May 06, 2014

Crimean Tatars: Increasing Tensions Between Mejlis And De Facto Authorities

The Crimean Tatar Meijlis continues flying the Ukrainian flag, prompting them to be threatened with dissolution by the de facto government. 

Below is an article published by Radio Free Europe:

The de facto public prosecutor of Crimea has threatened to dissolve the Crimean Tatar Mejlis if it advocates or engages in "extremist" activities. What is the Mejlis and why is it at the center of ethnic tensions on the Black Sea peninsula? 

The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar community steadfastly opposes the Russian annexation of Crimea and continues to fly the Ukrainian flag at its headquarters in Simferopol.

These are just a couple examples of the kinds of "extremist" activities that have prompted the de facto authorities in Crimea to threaten to dissolve the Mejlis.

The Crimean Tatar Mejlis has a tangled history that reflects the uneasy ethnic relations on the peninsula and the efforts of Crimean Tatars to reestablish themselves there after decades in forced exile in Russia and Central Asia.

Although often described as the Crimean Tatar "legislature," the Mejlis is actually an executive commission. Its 33 members are chosen by the Crimean Tatar Kurultai, an elected representative council that is the highest political authority of the Crimean Tatar nation, from among Kurultai delegates. The Kurultai is elected every five years by an election mechanism created and run by the Crimean Tatars themselves.

According to its website, the main function of the Mejlis is the "elimination of the consequences of the genocide committed by the Soviet state against Crimean Tatars, restoration of the national and political rights of the Crimean Tatar people, and implementation of its right to free national self-determination in its national territory." 

It serves as the representative of the Crimean Tatar people to the Crimean government, the government of Ukraine, and international organizations.

The Mejlis is not an official government body and had a stormy and uneven relationship with the Ukrainian authorities since its creation in 1991. It was recognized and legalized by a presidential decree in 1999.

"A council of representatives of the Crimean Tatar people was created [by the 1999 decree], consisting of the 33 members of the Mejlis and no one else," says current Mejlis Chairman Refat Chubarov. "This legitimized the Mejlis. And at the municipal and local level, corresponding councils were also created with participation of local mejlises. In this way, the system of self-government created by the Crimean Tatars became the interlocutor to the government and we -- our elected representatives together with the authorities -- worked on solving problems."

The main issues discussed were the distribution of land to the returning Tatars, the establishment of Crimean Tatar schools, the status of the Crimean Tatar language, the construction of mosques, and so on.

However, in 2010 President Viktor Yanukovych tried to bring the Mejlis under Kyiv's control by trying to restructure it and introduce members appointed by the president. The Kurultai and the Mejlis rejected these innovations and refused to have relations with Kyiv under this imposed format.

Only on March 20, 2014, already after the signing of the disputed treaty on Crimea's incorporation into Russia, the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada formally recognized the Mejlis and recognized the Crimean Tatars as "indigenous people of Ukraine."

The Mejlis's relations with the local Crimean government, which has always been dominated by the peninsula's ethnic Russian majority, have been even more fraught. Russian community groups and political parties long called for the abolition of the Mejlis as an illegal government institution.

The Mejlis has been the platform for articulating the Crimean Tatar nation's main demands since Tatars began returning from exile in large numbers.

"The Crimean Tatars, when they returned, publicly spoke not only about their right to return -- inasmuch as this is their land -- but also about how they envisioned Crimea's status," Chubarov says. "They openly advocated for restoring Crimea's status as a national-territorial autonomy, first within the Soviet Union and, later, within Ukraine."

As a highly traumatized, "postgenocidal" nation, the Crimean Tatars form a monolithic community. The Mejlis has the power to bring tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars into the streets almost at will or to organize other mass actions.

It was the Mejlis that decided Crimean Tatars should not participate in the Crimean status referendum on March 16. Chubarov has said that less than 1 percent of eligible Tatar voters participated in that referendum.

The Mejlis also called for Crimean Tatars to protest against the de facto authorities' decision to ban longtime Crimean Tatar leader and former Mejlis Chairman Mustafa Dzhemilev from entering the region for five years. Thousand of Crimean Tatars responded to that call earlier this month.

On May 18, the Crimean Tatars will mark the 70th anniversary of their deportation by the Soviet Red Army, a commemoration that will stand in stark contrast to the Russian community's celebration of the 69th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany on May 9.

Crimean Tatar leader Dzhemilev, who served as chairman of the Mejlis from 1991 until 2013 and remains the recognized leader of the Crimean Tatar people, has warned of possible violence during the May 18 commemorations.

"Crimean Tatars will march with their national [Crimean] and Ukrainian flags," Dzhemilev told a news conference on May 5. "As you know, Russian authorities attack these flags, which are like a red rag to a bull. They may use force [against the Crimean Tatars]."