Jan 12, 2005

Crimean Tatars: Three Challenges

What will the "orange revolution" bring for Crimean Tatars? and What is waiting this still-divided nation?
Untitled Document
The Crimean Tatars overwhelmingly backed the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, but in the wake of that victory, they face three challenges to their national aspirations: first, the probability of increased Russian meddling on the peninsula, second, the likelihood of growing Islamic fundamentalism there, and third, the possibility of declining support by Western governments who now have a government in Kyiv they like.

The Crimean Tatars face increased Russian meddling in Crimea, some of it by the local Russian community but much of it clearly orchestrated by Moscow. Local Russians - who constitute the majority of the peninsula's population -- voted overwhelmingly against Viktor Yushchenko.

Some of the more extreme ethnic Russian opponents of the Orange Revolution there organized themselves as Cossack detachments to defend against what they said were Crimean Tatar threats from, and others urged a vote to put Crimea under Russian control.

Even though the Ukrainian presidential election is now over and tempers may have cooled somewhat, Moscow's interests in maintaining its naval base there and continuing to use Crimea as a counterweight to Kyiv make it likely that Moscow will attempt to exacerbate problems there, a development that is likely to hurt rather than help the Crimean Tatars.

One reason for that conclusion involves the second challenge the Crimean Tatars now face, the growth of Islamic fundamentalism there and the ways in which the Russian authorities are seeking to exploit it through their media coverage of this trend.

The Crimean Tatars historically practice a very moderate form of Islam, but in the 1990s both domestic and foreign factors played a role in the appearance there of Wahhabism and more recently followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Extreme poverty and a sense of hopeless among many Crimean Tatars have contributed, but so too have the activities of Muslim missionaries from the Arab world and Central Asia and of both the Russian and the Ukrainian governments who at various points have shown themselves interested in splitting the Crimean Tatar national movement.

The number of Crimean Tatars involved in these two movements nonetheless remains very small - no more than 300 Wahhabis and far fewer adepts of Hizb ut-Tahrir are to be found in Crimea - and at least the majority of their leaders currently appear more interested in religious questions than in political action.

But their very existence, the intensive coverage they have received, and the possibility that these groups could threaten or somehow be used to threaten the Crimean Tatar movement have combined to prompt the Crimean Tatar leadership to distance itself from these groups and seek to limit their activities.

Mustafa Dzhemilyev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars, has repeatedly said that his people have been glad to get almost any outside help they could get but that they have discovered that some of it from the Middle East either came with strings attached or threatened to divide his people and therefore had to be rejected.

As a result, up to now, the impact of fundamentalist Islam in Crimea has been extremely limited, but Russian authors are increasingly playing up this threat both to frighten Kyiv and the West and possibly to justify continuing Russian involvement there.

One article in the Russian-language "Novyi Region-Krym" suggested that Crimea is following "the Kosovo scenario", a reference seconded by "Spetsnaz Rossii" and one more likely to have an impact on Western audiences than on a Ukrainian one.

And another article suggested by indirection how many in Moscow view the Crimean Tatar movement. It warned that the new government in Kyiv should beware of trying to use the Crimean Tatars as a counterweight to Russian influence on the peninsula lest it embed a threat to its own existence.

There is also a third challenge confronting the Crimean Tatar movement, one with a precedent in this part of the world but not one that the Crimean Tatars have had to deal with before. That is the possibility that Western governments will be less inclined to support the Crimean Tatars - and may even actively oppose them -- now that there is a pro-Western government in Kyiv.

"Now that the West considers Yushchenko to be the champion of Ukrainian reform," Nadir Bekir, a member of the Crimean Tatar assembly, rhetorically asked Nicola Dell’Arciprete, a UNPO election monitor, "who will listen should he carry on the same policy of discrimination toward the Tatars?"

Indeed, Bekir suggested, many Western government may now say to the Crimean Tatars something like what they said to the Ukrainians in Gorbachev's time: "At least it's Yushchenko that you have now!" And West will likely do so, he said, even if the new Ukrainian government does little or nothing to help the Crimean Tatars.

Should any such shift in policy happen -- and reports about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Crimea could certainly be used to justify it -- that by itself might lead to a further growth in Islamic fundamentalism there. And that in turn, of course, could make the Crimea a new international flashpoint, a development that would threaten everyone involved.