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Crimean Tatar Identity and Related Issues

Natalya Belitser
Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy
Kyiv, Ukraine

Crimean Tatars: who are they? Are they just a branch of the Tatar people, differing from the Kazan Tatars or Volga Tatars, only by virtue of the geographical location? Or, are they a separate nation with its own history, unique cultural, linguistic, and other characteristics? These questions are not just of interest for ethnologists, anthropologists or other academics; apart from addressing theoretical debates, the answers may impact perceptions and have possible legal ramifications for resolving a whole series of Crimean Tatar issues.

Until the tragic events of the 20th century, ethnonym ‘Tatars’ was the widely used designation for Muslim residents of Crimea as well as all other Muslim groups and peoples in the Russian Empire. It did not conflict with Crimean Tatar self-identity and was not objectionable to them. But after the en masse deportation of the indigenous Crimean population under false charges of collaboration with the Nazis, the Crimean Tatars were flatly denied any mention of their separate ethnicity and were identified in official documentation as simply ‘Tatars.’

Children of Crimean political prisoners

Children of Crimean political prisoners (Photo Credit:QHA)

This has had a traumatic effect on their collective consciousness and has made the problem of identity an extremely painful and sensitive one. To emphasize their distinctiveness from other ‘Tatars,’ Crimean Tatar intellectuals and politicians discussed for years the possible replacement of the ethnonym ‘Crimean Tatars’ with ‘Krymtsi (Kırımlılar in Crimean Tatar, which means Crimeans) and have also tried to revive and preserve their own language, cultural and religious traditions and social institutions. The most important of the latter are the democratically elected Kurultay (National Assembly) and Mejlis (an executive body which also has representative responsibilities between Kurultay sessions). It must also be mentioned that Ukrainian journalists, researches and experts dealing with the Crimean Tatar issues increasingly use the term Krymtsi instead of ‘Crimean Tatars’ and urge others to do the same.[1]

Fundamental differences between various groups of Turkic-speaking peoples, often artificially unified under the common name ‘Tatars,’ are confirmed by the modern science of molecular biology and molecular genetics which use DNA-analysis to clarify the genetic origins and genetic relationships within and between groups. Extensive research into three ‘Tatar’ groups – from the Volga region, Siberia and Crimea – was conducted in 2006 – 2014 by a team of Russian scientists together with their Ukrainian colleagues from the Kharkiv University. It turned out that ‘genetic portraits’ of the representatives of all three groups reveal such deep differences that they totally refute even the hypothesis about a common origin or ancestry. [2] These data and additional research – by the Genographic Project sponsored by the National Geographic Society in the US – provided evidence of a long and complex process of the Crimean Tatars’ ethnogenesis, to which numerous peoples and tribes from different geographical locations had contributed. As Dr. Inci Bowman, President of the International Committee for Crimea wrote, “…I am 37% Asian, 42% European and 20% Middle Eastern… The above DNA test results reaffirm what we have known from history: that Crimean Tatars are descendants of the various peoples who settled and lived in Crimea for centuries. The Crimean Tatars, indigenous people of Crimea, did not just come from the East, as many are inclined to think. Rather, they are the descendants of the people who moved to Crimea from different directions: Scythians, Goths, Byzantines, Genovese, and Turkic groups such as Khazars, Kipchaks, Tatars and Ottoman Turks.”[3]

Meanwhile, in English language literature [4] the names ‘Tatars’ or ‘Tatars of Crimea’ are often used as synonyms for the ‘Crimean Tatars’, sometimes revealing a preference for the first option.[5] Moreover, in some publications, a rather derogatory term ‘Tartars’ (from ancient Greek Tartaros thus assuming them to be ‘Barbarians’) can also be found. In a number of resolutions, statements and reports condemning human rights violations in occupied Crimea and issued by such leading international organizations as the UN, OSCE and the Council of Europe – including the reports prepared by the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) – there is no mention of any specific (collective) rights of the indigenous Crimean Tatar people; those documents are focused on numerous violations of individual rights only. [6] Respectively, the very term ‘indigenous people’ is usually avoided; the Crimean Tatars are designated instead as belonging to ‘vulnerable minorities’, or ‘national minorities’, or as a ‘Crimean Tatar community.’ Whereas for such categories, in contrast to indigenous peoples, any collective rights, first and foremost – the right for self-determination – are not foreseen in the international human rights and humanitarian law.

