International Committee for Crimea
An Interview with Mustafa Jemilev
Laryssa Chomiak and Waleed Ziad*
Question: We understand that the most important issues currently faced by Crimean Tatars include land, citizenship/registration, socio-economic improvement, language acceptance, and political representation. How have Crimean Tatars worked to achieve these demands? What strategies have been employed?
The Crimean Tatar movement was very popular in the former CIS countries during Soviet times. We have always abided by the laws of the country. When our rights are violated we turn to international courts to plead our case and present our grievances. The constitution of the Soviet Union stipulated that Soviet citizens have the right to publicly demonstrate only if public mobilizations strengthen socialism. We, however, were against this convention- we wanted citizens to have the right to demonstrate and ask for a better life. This is one of the key principles enumerated in the UN Declaration for Human Rights.
As the Mejlis was founded in 1991, during the last few months of Soviet dominance over Ukraine, it was declared an illegal organization. However, because the Soviet government was on the verge of collapsing, it only had the capacity to declare the Mejlis illegal but was not able implement a ban on its activities. Crimean Tatars hoped that the new Ukrainian government following independence would admit the Mejlis as a legal organization representing Tatar interests. However, the nascent Ukrainian government was too afraid of provoking a conflict with the majority of the Russian population of Crimea. Difficulties began early on, when the police started attacking Tatars and demolishing their homes. In such extreme cases, the Mejlis recognizes the right to self defense.
For instance, in 1992, a police round-up captured 23 Crimean Tatars and destroyed their houses. The Mejlis immediately organized a demonstration on Simferopol's public square. When the Mejlis demanded that the government bring the perpetrators to justice, the authorities remained silent. Thus, we began mobilizing Tatars into self-defense groups. All Crimean Tatars under the age of 50 registered with their regional Mejlises to partake in a self defense initiative. In addition, all Tatars were asked to mobilize and those that remained in Central Asia were encouraged to return to Crimea. After the Ukrainian government learned of the illegal arrests made by the Crimean police, it immediately ordered the release of all 23 Crimean Tatars. The central administration promised to conduct an investigation to identify the perpetrators of the illegal arrests.
In 1999, former President Leonid Kuchma sought to institutionalize Crimean Tatar issues and created a Council of Advisors as a governmental advisory body which was made up solely of the Mejlis leadership. Some consider this act to constitute a partial recognition of the Mejlis. After the establishment of the central Council of Advisors, similar additional councils were established for every region in Crimea.
With respect to the multiple problems currently faced by Crimean Tatars, the issues of citizenship and registration are not as acute as they were before. Thanks to the participation of international organizations, particularly UNHCR, a bi-lateral treaty was negotiated between the governments of Uzbekistan and Ukraine to facilitate the citizenship process for repatriated Tatars.
The land issue remains essential because Ukrainian legal codes governing the return of land do not provide for the returning Crimean Tatars. The land law restricted the distribution of land only to collective farm members, not accounting for the current situation of returning Crimean Tatars. We worked out a draft law to correct the situation, stipulating that Crimean Tatars should have equal rights as the collective farmers. The proposed law was vetoed by President Kuchma. We attempted to renegotiate the decision but to no avail.
The central problem is that the main plots of land in Crimea have already been distributed. Even if new provisions would be signed into law, the problem of redistribution can not be resolved. Southern Crimea is of course the biggest problem area. The price of land has become too high for Tatars to afford -- prior to their deportation 70% of the Tatar population was living on the southern coast. Today, Crimean Tatars only make up 1% of the southern coast's population. The majority of conflicts between Tatars and ethnic Russians are related to land on the southern coast. Similarly, the situation in Simferopol is equally difficult as the government does not wish to distribute land plots but would rather sell them at high prices. The response on the part of Crimean Tatars has been twofold: some have organized major acts of protest, like the recent erection of a tent city in front of the Crimean Parliament in Simferopol, while others have resorted to land-grabbing, usually in response to the most extreme cases of discrimination.
Question: On a side note, we noticed yesterday that demonstrators had set up tents outside the Crimean parliament, however, this morning, they are no longer there. Do you know what happened?
To return to the earlier question, the language problem is very central. After deportation in 1944, the Tatar language was entirely prohibited. All books in the Tatar language were destroyed, even books by Lenin and Stalin translated into Tatar. Everything that had any connection to Tatars was destroyed, including cemeteries and architectural monuments. Tombstones were used to build roads; names of ancient villages were changed, street names and settlements were renamed to honor the Soviet leadership or important Soviet cultural figures. Only Bakhchisaray retained its name because of Pushkin's popular poem Bakhchisaray Fountain. Initially, the Soviets planned to rename Bakhchisaray "Red Army City," but scientists, literary figures, and politicians protested the move. As part of our struggle today, we are actively reviving ancient Crimean Tatar city names and modes of dress. We have so far only managed to set up 15 Tatar language schools, as the government has set aside an insufficient sum of US$10 million for education expenditures for all Crimean deported peoples. EU estimates show that the cost of setting up a single school often exceeds US$3 million.
Question: What is the relationship between the Tatar Mejlis leadership (OKND) and the Rukh movement, both historically and currently?
Question: What is your view on the recent (August 2006) Bakhchisaray conflict? Do you see a potential for escalation?
I reminded the Tatar protesters not to retaliate violently, particularly as many women and children were present at the market place, and violence would be against Mejlis principles of tolerance. I continued calling various individuals that I knew who were partaking in the protest. Throughout the day, Tatars were coming from surrounding areas to join the protest in Bakhchisaray, but the police already had blocked off the city, stopping additional protesters from entering. In essence, Bakhchisaray was surrounded by Tatars during the conflict. We reached an agreement with Crimean authorities a day after the conflict broke out and fighting had ceased. However, we are still faced with the issue of the investigation of those who instigated the conflict. If Crimean authorities do not follow through with their investigation, we will reinitiate the protest in Bakhchisaray.
Question: What lessons can be learned by other minority groups world-wide from your political activism, participation and success?
Nonetheless, there are many political figures and forces in Crimean who continuously ignore the rights of Crimean Tatars. Yet, these figures do not take into account that Crimean Tatars are, for instance, not requesting the return of their historical land but are willing to settle elsewhere in the peninsula. Another problem is that Tatars are still considered a minority group. With the support of the Ukrainian government and the international community, we hope that Tatars will be fully integrated into Ukrainian socio-political and cultural landscape and seen as a valuable part of it. Finally, the media coverage of Crimean Tatar issues has been nothing but unbalanced, mainly reported from pro-Russian perspectives. During the clashes in Bakhchisaray, for instance, ethnic Russians were interviewed claiming that Tatars instigated the conflict and that ethnic conflict is inevitable in Crimea.
*Laryssa Chomiak is a doctoral student in Political Science at the University of Maryland. Waleed Ziad is an economic consultant in Montreal, QC, and has degrees in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations as well as Economics from Yale University. They are currently writing an article on participatory models of political inclusion and conflict prevention among Muslim minority groups worldwide.
Posted: 8 December 2006