Tatars May Take Up Arms to Fight Putin Grab, Ukraine Envoy Says

Russia’s planned annexation of Crimea threatens to trigger an armed uprising by the Tatar minority and cuts in power and water supplies from mainland Ukraine, the Kiev government’s envoy in Moscow said.

Tatars, who comprise about 12 percent of Crimea’s population of more than 2 million, will never agree to join Russia, Vladimir Elchenko said in an interview after talks with former Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev, who flew to the Russian capital this week to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine will never recognize a Russian Crimea either, Elchenko said at the Ukrainian Embassy late yesterday. “Okay, Russia will take Crimea, but we’ll never recognize Crimea, and the world won’t,” Elchenko said. “It will be a frozen or not so frozen conflict that will last for years.”

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported Tatars en masse from Crimea during World War II after some of them sided with Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands of the Turkic people returned as the Soviet Union disintegrated more than two decades ago, and they still receive financial aid from Turkey.

Tatars support the new pro-European government in Kiev and have “an allergy toward Russia,” Refat Chubarov, head of the Council of Crimean Tatar People, said in an interview last month. Chubarov has called for a boycott of the referendum and for United Nations peacekeepers to be deployed. He declined to comment on the possibility of armed conflict with Russian troops after the March 16 vote.

Two Months

The government in Kiev, the European Union and the U.S. all consider the referendum illegal. Sergei Aksenov, Crimea’s Russia-backed premier, said in an interview in the capital Simferopol on March 12 that it would take no longer than two months to be folded into Russia if voters approve the measure.

Elchenko said no referendum can be considered legitimate when there are 30,000 Russian troops in Crimea. Russia’s parliament plans a vote for March 21 on annexing the peninsula, where the country’s Black Sea Fleet has been based since the 19th century. Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Even if illegitimate, the vote will have “psychological meaning,” said Elchenko, who was a United Nations observer in the former Yugoslavia in 1993. “Many conflicts have started with referendums.”

‘A Dream’

Dismissing threats of sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union, Putin got parliament’s authorization to send troops into parts of Ukraine last month, citing the need to protect fellow Russians after the violent ouster of Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. Ethnic Russians make up 59 percent of Crimea’s population, with 24 percent Ukrainian.

Elchenko said he has emerged as Ukraine’s only channel of communication with Russian officials, who don’t recognize the new government in Kiev.

“This is the third week when I wake up in the morning and think for five minutes that it was all a dream,” Elchenko said. “Then I realize it’s not, and it’s not a nice feeling.”

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