Crimean Labyrinth

It is a depressing truth that jolts are needed for the authorities to take even those measures most urgently required.  The mental discomfort which many have experienced throughout the world in the wake of the conflict between Russia and Georgia can elicit rhetoric alone from Ukraine’s leaders. They must not be allowed to stop there.

In his recent report on inter-ethnic relations in Ukraine, Viacheslav Likhachov gives considerable attention to the situation in the Crimea, and specifically the Crimean Tatars.  Whereas the increase in racism and xenophobia in Ukraine as a whole is seen with regard to people from the Caucuses, Africa and Asia, the problem in the Crimea is mostly about relations between the main three ethnic groups populating the peninsula. 

There are around 265 thousand Crimean Tatars, or about 13% of the population of the Crimea which has the only ethnic Russian majority in Ukraine (58.5%) with 24.4% ethnic Ukrainians. The Crimean Tatars have returned to their native homeland after they, or their families were deported in 1944.  Since a number of western reports have clearly received wrong information, it is worth stressing that the charges of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers provided a cynical pretext for Stalin and his henchmen to organize the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.  They were formally exonerated of the accusations in 1967, however any return home by those deported was nominal and for appearance’s sake.  It was independent Ukraine which from the outset recognized that the Crimean Tatars must be allowed to return to their homeland.  The intentions were good and some genuine efforts were made to help people who had suffered such terrible injustice rebuild their lives in the Crimea.  As usual, however, the efforts were insufficient and too little was done to overcome the resistance from the local authorities.   

All of this has led to a situation at the present time where the lack of socio-economic measures needed are creating bitterness among the Crimean Tatars, especially those in rural areas where work is scarce and conditions bad. The lack of proper measures to ensure decent housing and facilities doubtless make others more inclined to negative stereotypes.  All of this is absolutely standard, has been seen in many other countries, albeit not with whole groups returning from forced exile.  With the political will, the problems can be dealt with. 

Unfortunately the problems are, at very least, threefold.   The first is perhaps no different from anywhere else in the country: passiveness and reluctance to take firm measures and to spend real money. In this case, however, there is a difference since the Crimea has autonomous status with its own parliament.  Whereas the State authorities have at least in word, and sometimes in deed, supported the efforts by the Crimean Tatars to return and re-establish their lives and revive their cultural heritage, the local authorities have been less than supportive from the start. 

The second is more specific to the Crimea and involves land resources and reluctance to allocate them to returning Crimean Tatars.  Their homes were occupied by Russian settlers after the 1944 deportation, and clearly they needed to be provided with land.  Various reasons can be suggested for why Crimean Tatar families are not receiving the land they need.  This may not have anything to do with anti-Tatar feeling, but be about brutal corruption at local authority level, from simple unwillingness to allocate land without bribes to land in desirable places being sold off to higher bidders.  This was certainly one of the suggestions given to explain the provocative and confrontational about-turn by the Simferopol City Council which suddenly decided on 10 January this year to refuse to allow the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims to build a Soborna or Assembly Mosque even though all necessary documents had been obtained, involving considerable effort and expense.  As on many occasions, it is difficult to say with certainty whether the motivating factor was a lucrative offer for the same piece of land or intent to escalate tension between different communities. It is worth noting that the Crimean Prosecutor came out in support of the Spiritual Directorate, as have very many civic organizations. The Crimean Tatars believe that they are being discriminated against and feel understandably bitter. Many have also taken the law into their own hands by squatting land when none is allocated.  All of this led to a violent clash last November on Ai-Petri, and is also used as a weapon by those who try to present the Crimean Tatars as unwilling to obey the laws and simply "greedy".

One of the problems remains the lack of legislation regulating the rights of formerly deported peoples. A Law was actually passed by parliament in June 2004 however President Kuchma sent it back for reworking.  A new draft was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers on15 September, however it is not clear in the present crisis whether it will be approved by parliament, and even more importantly whether in fact it does reinstate the rights of those once deported.   It is undoubtedly true that the present lack of clarity and legal regulation means that the authorities are dangerously free to do what they wish.   

