“Where are the separatists?” demanded the Crimean Tatar protester as he stamped his wooden stick on the ground after bursting into the region’s parliament.
As calls from the Russian majority in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea for incorporation into Russia grow louder, the Muslim Tatar minority is growing militant too.
Deported from Crimea in 1944 by Soviet leader Josef Stalin, with almost half dying from hunger, thirst and disease, the Tatars support the pro-European opposition that toppled Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych after three months of protests. Their opposition to Russia is already sparking ethnic conflict as Russian President Vladimir Putin sees an opportunity to play the Crimean secessionist card.
“The Ukrainian people paid with their blood to get rid of one dictator,” said Nebi Sadlaev, 60, another protester. “We don’t want another one.” The demonstrator with the stick, who had a Ukrainian flag wrapped around himself, rushed up the stairs to the assembly chamber.
Pro-Russian gunmen occupied parliament and the government building yesterday in Simferopol, the regional capital, and raised the Russian flag as lawmakers in Kiev met to approve a new cabinet after last week’s ouster of Yanukovych.
Deputies were let into the legislature in Simferopol and agreed to hold a May 25 referendum on expanding the territorial powers of Crimea, part of Russia until 1954 and the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, within Ukraine, the parliament’s spokeswoman, Lyudmila Mokhova, said by phone.
A vote in favor of the new status would mean that Crimea would no longer send its tax revenue to Ukraine’s national budget, she said.
Any attempt to hold a local referendum on Crimea’s status would be illegal under Ukrainian law, which requires a national plebiscite to declare the secession of any region, Hatidzhe Mamutova, a lawyer who is the head of the League of Crimean-Tatar Women, said by phone.
Russia is moving troops and equipment to its western and central military districts near Ukraine as part of military exercises, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on its website yesterday. As many as 90 planes and 880 tanks are taking part in drills that began two days ago to test military readiness, according to the statement.
Seven armored personnel carriers belonging to Russia’s Black Sea fleet were seen several kilometers from Simferopol at about 10 a.m. yesterday, according to Irina Galinskaya, spokeswoman for Crimean Security Service. The vehicles turned around and there was “no conflict,” she said by phone.
In a separate incident, Russian servicemen last night took over an airport in Sevastopol -- where the Black Sea fleet is based -- to prevent the landing of hostile forces, Interfax-Ukraine reported, citing unidentified military officials.
Several thousand flag-waving protesters from both sides faced off two days ago outside parliament in Simferopol.
The rights of Russian speakers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine are already being used as a tool of Kremlin policy aimed at putting pressure on the Western-backed interim government, according to Alexander Kliment, an analyst at New York-based Eurasia Group.
“The Russian authorities and state-controlled media are portraying the current government in Ukraine as illegitimate and beholden to fascist groups that played a lead role” in the protests, and representing “a threat to the rights of Russian-speakers in southeastern Ukraine,” Kliment said in an e-mailed research note.
Still, Russia’s economic interests are “key mitigating factors” to current tensions in Crimea, according to Lilit Gevorgyan, a senior economist at IHS Global Insight in London.
With exposure of almost $30 billion for Russian banks in Ukraine and falling Ukrainian gas imports, Russia “would not like to see Ukraine in economic distress, which could be compounded by instability in Crimea and further in eastern Ukraine,” Gevorgyan said by e-mail.
Divisions between the Ukrainian-speaking west and center and the pro-Russia east and south are straining the country’s unity. The European Union and NATO have urged leaders to preserve Ukraine’s integrity.
“I’m concerned about developments in Crimea,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a Twitter posting yesterday. He later told reporters in Brussels: “We have no information indicating that Russia has any plans to intervene militarily.”
Pro-Russian groups in Simferopol want a referendum on Crimea joining Russia. Demonstrators outside the parliament Feb. 26 chanted “Crimea! Russia!” as they held up Russian flags.
Ukraine’s acting prosecutor-general, Oleg Mahinitskiy, opened an investigation into the encouragement of secession in Crimea, Ukrainskaya Pravda reported.
In Sevastopol, the city is in the hands of pro-Russian groups that appointed their own mayor, Russian businessman Alexei Chaly, at a rally attended by thousands of people on Feb. 24.
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a speech yesterday in parliament in Kiev that Russian forces on Ukrainian territory must not break laws and that he would consider any movement of Russian troops outside the Black Sea bases as acts of aggression.
Hundreds of pro-Russians massed outside the Sevastopol city hall building, declaring allegiance to Moscow. Militiamen set up a roadblock with an armored personnel carrier on the approach to the city from Simferopol.
“In one minute we became Ukrainian citizens and no one asked for our opinion” about Ukraine’s break from the Soviet Union in 1991, said Galina Sosluk, 60, the widow of a Russian naval captain who served 33 years in the Black Sea fleet. “We aren’t immigrants. We were born and raised here. Neo-fascists are taking over the government in Ukraine.”
Such talk alarms Refat Chubarov, head of the Council of the Crimean Tatar People, who was born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where his father was deported when he was aged 13, and his mother when she was 10.
While the Crimean Tatars are still fighting for their rights, such as more representation in government and parliament and schooling in their native language, Ukraine offers more security than Russia, Tartar representatives say.
“Over the past 250 years, all the misfortunes that befell the Crimean people came from Moscow.” Chubarov said in a phone interview from Simferopol. “We have an allergy toward Russia.”
Tatars returned to their native land in 1989 after Stalin, who accused them of collaboration with Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, deported them to Siberia, the Urals and Uzbekistan.
The Crimean Tatars are the indigenous people of Crimea. After their Turkic-speaking Muslim state was annexed by Russia in 1783, hundreds of thousands left in waves of emigration. The population decreased to 300,000 from an estimated 5 million during the time of the Crimean Khanate in the 18th century, according to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Under Soviet rule, repression increased and culminated in Stalin’s deportation.
When the Crimean Tatars returned, their former homeland soon became part of an independent Ukraine. They now represent 12 percent of the Crimean population of more than 2 million, compared with more than 60 percent Russians. Ukraine’s total population is 45 million.
Pro-Russian forces pressing ahead with their campaign would threaten a scenario ending in major violence, according to Chubarov.
“Each time territory splits off from a country, you get bloodshed,” he said. “If it happens in Crimea, the Crimean Tatars will suffer the most. We don’t want that to happen.”