When the Crimean parliament voted unanimously in favor of joining Russia last week, the peninsula’s Russian population rejoiced.
Its Crimean Tatar population, which is five times smaller, shuddered.
The native Muslim residents of the peninsula have a bloody and troubled history with Russia. They were persecuted by Russia’s Tsars for centuries. In 1944, under Josef Stalin, their entire population was deported to central Asia, under the false pretext that they had cooperated with the Nazis. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, many Tatars have returned to the peninsula, and, thanks to increasing birth rates, their population is expected to surpass the number of Russians in Crimea in just 13 years.
But for now, Crimea and its legislature remain solidly pro-Russian. The Russian incursion that Vladimir Putin says is necessary to protect ethnic Russians has sparked strife between the Russian majority and Tatar minority that has long simmered. “What does that mean for us?” one Crimean Tatar asked Natalia Antelava in The New Yorker. “Who will protect us?”
The peninsula’s southern neighbor might.
Late last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his country won’t abandon the Tatar population, according to Anadolu Agency, an English-language Turkish news outlet. He said he has spoken to Putin and “told him that Russia should protect the rights of Crimean Tatars as they do with the Russian majority and other minorities in Crimea.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a press conference Friday that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine, reports Turkish television station TRT Haber. “Ukraine’s territorial integrity is the most important issue for Turkey,” he said, adding that his country has every right to protect Crimea’s population of Tatars.
It was only a matter of time before Ankara weighed in on the ongoing crisis to the north. Turkey maintains strong cultural links with Ukraine’s Tatars. Crimea was a province of the Ottoman Empire before it was conquered by Russia in the 18th century. When the Russians arrived, between 4 million and 5 million Tatars fled to Turkey. Last year, a Turkish agency signed a cooperation agreement with the Crimean government, meant to boost development in the peninsula’s education, tourism and agriculture sectors.
But there’s only so much Turkey can do. Yigal Schleifer at EurasiaNet.org explains that the country’s position in the ongoing crisis mirrors its role during the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Back then, Ankara had to temper its reaction to Moscow’s military actions to avoid jeopardizing Turkey’s economic ties to Russia, thanks in part to Turkey’s membership in NATO. Turkey could play mediator between Russia and NATO again with Crimea, but its dependence on Russia for more than half of its gas makes striking a balance tricky.
Last weekend, members of the Tatar community held demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul to protest the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the AFP reports. “We have an important duty to remember the Tatars, and we are in discussion with concerned parties so that this dispute does not degenerate into armed conflict,” an unnamed Turkish government source told the news organization last week. “We cannot remain mere spectators of what is happening there.”
In Crimea, the Tatar community recognizes the new interim Ukrainian leadership and wants to keep Putin out of the region. “For us, a European Ukraine is the only way of making sure that we survive as people,” a journalist for a Crimean Tatar television station told Antelava. “We need European laws to protect our identity. After what happened in 1944, we can never trust the Russians.”
A referendum to determine whether Crimea wishes to become part of Russia is scheduled for March 16. Many Tatars are ready to boycott the results, but they know how dangerous resistance would be.
“It’s becoming clear that there will be war in Crimea, and that war will be for the independence of Ukraine,” Igor Semyvolos, director of Ukraine’s Association of Middle Eastern Studies, told McClatchy’s Matthew Schofield in Kiev on Thursday. “Ukraine will need help from the United States in this.”
Ukraine will likely get it, if only symbolically. President Obama condemned the referendum on Crimea’s future in a statement Friday, echoing the sentiments of the new leadership in Kiev and other Western powers. Now with Turkey in the mix, the referendum may face even more opposition.
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