In July this year the Crimean parliament announced plans to create a register on all Crimean Tatars with information about their housing and land plots, as well as any State assistance received. The Mejilis of the Crimean Tatar people has called on their compatriots to boycott the register.  The claim by Speaker of the Parliament A. Hryshchenko that the database will make it possible to finally resolve the land problem for those repatriated deserves the scepticism it has been met with not only by the Mejilis.  A full land cadastre for the Crimea would make it much clearer who is receiving land and who not.  With corruption rampant, there are brutally mercantile reasons for avoiding the truth coming out.

It is perhaps significant that one of the most virulently anti-Crimean Tatar, or more specifically, anti-Mejilis, publications this summer by Natalya Kiselyova merged hate speech with an attack on the Mejilis for its opposition to the land register. 

This brings us to the third factor involved which is the degree to which ethnic enmity is being fuelled in the Crimea, not least by the media.  The above-mentioned article by Kiselyova was just one of many hate-filled pieces in the newspaper Krymskaya Pravda which has a large print run and is also available on the Internet. Another author – Natalya Astakhova – is presently being investigated by the prosecutor’s office for possible prosecution under Article 161 of the Criminal Code (incitement to ethnic enmity).  Unfortunately, since the prosecutor’s office has already rejected one complaint over the same publications, claiming that the author was expressing "subjective judgments", the chances for a prosecution may not be high despite the fact that any reader faces a clear message that members of an ethnic group are contemptible, dirty, excessively demanding and most certainly unwelcome.

Various organizations are carrying out monitoring of the press and consistently point to the intolerance and negative stereotypes being pushed in many media outlets.  These are not only anti-Tatar or anti-Muslim; there are also vitriolic attacks on "nationalists", with these sometimes including people speaking Ukrainian.  The language issue has become especially acute of late with staggeringly foolish mistakes being made by the authorities. This will be covered separately.

Whether these publications incite people to illegal actions, such as desecration of Muslim cemeteries and racist graffiti, or whether they are all part of the same intolerance is difficult to say with any degree of certainty.  What does seem clear, however, is that something does need to be done about the degree to which journalists feel free to spread thoroughly offensive and often defamatory lies or push insulting stereotypes of Crimean Tatars.  Article 161 of the Criminal Code is extremely difficult to apply since intent needs to be proven with no clear guidelines as to how.  There is also, perhaps due to a post-Soviet fear of censorship, tolerance for overt hate speech as being just the journalist’s "opinion"   One way of dealing with this would be to tighten up the Code of Professional Ethics for Journalists which at present contains high-sounding sentiments but very little that can be used to establish standards and impose some kind of penalty on those who flout them.

This is no small thing given the very specific circumstances in the Crimea.  Russian influence has always been strong and many media outlets in the Crimea, even if they don’t have Russian owners, take a firm pro-Russian line, as was graphically demonstrated by the headlines during the recent military conflict over South Ossetia.

It may be chance, however in the last few weeks there has been considerable attention given by the Russian media to an extremely marginal Crimean Tatar organization Milli Fyrka whose leader addressed an appeal to Medvedev and Putin seeking "defence" from Ukrainian nationalists.  The appeal was immediately taken up by a Russian Orthodox "human rights group" in the Crimea which effectively called on Milli Fyrka to join the "Russian people of the Crimea and Sevastopol" against the regime in Kyiv.  Russian politician Zatulin promised an official response, albeit restrained, to the request for "protection", and expressed criticism of the Mejilis, largely for what he called its "aggressive anti-Russian" line.

The Crimean Tatars have been firmly united with those who supported Ukrainian statehood.  Many had great hopes of the Orange Revolution, and according to Yulia Tyshchenko, co-author of a major work published this summer on the Crimea, are now feeling very disillusioned. 

Measures can sometimes be inept and later require adjustment. However, when antagonism is not only increasing due to unresolved socio-economic issues, including problems over land, but being fuelled, very often through the media, by those with their own interests, failure to take any steps would be criminally foolish and could jeopardize the stability and therefore security of the whole country. 

Halya Coynash

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

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