutes to get ready before being exiled to unknown destinations. During that time, Crimean Tatars constituted approximately one fifth of the [Soviet] partisans who were involved in guerilla warfare in Crimea.[ii]

Moreover, most of the able-bodied Crimean Tatar men were at the front fighting the Nazis. As a result, the majority (86.1 percent) of the deportees consisted of the elderly, invalids, women and children.[iii] This
mass deportation on guarded cattle-trains without food, water, and inferior sanitary conditions, resulted in a substantial death toll. During and after the exile, 46.2 percent of the total Crimean Tatar population perished.

Three months after the deportation, on August 14, 1944 the State Defense Committee (GKO) authorized the settlement of 51,000 new migrants in 17,000 vacant collective farms (kolkhozes) to replace the deported Crimean Tatars.[iv] Although some of these settlers were Ukrainians, the vast
majority of them were ethnic Russians[v] who had arrived in Crimea from Russian lands.

While the systematic Russification of the peninsula was taking place rapidly, with a decree published on June 30, 1945,[vi] the Crimean ASSR was officially abolished and it became an oblast (district) within the RSFSR.

In the mean time, according to the orders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (KPSS), Crimean Tatars were "to live in exile forever with no right to return to the former residence."[vii]

The surviving deportees were placed in highly regimented strict special settlement camps (spetsposolonets) in their respective exile countries. Crimean Tatars were forced to live in these camps where they had no freedom of movement without the permission from the camp commanders.

This special settlement regime lasted for 12 years until the 20th Communist Party Congress in February 24-25, 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev[viii] condemned Stalin's crimes in his famous [secret] speech that led to the abolishment of special settlement camps throughout the Soviet Union.

A special [unpublished] decree issued on April 28, 1956 the Presidium of Supreme Soviet (Ukaz 136/142) officially released the Crimean Tatars from special settlement camps.

As soon as they were released, through their Initiative Groups, the Crimean Tatars launched a nonviolent national movement that was solely focused on return to Crimea. This return movement first began with individual letter writing campaigns and continued with group protests in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
as well as in front of Kremlin in Moscow.

Despite the top-down pressures, Crimean Tatars continuously demonstrated, went on hunger strikes, and protested against the Soviet regime demanding permission for return to Crimea. The struggle for return took many years.

During that time, many Crimean Tatar national movement members, including the head of the OKND (Organization of Crimean Tatar National Movement) Mustafa Cemilev, were beaten up, jailed, and even killed. The movement for return proceeded regardless.

Against the background of political dynamics of Perestroika, a new commission formed under Genadii Yanaev recognized the forced deportations as being illegal and criminal. In addition, the commission agreed on the restoration of the Crimean autonomy. This decision was a major turning point for the Crimean Tatars as they organized the beginnings of an [unofficial] mass return to Crimea.

The 1989 Soviet census showed the number of Crimean Tatars in Crimea as 38,000. At the present time, it is estimated that at the present time approximately 300,000 Crimean Tatars are living in Crimea.[ix]

Life in Crimea was not easy for the returnees. In their historical homeland, they faced discrimination in socio-political spheres vis-à-vis land/housing allocations, employment and power-sharing. Their desire for restoration of historical justice continuously fell on deaf ears. Regardless, they remained peaceful. As they often stated "they came to Crimea to build, not to destroy." Yet, the Crimean dynamics are a changing.

Since the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections, as the political combat is taking place between the two Viktors at the center, the Crimean crisis at the periphery is getting out of hand. While Kiev is dealing with its own political issues, Simferopol is being run by certain Russian-backed Crimean politicians who are playing an important role in the magnification of ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic cleavages in the peninsula.

Who are these instigators of conflict in the Crimean peninsula? Which Crimean political actors are the frequent faces in most of the conflictual events? In an effort to answer these questions, let us review several Crimean conflicts that took place in 2006 which appeared to be unrelated but in reality undoubtedly interrelated.

In the early mornings of May 28, 2006 the American warship 'Advantage" arrived in the Feodosian Trade Port as a part of an International military exercise "Sea-Breeze 2006." Upon their arrival, American soldiers were countered with strong anti-NATO protests. In reality, these types of joint-exercises have been taking place in Ukraine since 1997,[x] but in 2006 this exercise suddenly became a tool for showdown of the Russian-backed groups.