Crimean Tatar Rally

Crimean Tatars Rally in homeland Crimea (Photo credit: Open Democracy)

This trend continues up to the present: for example, in a recent publication on the 5th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, the author, while adequately assessing the whole event, wrote that “Furthermore, Russia has launched a campaign of persecution and intimidation of the ethnic Tatar community there.” [7] But if the Crimean Tatars continue to be regarded as belonging to an undifferentiated Tatar ethnos or as a subjugated ‘minority’ or just a ‘community’ but not an indigenous ‘people’, it follows that their claims for self-determination in their homeland Crimea can be neglected, especially given the existence of a national Republic of Tatarstan – a subject of the Russian Federation (RF).

This interpretation has been applied by the occupational power in Crimea and the Russian central authorities. In order to prevent any possibility of providing ‘indigenous status’ for the Crimean Tatars, the Kremlin Presidential administration commissioned Prof. Sergej Sokolovskyj to undertake a special study to ‘prove’ that such a status is not justified not only by the national legislation but by the international law as well. The author of this 69-page research paper [8] is a well-known (and once highly reputed) historian from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Distorting the norms of the international law and overtly manipulating them, he reached a conclusion that the Crimean Tatars by no means are eligible for the status of indigenous people, and that their rights should be protected under international law on national minorities.

To deny Crimean Tatar unique ethno-cultural identity, certain attempts were also undertaken to present the Crimean Tatar language to the international community as just ‘a variant’ of the common Tatar language. It was earlier acknowledged that together with Russian and Ukrainian Crimean Tatar would be treated as one of the three ‘state’ languages of the Crimea Republic (although in fact, only on paper). Efforts by the occupational regime to demonstrate support for the Crimean Tatar culture by establishing subservient NGOs and entities – including the so-called ‘national-cultural autonomies,’ ‘Council of the Crimean Tatars,’ and media outlets (such as the TV-channel ‘Millet’), supplying schools with manuals on Crimean Tatar and taking some other measures, have been widely publicised and advertised. These attempts, aimed also at encouraging and promoting not numerous Crimean Tatar collaborators loyal to the RF and occupational regime, are accompanied by exertion of heavy pressure on actual and potential ‘dissidents,’ as evidenced by a growing number of searches, arrests, tortures, abductions, unfair trials and all other forms of brutal violations of human rights and freedoms. [9]

Crimean Tatar woman at a rally

Crimean Tatar woman at a rally
(Photo credit:Wikimedia Commons)

As part of the further ‘Tatarisation’ of the Crimean Tatars and struggling for their loyalty, just prior to and during the early stages of the annexation of Crimea, the Russian authorities tried hard to present ‘the case of the flourishing Tatarstan’ as an attractive example of the successful solution to ethnic issues and interethnic relations in the RF. The conclusion in 1997 of a special treaty with Tatarstan seemingly safeguarded all possible ‘sovereign’ rights of the Tatar nation, thus encouraging the Crimean Tatars to follow this path. Recent developments, however – first and foremost, the rejection in July 2017 of the prolongation of this treaty [10] – clearly showed that this ‘trump card’ has failed. The measures taken by the central Russian authorities to put an end to the ‘special rights’ of the Republic of Tatarstan concerned not only economic and financial issues; they also include a brutal and on-going encroachment on such key markers of ethno-cultural identity as the Tatar language and education system.[11]

