A nation plagued by exile: Crimea's Tatars

By Hale Turkes, Wednesday, March 05, 2014

ANKARA - As Crimea’s Tatars try to forget about their community’s long years of exile during the Soviet era, Russia’s recent military intervention in the "Green Island" -- as Tartars call Crimea -- has revived painful memories for this nation.

Crimean Tatars, a Turkic population in present-day Ukraine which experienced repeated deportations to remote areas of the Soviet Union in the last century, suffered their biggest tragedy on May 18, 1944.

On the evening of this notorious day, the entire population of Crimean Tatars was expelled to Central Asia by Stalin`s government. This "punishment" was dispensed on the accusation that the Tatars had collaborated with occupying Nazi occupation forces.

Red Army troops raided houses, ordering the occupants to leave. Those who resisted were killed. Within a matter of hours, thousands of Crimean Tatars were assembled in village, town or city centers. Over the next three days, some 180,000 people were deported to various regions within the Soviet territory, in particular Siberia and Uzbekistan. This forced "travel" was via trains normally used to transport livestock.

Almost half of the exiles, who endured long months of dire living conditions, are thought to have died of starvation and disease.

This 30-year exile continued until 1987, when the Soviet government allowed 2,300 Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland. This was followed by 19,300 people in 1988.

The pace of migration accelerated in late 1989, when the Soviet government issued a declaration on November 14, paving the way for deportees to return home. By May 1990, the population of Crimean Tatars on the “Green Island” had reached some 83,000.

Over the following decade many Crimean Tatars emigrated to other countries in Europe as well as the United States, forming a notably large diaspora, with Turkey receiving the bulk of newcomers.

- Crimea becomes part of Ukraine

Crimea, which used to be a territory and close ally of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to 18th centuries, in turn became Russian, German, Soviet and Ukrainian.

On February 19, 1954, the Soviet Union issued a decree whereby the Crimean Oblast was transferred from the Russian Federation to Soviet Ukraine in a "symbolic gesture," marking the 300th anniversary of the date Ukraine became a part of the Russian Empire.

Following a referendum some 37 years, on January 20, 1991, the Crimean Oblast was upgraded to the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on Feb 12, 1991.

- Tartars’ return to Crimea and its Russian population

Encouraged by the "soft" policy of Nikita Khrushchev, the general secretary of the Communist Party in Soviet Union in 1956, exiled Tatars began to demand a return home, but were not permitted to settle in Crimea. Complicating the picture, Slavs were settled on the peninsula; a majority of the Russian population in Crimea today is descended from such settlers.

Crimean Tatars were the first group affected by reforms brought in after Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in 1985. On July 23, 1987, over a thousand Crimean Tatars occupied Moscow`s Red Square. During the protest, which lasted four days, the community’s "National Movement" encouraged Tatars to return to Crimea "no matter what," without waiting for a political resolution which seemed long out of reach. Thus began the long waves of migration back to their homeland.

- Current situation

Crimea was established as an autonomous parliamentary republic within Ukraine in 1992 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although the presence of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula dates back to 6th century, they have been reduced to an ethnic minority comprising just about 12 percent of the region’s 2 million overall population.

According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, Russians make up 58.32% of the population, followed by Ukrainians at 24.32% whereas Crimean Tatars make up only 12.1%. The rest of the population is made up of Belarusians, Tatars, Armenians, Jews, Greeks and others.

Tatars are now on the front line of the political crisis which has erupted in the country following Russian military intervention after months of political deadlock in Ukraine.

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