These groups included the "Russian Block/Russkii Blok (RB)" under the leadership of Oleg Rodiviliov; The Russian Community/Russkaya Obshina Krima (ROK); the Communists; the Party of Regions; The Block for Yanukovych (Za Yanukovicha),[xi] Progressive Socialist Party, "State", Descendents of Bogdan Khmelnitskiy" and Crimean Cossack[xii] Union, Skinheads, and the National opposition: the Natalia Vitrenko Group.

During these so called anti-NATO protests, under the watchful eyes of the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies (including BERKUT), the Russian flag bearing protestors carried signs with writings such as "NATO - Worse than Gestapo," and "We are not Yankees, we have to turn to our brothers - the
Russians," and burned American flags. Although these protests in Feodosia were illegal under the Ukrainian Criminal law (page 293) "Violation of Community Order,"[xiii] the Crimean law enforcement agencies chose not to interfere.

After a month of protests, when the American ship had to leave Feodosia, the administrator of the MVD (Ministry of internal Affairs) of Ukraine in Crimea, Vladimir Homenko, declared that the military officers that were assigned to Feodosia events were passive.[xiv]

One of the organizers of these protests was the well-known deputy of the Crimean Upper Parliament, Oleg Rodivilov, who is also the president of the permanent commission of Crimean AR that deals with culture, youth issues, and sports. Rodivilov is not a stranger to conflicts in Crimea.

He is one of the organizers of the November 2005 anti-Yushchenko demonstrations that took place in the Lenin Square of Simferopol during the first year anniversary of the Orange Revolution.

During those protests, Rodivilov's Russian Blok Party called for president Yushchenko and his wife "the American" to leave the Ukraine and go to the United States by continuously chanting: "Suitcase, Train station, America/Chemadan, Vokzal, Amerika."

Although the two events seemed unrelated, Rodivilov's Russian Blok was also the instigator of the July 8, 2006 attack on Crimean Tatar who organized a nonviolent sit-in in front of the Azizler (Saints) holy site in the Crimean city of Bahcesaray.

The Azizler area in Bahcesaray includes the mosque of Aziz Malik Ashter, and three historical grave sites (turbes) of the former Crimean khans of Giray Mehmet II (1584); Giray Saadet II (1590); and Giray Mehmet III (1629).

This significant Crimean Tatar holy place in Bahcesaray was being used as a city bazaar for several years. In this location, in the midst of this holy site, the market referred by Crimean Tatars referred as the market "built on bones," the noisy market stalls with cursing and bargaining merchants who were using the turbes as garbage collection sites were offensive for the Tatars as it would be for any religious site of any religion. The returnees were trying to resolve this issue using appropriate state channels for the last 10 years.

At the end of June 2006, when the court decided not to relocate the market to another site in Bahcesaray, frustrated Crimean Tatars started to organize a sit-in protest in front of the market. Since the younger returnees have to work at some capacity to feed their families, these protestors were composed
of mostly older women and men.

As a result, when the Russian Blok, the Cossack union and the skinheads attacked on these protestors and beat them up with iron sticks and clubs, most of these elderly were among the 15 critically wounded Crimean Tatars who were remained hospitalized for extended periods of time.

Also among the wounded were a Crimean Tatar news reporter and a television cameraman whose camera was broken while trying to film the events. Although these attacks were videotaped and the assailants' faces were clearly visible, no charges were brought against them.

In fact, no charges were brought upon anybody, including the market's director Medvedev,[xv] who was videotaped (and later was shown on Channel 10, KRIM television channel) while beating of an old Crimean Tatar with an iron stick.

On the other hand, a well-known member of the Crimean Tatar National movement Kurtseid Abdullayev presently is fulfilling his 8-year jail sentence in a Ukrainian prison for his "alleged" breaking up a camera of a television journalist during the Crimean Tatar field protest in Simeiz in 2004.

While the Azizler attacks were taking place under the watchful eyes of Ukrainian BARS and BERKUT police forces, the aggressors were also shouting the slogans from the signs/flyers they were carrying: "Suitcase, Train station, Baku and Uzbekistan/Chemadan, Vokzal, Baku, Uzbekistan." As indicated from their slogans, these were the same groups who organized the anti-Orange demonstrations in November 2005 in Simferopol's Lenin square.

