Jul 12, 2009

Crimean Tatars: Stakeholders Discuss the Road Ahead

Sample ImageA roundtable on Crimea has showcased the potentialities but also the problems facing one of the key regions of the Black Sea space in the years ahead.

Below is an article published by UNPO:

On 2 July 2009, representatives of Crimean academia, politics, and business gathered together in Brussels to discuss what the future might hold for the Crimea. This is at the same time as the Black Sea region continues to feel the effects of the Russo-Georgian war, a slowdown in the global economy, and continued political uncertainty within Ukraine.

Entitled ‘The Crimea – The Road Ahead’, the roundtable event is the summer culmination of the European Policy Centre’s Eastern Promises Initiative that has been examining the state of Europe’s eastern neighbourhood.

Chaired by Professor Richard Whitman, talks began with Ambassador Andri Veselovsky of the Mission of Ukraine to the European Union who provided the audience of diplomatic and non-governmental representatives with an introduction to the troubled history of the Crimea.

Ambassador Veselovsky expressed the hope that in the coming years European Union member states would establish greater consular representation in the Crimea, and begin to recognise the region’s great importance and economic potential. The Crimea was after all, Ambassador Veselovsky concluded, as much a cosmopolitan part of Europe as centres like Bruges and would be just as worthy of the establishment of a European college or similar institution.

Following Ambassador Veselovsky’s comments, and paying greater attention to the social forces at play in the Crimea was Oleksandr Bogomolov of the Ukrainian Centre for Middle East Studies. Mr. Bogomolov saw the Crimea as the nexus for three clashing political programmes emanating from Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean Tatar nationalisms.

Mr. Bogomolov noted that there was an emerging civic identity amongst the younger generation in the Crimea and overall a regional ‘Crimean’ identity remained most common, despite the rise in small neo-Cossack and fascist groups. In trying to judge the Crimean Tatar situation it was nevertheless crucial to understand that the equivocal reception many Crimean Tatars received upon their return from exile after the 1944 deportations was seen as just a continuation of the past injustices meted out over the past century.

This was a point developed by Mr. Refat Chubarov, Deputy Chairman of the Crimean Tatars Mejlis. Mr. Chubarov reflected that to know what it was to be Crimean Tatar, one had to understand that this meant to be born in exile, to have spent one’s life campaigning for the right to return to one’s homeland, and to have within one’s family the memory of at least five relatives who perished needlessly.

The return to Crimea had been a traumatic experience for many Crimean Tatars, Mr. Chubarov recounted. They had come back to their homeland to find familiar names changed, cemeteries destroyed, their homes occupied, and after decades of Soviet education, local people with very different memories of the past.

Despite this, the Crimean Tatars had been lucky in their repatriation. Other groups such as the Volga Germans were never given the opportunity to return. The Ukrainian government had also supported their return with a fund of 53 million hryven’ (€5,019,628), but when the construction of a single school could cost 32 million hryven’ (€3,030,719), there was clearly a shortfall in the available funds.

This reflected a general inability of the Ukrainian political system and class to fulfil their obligations to the Crimean Tatars. A 2004 bill restoring rights to those deported in 1944 had been brought to the Ukrainian Parliament, but was vetoed by President Kuchma. Similarly, whilst the Ukrainian government had given financial support to the repatriation of Crimean Tatars they had still to provide a true legal base for their resettlement.

Mr. Chubarov also elaborated that the Crimean Tatars were not seeking to detach themselves from the Ukraine in any way. Their future lay, he stated, in an independent Ukraine – and as such they formed one of the main pro-Ukrainian political forces in the Crimea. This was reinforced by the fact that the Crimean Tatars, unlike many other minorities, do not have any territory beyond the state within which they live. The aim was therefore not to compete with local authorities, but to work together to built a common future with benefits for all living in the Crimea.

Speaking on behalf of the outgoing Czech Presidency of the European Union, Mr. Martin Svárovsky, reiterated the complexity of the situation in the Crimea and outlined the initiatives that the European Union (EU) had undertaken over the past six months. This had included the opening of an NGO and media centre, something that went beyond the remit of a standard EU Information Office and which was intended to support local NGOs through partnerships with groups such as the International Visegrad Fund. Mr. Svárovsky concluded that finding a solution to the questions surrounding the Crimea would always remain the responsibility of Ukraine, but the EU stood ready to support efforts that would help to spread European ideals.

Representing the EU Ukraine Business Council, Ms. Anna Zvolikevych spoke of the great economic potential of the Crimea, which at the moment was both underdeveloped and at risk of damaging neglect. While attentions inevitably focused on the withdrawal of the Russian navy from the peninsula in 2017 and the economic impact this would have, more immediate problems also needed to be addressed.

Ms. Zvolikevych elaborated by drawing attention to the approximately 10% of Crimean land that was currently used for landfill while its many watercourses, ideal for hydroelectricity, remained untapped. Both however relied on the development of legal bases on which private enterprise could flourish. Ms. Zvolikevych hoped that the presence of the EU would be a first step in this direction, but the development of cooperation between the Crimean Mejlis and other regional assemblies within Europe would represent another positive step.

Opening the floor to questions brought a focus to bear on the repercussions of the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Mr. Chubarov was able to state that although the issuance of Russian passports had been a cause for concern in the Crimea, these fears were nowhere as strong as they had been a few years ago.

Answering broader questions about the role of Russia in the region, Mr. Bogomolov believed that much of the problems were routed in the failure of Russia itself to go through the same process of nation-building as had swept its former satellite states.

Ukraine had now progressed beyond this stage many panelists believed, and Mr. Chubarov expressed the belief that the challenge facing Ukraine now was to balance the calls for autonomy from national minorities. The securing of autonomy by one minority should not after all be at the cost of others. This only served to reemphasize the pressing need to begin applying and testing the legal basis that was already in place.

Note: For more information on the European Policy Centre’s Eastern Promises Initiative, please click here.