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Ayla Bakkallı

  • Monday, Jan 20 2014

Crimean Tatars: Indigenous Ukrainians at Maidan Square

History is currently in the making in Ukraine with change taking place at a seismic level. There are hundreds of thousands Ukrainians demonstrating in Central Kiev against President Victor Yanukovich’s decision to reject a trade agreement with the European Union (EU) that preceded the Summit in Vilnius on 28–29 November 2013. This trade pact which had been years in the making should have been signed by President Yanukovich. With protestors gathered in Kiev’s famous Maidan Square (Independence Square) as if a replay of the 2004 “Orange Revolution in which Yanukovich was once ousted as a presidential front –runner due to fraudulent election tactics. Today, as Ukraine’s president, he has once again angered the pro-West, pro-EU Ukrainian protestors for his rejection of the European Union Association Agreement (AA) trade agreement. Protestors vowed to remain at Maidan Square until an agreement is signed, if not, opposition leaders are ready to call for early presidential and parliamentary elections.

Thankfully, pro-EU protestors are not alone. High level dignitaries arrived in Kiev, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, Republican Senator John McCain and, Democrat Senator Chris Murphy declared their support. Senator McCain spoke out to the protestors and said, “you have a sovereign right to determine your own destiny freely and independently……..and, the destiny you seek lies in Europe”. The crowd chanted back, “thank you, USA”. Another support for the protestors came forth by Ukraine’s three former presidents, Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Victor Yushcenko against the government’s decision to reject a historic pact with the European Union.

There is yet another group of staunch supporters for the Maidan Square demonstrators; they are none other than the indigenous Crimean Tatars of Crimea, Ukraine, namely the indigenous Ukrainians. The indigenous Crimean Tatars since their return to Crimea after the fall of communism in the late 1980’s have consistently advocated for Ukraine’s national interest in any Moscow-Kiev rift. With Ukraine’s Russian leaning crowd and large Russian ethnic majority centered in Crimea, the indigenous Crimean Tatar people and their leaders are very proud to point out that they were key players in keeping Crimea as part of Ukraine in a 1991 Ukrainian Referendum on Independence voted to break away from the former Soviet Union. But, in Crimea the historic homeland of the Crimean Tatars, where majority of Russian ethnics reside, it is the Crimean Tatar votes that provided the crucial margin for Ukraine’s Independence. In general, it can be said that indeed Crimea’s Ukrainian population have been more receptive to the indigenous Crimean Tatar returnees than the local Russian ethnic population who are the majority. However, what is of concern for the Crimean Tatars is the issue of Russified Ukrainians who have failed to act as a pro-Kiev lobby group thus, presenting a new dynamics to the Crimean peninsula. As pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatars compare themselves to the Russified Ukrainian population of the Crimea proclaim, “We are the only Ukrainians in the Crimea”!

Once again, in 2004, during the Ukrainian presidential elections, the indigenous Crimean Tatars support for Viktor Yushenko was an overwhelmingly 92%. The Crimean Tatar Mejlis ((indigenous self-governing democratic body recognized by the United Nations and the OSCE) contended that if it was not for the Crimean Tatar factor in Crimea, Victor Yuschenko would have received much less support. The Mejlis has consistently favored Ukraine’s inclusion in Euro-Atlantic structure and, with the support of the Crimean Tatars has played a tremendous role in the modern history of Ukraine as they continually protected her territorial integrity. This is truly an unprecedented example of such support for the state by indigenous peoples in the modern world.

Most recently, with the unfreezing of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine, the indigenous Crimean Tatars once again have stepped up their support alongside the protestors for a pro-West; pro EU Ukraine. Side by side, shoulder to shoulder indigenous Crimean Tatars and pro-EU Ukrainians raised Ukrainian, Crimean Tatar and EU flags at Maidan Square together speaking with one definitive voice that Ukraine’s future is with the EU. The newly elected indigenous leader of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Refat Chubarov, wisely stated ,”that the rights of Crimean Tatars can only be fully restored only if Ukraine becomes an internationally supported member of the civilized world”. An unfettered feature of the Crimean Tatar leadership has been its unconditional support for a democratic Ukraine. Given their effective role within Ukrainian democratization process, the Crimean Tatars have become a symbol of a new era in Ukrainian cross roads.