On July 10, 2006, Crimean Tatars brought up the issue yet one more time with the Crimean authorities. At the end of the talks, when the relocation of the Market issue remained unresolved and the attackers were not penalized regardless of the photos and videos showing their faces clearly, Crimean Tatars have decided to continue with their nonviolent sit-in starting on July 11, 2006.

A month later, on August 12, 2006 Crimea witnessed one of the bloodiest conflicts since the mass return of the Crimean Tatars in 1990s. On that day, Rodivilov's Russian Blok, the Russian Community (ROK) and the Cossack/Skinhead connection had their general meeting that was organized at
the center square of Bahcesaray.

In this gathering, all the meeting-attending citizens were called for an attack on protesting Crimean Tatars by Rodivilov himself (this was shown on news footage on Channel 10). When the RB and ROK meeting ended, groups came down from the city square to the Azizler (market) site and surrounded
the Crimean Tatars from all sides and started to attack them with large rocks, hand grenades, and Molotov cocktails.

This call for attack on that particular day was not a coincidence. First, it was the day that Mejlis members from Simferopol decided to visit the Azizler protestors to show their support for their efforts. Second it was the day that 40 of the BERKUT military troops were called off the Azizler site and were sent to Yalta for the Yalta City Day celebrations.

80 BERKUT troops were placed at the market by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) after the first attack on the protestors on July 8, 2006. In other words, on the morning of August 12, 2006, there were only 40
BERKUT members were present in the area.

Obviously, 40 members of BERKUT were not enough to stop the rock and Molotov cocktail throwing 600 attackers that circled the Crimean Tatars. As a result, more than 50 Crimean Tatar men and women were gravely injured during the attacks. Among the attacked were the two deputies from the Ukrainian
Upper Parliament Mustafa Cemilev and Refat Chubarov, Mr. Leonid Pilunsky, the head of the Crimean branch of the National Rukh party.

Moreover, all the parked cars in the area were turned upside down and damaged (including Mustafa Cemilev's, National Rukh's Leonid Pilunsky's, and the director of the Crimean Tatar television Seidislam Kishveyev's).

According to the Ukraine's Interfax agency's August 17, 2006 report (ICTV), Nikolai Fedoryan, the head of the MVD of Crimea stated that there were approximately 600 attackers and after their the pro-Russian groups arrived in the area and started to throw large rocks and explosives on Crimean Tatars without any provocation.

These events that lasted for two days finally ended when the Crimean Parliament officials and the Mejlis administrators co-signed an agreement about the relocation of market from the Azizler area to Firunze Street in Bahcesaray where market stalls were already existed for the new market. After these bloody events, Gennadi Moskal', the permanent representative of Yushchenko in Crimea, condemned the attacks.

On the other hand, although Rodivilov was videotaped and photographed by various news agencies and television stations while giving orders for the attacks and cheering the attackers by yelling "Mejlis-tyurma
(Mejlis-prison)," no action was taken against him. Today he is still a major political actor in Crimea and remains to be the deputy of the Crimean Upper Parliament.

Presently, the artificially created ethnic cleavages between the Crimean Tatars and the "Slavs" are still being fueled by these same groups in Crimea. Since none of the guilty parties are penalized the returnees are losing hope in the state structures.

The land issue remains unresolved as the Russian Community of Crimea (ROK) and the Russian Blok claim that Crimean Tatars have all they need in Crimea, including land and housing, and want to ban all activities of the de-facto Crimean Tatar Assembly, Mejlis.[xvi] As time goes by, pockets of returnees do not see any hope but continue with field protests (polyana protesta).

However, squatting on these fields is not danger-free. At the end of 2003, the Militia troops were given permission to use dogs, chemical elements, and special arms for the purpose of "preventing" or "liquidating" mass squatting. Moreover, because of the new implementations of the Ukrainian Criminal Code that now entails two years of forced work, imprisonment, and fines for squatting on land.

The six Crimean Tatars that were put to jail for 3-8 years for their alleged participation in Simeiz and Cotton Club events (2004) still remain in jail. Since the original sentencing, this case went back and forth between the Crimean court; the Ukrainian court; the Crimean appeal court with no change regardless of the fact that the court had insufficient evidence to sentence them to begin with.

