25th Mar 2018


Ukraine's Crimean Tatars need EU attention

Mention Ukraine at the moment, and most thoughts will turn to November’s Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius and the prospects for unfreezing the EU association agreement.

But Ukraine is also the current chair of the OSCE, the Vienna-based human rights and democracy watchdog.

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  • Crimea: The Tatars were exiled by Stalin in the 1940s (Photo: Evgeni Zotov)

Minority rights are a key part of its remit, and the OSCE's high commissioner for national minorities (HCNM) has just published a "Needs Assessment" for the Crimean Tatars and other Formerly Deported Peoples (FDPs) of Crimea, Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula.

I was the "academic co-ordinator" for the study and interested readers can see the full text here.

The paper sets out detailed policy recommendations for the national Ukrainian and local Crimean authorities, as well as for other former Soviet states (particularly the Central Asian countries, which still host at least 50,000 Crimean Tatars) and for the FDPs themselves.

But frankly, the Ukrainian and Crimean authorities have been dragging their feet or even displaying outright hostility to the mainstream Crimean Tatar organisation, the quasi-parliamentary Qurultay council, and its smaller plenipotentiary, the Mejlis.

There is much that the international community, especially the EU and its member countries, can do to push Ukraine to live up to OSCE principles.

When its OSCE mandate runs out at the end of this year, 2014 will mark the 70th anniversary of the forcible mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Stalin in 1944 (they have been allowed to come back only since the 1980s).

The OSCE report identifies many important legal lacunae, where the relevant authorities should be pressed to make good.

The basic legal status of FDPs, their rights and duties, are not properly defined.

The Crimean Tatars’ proposal for a law on their indigenous status has always been controversial, while another law, on the "restoration of the rights of deported people on ethnic grounds" has been stalled in the Ukrainian parliament since it was passed at first reading in June 2012.

Elsewhere, the light bureaucracy for remaining FDPs to return from Central Asia, which was introduced under former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, has been replaced by red tape and high costs, especially in Uzbekistan.

The 1993 Bishkek Agreement, which regulates conditions for the return of FDPs ran out in May 2013 and Ukraine has not yet undertaken any efforts to renew it, despite calls by the Mejlis and the Ukrainian parliament's human rights committee.

Given the prevalence of "irregular constructions" (often shanty towns) for Crimean Tatar returnees, land ownership needs to be legally defined, and an ownership registry needs to be drawn up.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s 2012 law on languages - which legalises the use of minority languages in institutions in areas with 10 percent or more minority population, and which was designed to legalise the use of Russian - has had a strange effect in Crimea.

Kiev is talking of raising the threshold to 30 percent, which would exclude the Crimean Tatars, who make up around 13 percent of the Crimean population (some 250,000 people out of a total of 2 million).

There are also areas where money can make a big difference.

Three-quarters of Crimean Tatars live in rural areas. Their "irregular constructions" lack many basic amenities, such as gas, water and sewage. They often live too far from public services in urban areas.

There are only 15 Crimean Tatar schools out of 576 in the region. Only 3 percent of children are taught in Crimean Tatar, and, usually, just for the first four years.

Funds are badly needed for new schools, for the uncompleted Crimean Tatar University and for basic teaching materials.

The Tatars are predominantly Muslim. But there are only 180 mosques in Crimea, compared to 3,000 before 1917.

The West needs to tread carefully in areas of religion and politics.

Most Crimean Tatars belong to the Sunni Islam institution, the "Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea (DUMK)," which is close to the Mejlis and to the Diyanet in Turkey (Turkey's "Presidency of Religious Affairs").

Only 10 percent, or so, of registered Islamic organisations are outside the DUMK, including various strains of radicalism. Mejlis leaders have warned that the erosion of the Tatar peoples' old religion and culture in the long years of exile is making young people more prone to extremist views.

Mainstream Islam needs support.

But the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, which dominates religious life in Crimea, is often openly hostile to it.

At the same time, evidence indicates that the Ukrainian authorities are artificially feeding more radical Tatar political organisations, such as the Milli Firka ("National Party").

The motive is to deligitimise the Qurultay council, to paint Tatar people as being divided and to depict the Qurultay as just one voice among many.

In fact, there is little sign of declining support for either the Qurultay or the Mejlis, which recently held vibrant elections.

The Mejlis has called for an international forum to discuss the situation of Crimean Tatars and other FDPs in Crimea (Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans and Greeks) and EU countries should help them to make it happen.

Meanwhile, it is not just the Tatars who are short of clean water in Crimea.

The UN and the EU, via its help for the "Regional Development Agency" give some support already. But the region needs more attention if its economy - which is lopsidedly short-stay, low-spend, beach-based tourism - is ever to bloom.

Crimea seems to have fallen off the map.

After the Georgia-Russia war in 2008, there was a flurry of concern that it might be next in line for some form of military confrontation.

People thought the problem was solved when Ukraine's new leader, Viktor Yanukovych, agreed with Russia to let its navy stay there until 2042.

But the problem is still here.

Russia continues to use its military presence in Crimea to exert political pressure on Kiev, while tensions between Crimean Tatars and the majority population risk getting worse and risk being exploited by the Kremlin.

In the past, the Qurultay and the Mejlis have contributed to moderation and stability. The EU and other world powers should help them keep it so.

Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at The European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-based think tank

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