Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tatars

So Much for Self-Determination in Crimea

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

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Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

Now, Putin is waving his stick once again, signing a decree banning the leader of Crimea’s Tatars from his homeland for five years. Perhaps he was upset that the Tatars were taking a page from Putin’s own playbook and demanding a referendum for their own freedom from Russia. What’s good for the goose obviously isn’t good for the gander. Perhaps if Russia is unilaterally banning the Tatar leader from Crimea and its wonderful beaches, Europe should show solidarity and respond by banning members of Russia’s ruling “United Russia” party from their summers in the Riviera or the Algarve. The financial loss to business could be more than offset by a concerted advertising campaign to encourage Ukrainians and other Europeans to take their place. After all, many would be more than happy to enjoy the resorts absent the loud Russians who put the stereotype of the “Ugly Americans” to shame.

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Muslim Minorities Under Siege While the West Is Silent

In 1995, Matthew Kaminski traveled to Crimea and met with a Tatar family named the Tarsinovs. They had moved from Central Asia almost as soon as the Tatar diaspora was permitted to return to Crimea when the Soviet Union fell, half a century after Stalin ordered the Tatars’ mass deportation. Over the weekend Kaminski, now with the Wall Street Journal, went back to visit with the Tarsinovs. Where his first visit with them was filled with hope and some relief, this latest was clouded by fear and uncertainty.

That’s because the “return of history” story line in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its attempted annexation of Crimea has dark and potentially tragic implications for the Tatars, the Muslim minority citizens of the peninsula. As journalists like Kaminski have found since Russian soldiers showed up in southern Ukraine, Crimean Tatars’ homes have been marked with an “x” not only because they are taunted as the ethnic inferiors of “true” Russian Slavs but also because they are (perhaps in part because of this history) loyal to Ukraine.

Stalin considered them (potentially) disloyal citizens; Vladimir Putin has moved to treat Crimea as either Russian territory or Russian-aligned quasi-independent territory. It’s possible the latter is merely the road to the former, as the upcoming referendum on Crimea’s future indicates. Even if not, however, the fudging of Crimea’s status means Russia is at least treating it as separate from Ukraine. That would mean the Tatars are, once again, in the Russian leader’s eyes disloyal citizens (or worse: an enemy on Russia’s ever-expanding border). Kaminski notes:

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In 1995, Matthew Kaminski traveled to Crimea and met with a Tatar family named the Tarsinovs. They had moved from Central Asia almost as soon as the Tatar diaspora was permitted to return to Crimea when the Soviet Union fell, half a century after Stalin ordered the Tatars’ mass deportation. Over the weekend Kaminski, now with the Wall Street Journal, went back to visit with the Tarsinovs. Where his first visit with them was filled with hope and some relief, this latest was clouded by fear and uncertainty.

That’s because the “return of history” story line in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its attempted annexation of Crimea has dark and potentially tragic implications for the Tatars, the Muslim minority citizens of the peninsula. As journalists like Kaminski have found since Russian soldiers showed up in southern Ukraine, Crimean Tatars’ homes have been marked with an “x” not only because they are taunted as the ethnic inferiors of “true” Russian Slavs but also because they are (perhaps in part because of this history) loyal to Ukraine.

Stalin considered them (potentially) disloyal citizens; Vladimir Putin has moved to treat Crimea as either Russian territory or Russian-aligned quasi-independent territory. It’s possible the latter is merely the road to the former, as the upcoming referendum on Crimea’s future indicates. Even if not, however, the fudging of Crimea’s status means Russia is at least treating it as separate from Ukraine. That would mean the Tatars are, once again, in the Russian leader’s eyes disloyal citizens (or worse: an enemy on Russia’s ever-expanding border). Kaminski notes:

If retribution comes, will it be through violence or other means? The rights to their property could be challenged. “The Russians will go further,” says Ali. “They will come and we won’t be able to go to meetings and talk freely. We have gotten used to, over the last 20 years, life in freedom.”

Tatars have been told by their leaders about America’s promise to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest agreement, when Kiev gave up its nuclear weapons. Now, walking around Tatar neighborhoods, I was repeatedly asked: Will Barack Obama help us? What will the U.S. do? I had no answer. Damir Tarsinov —Ali’s eldest son, now a stout man with two daughters—fumes that the world has “already let Putin get away with it.”

What’s the answer to the Tatars’ question? Will the U.S. help them? The track record isn’t great, not only because of the West’s inability to muster the necessary resistance to Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty or America’s utter refusal to even address Russia’s violations of Georgian sovereignty, but also because the Tatars are not the only Muslim minority whose country’s politics is in flux and who are in grave danger because (or in spite) of it.

The Rohingya of Burma are in far worse shape yet, paradoxically, less likely to get help from the West. Ukraine has consistently been at the center of the news cycle while Burma has never made it very far from the fringes of the news. There are several reasons for that, but surely one of them is that the news out of Burma over the last couple of years has been generally good–and thus boring, unfortunately.

Burma has been in the midst of real progress in its efforts to liberalize domestic politics and phase the country away from military rule. But that has obscured some very real backsliding on human-rights issues, especially for its Muslim Rohingya minority. The Associate Press reports on the steadily worsening conditions for the Rohingya: they were marginalized and ostracized, and then the violence came, pushing them to remote patches of desert without medical care. The AP offers a glimpse of what that means:

Noor Jahan rocked slowly on the floor, trying to steady her weak body. Her chest heaved and her eyes closed with each raspy breath. She could no longer eat or speak, throwing up even spoonfuls of tea.

Two years ago, she would have left her upscale home — one of the nicest in the community — and gone to a hospital to get tests and medicine for her failing liver and kidneys. But that was before Buddhist mobs torched and pillaged her neighborhood, forcing thousands of ethnic Rohingya like herself to flee to a hot, desert-like patch of land on the outskirts of town. …

Living conditions in The’ Chaung village and surrounding camps of Myanmar’s northwestern state of Rakhine are desperate for the healthiest residents. For those who are sick, they are unbearable. The situation became even worse two weeks ago, when the aid group Doctors Without Borders was forced to stop working in Rakhine, where most Rohingya live.

They’ve been discriminated against for decades, but the AP notes that “their lives were far more peaceful before ethnic violence erupted in mid-2012.” That was also the time that the lifting of American sanctions against Burma really picked up steam.

Violence against ethnic minorities has become a regular feature of the upheaval in the wake of the Arab Spring and the unrest outside the Arab world. It is certainly present in modern-day Russia, which is why the Tatars have plenty of reason to fear their fate may resemble that of their forebears–or the Rohingya. Putin’s odious brand of nationalism is not unique to the Kremlin; the Russian opposition’s most well-known figure, Aleksei Navalny, has a history of allying with racist thugs and has been dogged by accusations that he shares their bigotry.

The West has mostly ignored violence against Christian minorities, behaving as though being on the wrong side of such persecution is some sort of historical karma. These days, Islamist governments and transnational terrorist groups have perhaps accustomed the West to seeing displays of power from the Muslim world. If that blinds them to the Muslim minorities on the wrong end of such violence, it will be a colossal moral failure.

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