In the mean time, the "Russian Block," the "Russian Community," and certain "Cossack" organizations (pro-Russian paramilitary organization) that train volunteer [paid] mercenaries in Crimea continue with their power showdown against the Crimean Tatars and keep the "order and security" parallel to the existing "legal" law-enforcement agencies although they have no judicial right to do so.

As Crimean Tatars commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the deportation on May 18, 2007, they remember the past. They pray for their dead and they pray for their future in the Crimean peninsula. The future cannot be isolated from the past. Meanwhile, the present shapes the future.

Accordingly, to prevent the future conflicts in Crimea, the Crimean crisis at the periphery needs an immediate attention by the center. If Kiev views the Crimean crisis objectively and deals with all the parties accordingly, the future conflicts can be prevented.

To err is human. Hence if the state actors learn from the past mistakes and regulate their present based on those lessons, the future can be brighter for all parties not only in Crimea but in all Ukraine.

[i] Burke, Justin, (1996). Crimean Tatars: Repatriation and Conflict Prevention, New York: The Open Society Institute, The Forced Migration Projects, p 12.

[ii] Williams, Brian Glyn (2001). The Crimean Tatars-The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation Leiden, Boston, Koln: Brill; p.376.

[iii] Noyan, Ismail (1967). Kirimli Filolog-Sair Bekir Cobanzade: Hayati ve Eserleri/Crimean Philologist-Poet Bekir Cobanzade: His Life and His Work. (Istanbul Universitesi Basilmamis Yuksek Lisans Tezi/University of Istanbul, Unpublished Masters thesis), p.7

[iv] Pohl, Otto J. (2004). Timeline: deportation of Crimean Tatars and Their national Struggle under Soviet Rule.

[v] Wilson Andrew (2002). Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. Second Edition. New Haven and London: Yale Nota Bene - Yale University Press, pp. 151

[vi] Fisher, Alan W. (1987). The Crimean Tatars. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, p. 167

[vii] Iliasov, Remzi (1999). Krimskie Tatari: Kratkii Obzor Proshlogo i Analiz Sotsialno-Ekonomicheskogo Polojenia Nastoiashego, Simferopol, p. 7 

[viii] Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR on February 19, 1954.

[ix] It is also estimated that about 250,000 Crimean Tatars are still residing in exile (mainly in Uzbekistan, but also in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and throughout the different regions of the Russian Federation), not by
choice but by impossible socio-economic obstacles placed upon them by multiple circumstances.

[x] Dialogue Newspaper (in Russian). No=22 (36), 9-16 June 2006, p.2.

[xi] The head of the local PoR Party Za Yanukovycha is the Vice-Speaker of the Crimean Parliament Vasyliy Kiselyev. During the 2004 presidential elections, he was the one who declared "if Yuschenko is elected a President of Ukraine, the Crimea will become a Crimean Tatar autonomy."

[xii] One thing needs to be emphasized at this juncture. These so-called Cossacks that appear in every conflict in Crimea are not the ones that we know from Russian and Ukrainian folk songs, i.e., Don or Zaporijniye Cossacks. Most of them are former Soviet officers who have retired in Crimea. Most of them have their blood types tattooed on their hearts and have Afghanistan tattoos on their arms.

[xiii] Krimskaya Vremya No: 63 (2301) 10 June 2006, "About the Feodosian Events, Flight, Arson and "Annushkii Syndrome,"p.3

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] On July 12, 2006 in his interview with the journalists, the head of the de-facto Crimean Tatar Mejlis Mustafa Cemilev stated that if Medvedev's name was Ametov (i.e. a Crimean Tatar name), he would have been sentenced to jail for 10 years.

[xvi] "The Russian Community of Crimea wants to ban the activities of Mejlis/[----] (February 12, 2007)
NOTE: Idil P. Izmirli is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR), George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. She has been conducting extended field research in Crimea Ukraine since 2000. In 2006 she spent six months in Crimea, Ukraine as an IREX Individual Advanced Research Opportunities (IARO) scholar. She is the current president of the International Committee for Crimea (ICC). In 2004, and 2006, she was an invited participant of the "Ukraine's Quest for Mature Nation Statehood" Conference sponsored by the "Ukrainian Congress Committee of America - UCCA." Contact: 

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