May 17, 2005

Crimean Tatars: 61 Years After Deportations, Crimean Tatar Leader Still Seeking Justice

Radio Free Europe interviews Mustafa Cemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatars, who has spent 15 years in jail for his active participation in the Soviet dissident movement
Untitled Document

The name of Mustafa Cemilev is synonymous with the Crimean Tatars’ decades-long struggle to obtain reparations for their suffering due to the deportations ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944. Cemilev, now 61, has spent 15 years in jail for his active participation in the Soviet dissident movement. He served seven prison terms between 1966 and 1986, not only for defending the cause of his people, but also for refusing to serve in the Soviet Army, protesting the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and defending freedom of speech. Cemilev was an infant when, on 18 May 1944, Stalin’s NKVD secret police deported Crimea’s entire Tatar population to Central Asia. He returned home only in 1989 after Soviet authorities permitted the repatriation of the Crimean Tatars. Two years later, Cemilev was elected chairman of the Qirimtatar Milliy Meclisi, or Crimean Tatar National Parliament, a post he still holds today. Crimean Tatars throughout the former Soviet Union prepare to commemorate the 61st anniversary of their deportation to Central Asia, just days after the Crimean legislature approved a power-sharing agreement giving Crimean Tatars three ministerial portfolios in the regional government. In an interview with RFE/RL ahead of that decision, Cemilev described the current situation of the Crimean Tatars.

RFE/RL: Sixty-one years after Josef Stalin’s massive deportations, where does the rehabilitation process of Crimean Tatars stand?

Mustafa Cemilev: Many Crimean Tatars -- over one-half, according to our estimates -- have returned home. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Crimean Tatars still live outside Crimea, mainly in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. They can’t return home mainly for economic reasons. This is why [it was agreed in 1992 that they would get] a certain amount of money from the government of Ukraine and the governments of those countries where they live. Depending on its financial situation, Ukraine each year earmarks a portion of its national budget to the Crimean Tatar issue. Yet, this cannot be said of the other countries where Crimean Tatars live. But our grievances are mainly directed at the Russian Federation. Not only does Russia not provide financial assistance [to the Crimean Tatars], but it also views the whole repatriation issue with hostility because it fears Crimea’s demographic balance might be altered to the detriment of its Russian-speaking population -- even though Russians currently account for approximately 60 percent of the peninsula’s population. [As for Ukraine], we’re still waiting for a law that would restore to the Crimean Tatars all their rights. There is still no official document that says the Crimean Tatars have regained all their rights. The Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) last summer voted a bill called the "Law on the Rehabilitation Of Peoples Deported On Ethnic Grounds" that deals only with the Crimean Tatars’ social rights. However, former President [Leonid] Kuchma vetoed this bill. We’re now working with the new president, [Viktor Yushchenko], so that he lifts [Kuchma’s] veto and signs the bill into law. On top of that, there are a number of other legal issues that have still to be solved. Should Ukraine continue to consider the Crimean Tatars an ethnic minority group, there would never be an end to our problems. We believe that Crimean Tatars should be considered as an indigenous people of Ukraine. Unlike other ethnic minority groups, the Crimean Tatars have no historical motherland outside Ukraine. Unfortunately, this question remains in abeyance.

RFE/RL: Is access to land the main problem facing those Crimean Tatars who have returned home?

Cemilev: We’re suffering great injustice in this regard. When [after the collapse of the Soviet Union] Ukraine adopted its land code, the peculiarities of the Crimean peninsula were not taken into account. In this legislation there is a paragraph which says that only those who used to cultivate those lands can own them. In other words, that means that only former collective farm workers can claim ownership rights over those lands. But this cannot be applied to Crimea insofar as Crimean Tatars used to work in collective farms in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere. Although 75 percent of Crimean Tatars live in rural areas, they have approximately half as much land as the Russian-speaking population. This problem is particularly acute in [Crimea’s] south as a result of the attempts made by the Soviet regime to bar the Tatars from returning to these valuable areas. Before the 1944 deportations, the Crimean Tatars accounted for 70 percent of the population in these regions. Now, they account for less than 1 percent. The lands are being distributed, or sold at cut-rate prices, to oligarchs who live either in Kyiv or in Russia. This generates tensions and permanent conflicts.

RFE/RL: How does Russia interfere in the affairs of the Crimean Tatars?