In Ukraine, for a long time the efforts to ensure the rights of Crimean Tatars by providing them with the special status of ‘indigenous people’ remained, alas, unsuccessful. Legally they continued to be regarded as one of the numerous ‘national minorities’ based on the outdated law ‘On National Minorities of Ukraine’ (adopted in 1992, and still in force). Official recognition of the Crimean Tatars as indigenous people occurred only on March 20, 2014 – in other words, after the occupation and annexation of the Crimean peninsula by the RF [12]. Nevertheless, in publications and public discussions, the Crimean Tatars have usually been addressed as the ‘Crimean Tatar people’ thus granting them recognition by default as a nation and distinguishing them from other ‘minorities’ – including Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans and Greeks, namely, those ethnic groups formerly deported from Crimea. Nowadays, separate legislative acts and proposals for amending the Part X of the Constitution of Ukraine (Autonomous Republic of Crimea) have been elaborated for further consideration by the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament of Ukraine) and the Constitutional Court. The main sense of those drafts consists in developing legal norms, implementation of which would transform the ‘administrative-territorial autonomy’ of Crimea into the national-territorial autonomy of the indigenous Crimean Tatar people.

There is a growing understanding of the major difference between ‘traditional’ national minorities having their own national states (‘kin-states’) beyond the borders of their country of residence and citizenship, and the Crimean Tatars with their history of former statehood (the Crimean Khanate) and the current situation of a ‘stateless nation’. Unlike national minorities enjoying various forms of the legitimate support provided by their ‘kin-states,’ the Crimean Tatars, being a numerical minority in any place of residence, have developed an acute sense of a constant threat of further assimilation and gradual ‘dissolution’ within the quite distinct, culturally and religiously, majority population. Indeed, the unique Crimean Tatar cultural identity – in the widest sense of the phrase – can be preserved and further developed only through the concerted efforts of the people themselves and the Ukrainian state and society, with the active support of the international community.


[1] For more details, see, for example: Gromenko, S. (2016). Krymski tatary – tse «mongolo-tatary»? Mif i rozvinchaniya (in Ukrainian). KrymRealii.

[2] Markina, N., and A. Agdjoyan. (2016). U tatar ne nashli obstchei rodiny (in Russian).

[3] Bowman, I. (2015). Genetically, who is a Crimean Tatar?
See also: Goble, P. (2015). Genetic Testing Proves Putin is Wrong about Crimea and Crimean Tatars.

[4] Vasilyeva, N. (2016). In Crimea, Tatars step up resistance to Russian rule.
Reidy, P. (2017). In Ukraine, Crimean Tatars haunted by a second exile.

[5] "MRG expresses concern over the situation of Crimean Tatars at the UN."
See also: «Status i prava korennykh narodov Ukrainy v aktakh mezhdunarodnykh organizatsij: neobkhodimost soglasovannoj terminologii OON, OBSE i inykh struktur» (in Russian).

[6] See, for example: Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, 16 November 2015 to 15 February 2016, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In contrast to such kind of documents, the EU in its resolutions does designate Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people, and the Mejlis, banned by the RF, as their main representative and executive body. (For more details, see Belitser, N. (2018). Kryms’ki tatary yak korinnyj narod (in Ukrainian). Kyiv, p. 150-157.

[7] Coffey, L. (2019). It's been five years since Russia annexed Crimea.

[8] Sokolovskyj, S. (2016). Politika priznaniya korennykh narodov v mezhdunarodnom prave I v zakonodatelstve Rossijskoj Federatsii. Issledovaniya po prikladnoj I neotlozhnoj etnologii. Otchet podgotovlen po zakazu Administratsii Prezidenta Rossiyskoj Federatsii I vypolnen pri podderzhke Rossiyskogo nauchnogo fonda, grant _ 15-18-00099.
See also: Coynash, H. (2018). The Kremlin hires academics to deny Crimean Tatars their rights.

[9] For more details, see: Belitser, N. (2018). Kryms’ki tatary yak korinnyj narod (in Ukrainian). Kyiv, 1-168. Analysis of why Western media has paid not enough attention to the Crimean Tatars plight is provided by Edwards, M. (2018). Why we should write about the Crimean Tatars.

[10] Mubarakzianov, A. (2018). Itogi 2017 goda v Tatarstane: trudnoye vozvrastcheniye v Rossiyu (in Russian).

[11] Yurchenko, V. (2017). «Solntse» russkogo mira. Tatarskij yazyk poterial status obyazatelnogo v shkolakh respubliki (in Russian); Panfilov, O. (2017). Pokusheniye na Tatarstan (in Russian).

[12] Document _ 1140-18.

Posted: March 5, 2019

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