When the Dust Settles in Crimea

When the Dust Settles in Crimea
Thomas Ullman
January 17, 2023

The aftermath of multinational armed conflicts or consequential political turmoil within a state gives the international community otherwise unprecedented opportunities to defend the right of stateless nations to self-determine. The collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, permitted many of the ethnic groups of Central Asia once burdened by the yoke of Soviet imperialism to establish their own states. But not all nations were freed after said upheaval; the Sorbs, Szekleys, Circassians and Chechens are just a few examples of peoples that were not granted the right to rule themselves after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. Another group faces such a threat amidst the current war in Ukraine: the Crimean Tatars.

The ethnogenesis of the Crimean Tatars occurred during the Late Middle Ages, when many of the peoples who had historically lived in Crimea (such as Cumans, Goths and Sarmatians) or migrated there (such as Greeks and Italians) merged and created a distinctive identity centered upon a Turkic language and culture synthesized with Islamic traditions. Nearly six centuries ago, these Tatars formed a state known to historians as the Crimean Khanate, with the Crimean Peninsula as its nucleus. They crafted a tolerant society, allowing ethnic minorities to largely govern themselves and practice their respective faiths freely. A rich civilization developed as a result, and unique Crimean architecture and literature, influenced by the Tatars’ own historical experiences as well as their interactions with the minorities of their country, flourished for several centuries.

The Crimean Khanate at its territorial height in 1525.

In the 18th century, however, the Khanate’s peaceful development came to a grinding halt. The Russian Empire conquered the small state during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774, and the Crimean Tatars found themselves at the behest of a hostile and foreign ruler. Never again would they see the return of their homeland to their hands.

This antagonism intensified under Soviet rule. The USSR, as part of its Stalinist policy of ethnic cleansing in response to alleged “counter-revolutionary” or otherwise “anti-Soviet” activity, deported about 200,000 Tatars from Crimea over the course of three days in 1944. Most were sent to Central Asia, where disease and starvation claimed tens of thousands of lives. The state embarked on a campaign of “detatarization”, renaming Crimea’s towns and cities and erasing their Tatar heritage. It was a brazen act of cultural genocide, and when all was said and done, Crimea was left almost devoid of its native population.

Crimean Tatar deportees. The Tatars call their exile the Sürgünlik.

It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union that these long-suffering people were able to return to their land, which many did. But once again they found themselves at the behest of another foreign power, this time being Ukraine. This new leadership was much kinder to its Tatar minority, seeing as the Tatars were free to preserve their culture under Ukrainian rule and were recognized as indigenous to their land by the Ukrainian government. But recognition was not enough; the Tatars wanted freedom, and rightfully so.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and once again the Tatars found themselves in dire straits. The legislative body that represents the Crimean Tatars, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, was banned by Russia in 2016 for “inciting ethnic nationalism”. The Mejlis’ Chairman, Refat Chubarov, said that the Russian state was “doing everything to crush Crimean Tatars and force everyone to be silent”. They were largely successful; the Tatars are notably absent from the conversation around the current war in Ukraine, and were also ignored during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

One explanation for the lack of interest in the plight of the Crimean Tatars is that the proportionally small size of their community prevents them from being a serious contender for statehood. Though the Tatars comprise a minority Crimea’s population today – less than 15% – this is no excuse for their continued disenfranchisement. Other nations were once subject minorities in their own homelands, but nonetheless managed to attain statehood; Jews, for instance, made up only 30% of the population of Mandatory Palestine two years before the State of Israel became independent. A solution for the Tatars can be found too. But in order for this to happen, the world must not let their voices to go unheard – it must stand up for an independent Crimean Tartary.

Crimean Tatars recalling their suffering on an anniversary of their deportation.

This, unfortunately, is an argument that has been incorrectly interpreted by some as being in defense of Russia's ongoing violations of international law. If the Tatars are granted their freedom, they say, then the Ukrainians will no longer be able to administer Crimea – a territory that Ukraine had controlled prior to Russia's first invasion in 2014. That much is true, but it does not and should not mean that it should be administered by Russia, either. Only the indigenous people of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, should be allowed to dictate their own fate and that of their ancestral land. When the dust from this war settles, the world’s states must use the ensuing platform for peace to both oppose Russian imperialism and defend the national rights of all affected people, Ukrainians and Tatars alike. ■