Mustafa Cemiloglu, an internationally well-known Soviet-era Crimean Tatar dissident, who served 22 years as the Chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis has been systematically calling for an International Forum on the Restoration of the Rights of the Crimean Tatar People to discuss the situation of the indigenous Crimean Tatars within the context of EU countries. Affirming that any resolution of the Crimean Tatar question is within the context of Ukraine’s European integration.

Shortly preceding the demonstrations, Stefan Fule, European Commissioner For Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy discussed EU plans for the economic development of Crimea and met with Mustafa Cemiloglu and other Crimean Tatar representatives. And, in the discussion was a proposal to hold an international forum in 2014 under the aegis of the OSCE High Commissioner, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the en mass deportation of Crimean Tatars on May 18, 1944. The Ukrainian and Crimean authorities rejected Stefan Fule recommendations on the legal framework for recognition of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and, also rejected the implementation of the International Forum. Stefan Fule, response was these discussions of ideas “deserves to be discussed and, hopefully also agreed as it may help Ukraine to address the challenges inherited from the USSR”.

An upcoming indigenous Crimean Tatar intellectual, Arsen Zhemidlov, Graduate of London School of Economics and Kyiv Taras Shevchenko National University, was part of a delegation at a meeting between then Chairman Mustafa Cemiloglu and Dr. Zbigniew Brezezinski in Washington DC in 2010 commented that, “a new history can be made if Ukraine re-considers signing of the EU agreement,” but, notes apprehension whether Ukraine will have the strength to stand against an overwhelmingly neighbor. Similarly, Fevzi Hamza, Analyst at a London based international investment and political risk analyst agency says, “We want to see strong and committed opposition leaders”.

The Russian grand design to woo Ukraine into its custom union does not sit well with the majority of Ukrainian citizens and Ukrainian intellectual elite as well as the indigenous Crimean Tatars, all of which do not want to reconstitute alliances with the past. Dr. Zbigniew Brezezinski ’s unique perspective of Maidan Square sees a role for Ukraine as the model for Russia’s emerging middle class that is increasingly displaying signs of embracing democracy and, “not the other way around for Ukraine to slide into pre soviet relationship with Russia”.

Former President Victor Yushchenko made a poignant observation and stated that Russia’s strength over Ukraine is due to “Ukraine’s lack of dialogue with the EU”. (http://euobserver.com/foreign/120420) Whereas, the Crimean Tatar leadership has during and post Soviet era continues to establish overwhelming channels of communications with the EU and international community. The newly elected of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Refat Chubarov notes, “The International Forum of the Crimean Tatar people, which is to settle the issues, has already been supported by all EU member states, while the government of Ukraine keeps silent".

Abduraman Egiz, Deputy Head of Department of Foreign Relations of Mejlis of Crimean Tatar People states, “After President Yanukovich’s meeting with Putin, I believe Ukraine’s president may no longer be a viable partner for the EU or for USA. While EU and USA will have an open door policy for the Ukrainian people and opposition leaders but, I do not believe that is the case for President Yanukovich and his administration”.

Why the increasing pressure on Ukraine by Moscow to join its Customs Union along with Belarus and Kazakhstan? In doing so, does this implicate Russia as being Eurasian? Why should Ukraine be pulled in with an emotionally charged Russia as it struggles to find its identify within the new geopolitical framework in a post -Soviet environ? Unfortunately, Putin’s Russia sees democracy as a Western export that will deprive Russia of its sovereignty but, for Ukrainian citizens its vision is clear. They want to define themselves as a modern European nation that respects human rights, rule of law framed by democratic principles and values.

Ayla Bakkalli

Executive Member World Congress of Crimean Tatars and,
USA Representative of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis

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