Cemilev: It is mostly a pressure exerted through propaganda efforts which aim to portray the Crimean Tatars as a threat for Ukraine, as a potential second Chechnya. The Russians are trying to set people against [the Crimean Tatars] by suggesting there are extremist organizations among us. In addition, there are some political forces in Crimea -- such as the well-known “Russian Bloc” -- that are very nationalistic and are always trying to block any decision that is taken in favor of the Crimean Tatars. These forces are, of course, supported by Russia.

RFE/RL: Most of those Crimean Tatars who have returned home live in poor conditions. Statistics show that more than 60 percent of them are unemployed. Would you say this is the result of discrimination on the part of regional authorities?

Cemilev: Although [Crimean Tatars] account for around 13-14 percent of the peninsula’s population, they represent no more than 4 percent of those employed in self-government bodies. In some institutions -- such as the Security Ministry, the Customs Committee, or the Finance Ministry -- this percentage is equal to zero. Of course this is discrimination. The consequence is that the unemployment rate among Tatars is much higher than the average for Crimea, or even Ukraine. Concerning this 60 percent figure, this does not mean that people do not work. Some people have set up their own small businesses, buying and selling things. Of course this is not enough to allow for a stable source of income and, as a consequence, the Tatars' living standards are slightly below the average for Crimea.

RFE/RL: Did you receive firm assurances from Yushchenko that he will lift Kuchma’s ban on the draft rehabilitation bill passed by parliament last year?

Cemilev: We talked about this with him. He received us on 28 February, and our talks focused on this particular issue. He had asked the Justice Ministry to check whether he could, as Ukraine’s new president, lift the veto imposed by his predecessor and sign this bill into law. Our legislation is not clear on this point. Some legal provisions say he has the right to do so. But others say he doesn't. We will therefore probably come to the conclusion that he should lift the veto and that the Rada should re-examine the bill. We would like this to happen before 18 May, which will mark the anniversary of the deportation. However, the first session of the Rada will take place only on the 17th. So I don’t know whether we will have enough time.

RFE/RL: Would you say that the former Ukrainian government has done everything it can so that the Crimean Tatars can return home?

Cemilev: It would be wrong to say that it did nothing. Each year a portion of Ukraine’s national budget was allotted to this end -- even if that was not enough to cover even one-tenth of the needs. President Kuchma used to come regularly to Crimea to meet the Meclis leaders. He would then give orders so that the problems we had discussed would be addressed. But most of the time his orders would be ignored, if not deliberately sabotaged. I would say that only 10 percent of his orders had any effect. On the one hand, [Kuchma] was obviously trying to make things happen. But, on the other hand, we cannot say he was unaware of the selling of lands that was taking place in the south. He must have known that these lands were distributed among people who were close to him and that the Crimean Tatars were denied access to them. In addition, there have been a number of injustices committed against Crimean Tatars. Whenever clashes broke out between representatives of the Russian-speaking population and Crimean Tatars, only the latter were blamed. When, to draw the public’s attention to the illegal purchase of lands by the son-in-law of the former speaker of the Crimean Parliament and Communist Party leader [Leonid] Hrach, six young Tatars took these lands by force before clashing with the Russian Cossacks who had been sent against us, they were sentenced to up to nine years in jail -- although there was not a single casualty. By comparison, a few months earlier an entire Tatar family -- including three small children -- had been assassinated and their murderer was sentenced to eight years in jail. In another case, one Tatar had been beaten to death in a police precinct and his torturer had been sentenced to eight years in jail. This gives you an idea of how authorities treat us. A significant part of Crimea’s law enforcement agencies work hand in hand with local criminal rings. But we hope this will change under [Yushchenko].

RFE/RL: Have there already been any changes since Yushchenko’s election last December?

Cemilev: The president has promise to consult the Crimean Tatars regarding all personnel issues. Here in Crimea, only 15.5 percent of the population voted for Yushchenko. We estimate that the Crimean Tatars accounted for 10 or 11 percent of the Yushchenko votes. Were it not for the Tatar factor, Yushchenko would have probably performed as poorly here as he did in Donetsk and garnered only 3 or 4 percent. [Yushchenko] knows that the national-democratic forces are his main support here. Yet, he has already appointed a few officials without talking into account the interests of the Crimean Tatars. This is probably due to the fact that some people in his entourage are defending their own commercial interests and are trying to have their own people appointed to the right jobs. In this regard, one can say that the interests of the Crimean Tatars are, once again, being ignored

Source: Radio Free Europe