SPECIAL REPORT. Ukrainian ultranationalist party calls for referendum on revocation of Crimea’s autonomy · Crimean authorities side with Moscow over Georgia crisis · Tatars demand recognition as autochthonous people and want national and territorial autonomy.
Víktor Iúsxenko (esquerra) i Víktor Ianukóvitx (dreta) / Viktor Yushenko (left) and Viktor Yanukovich (right)
The Crimean peninsula is caught up in a game of tug-of-war as Russia and the West endeavour to bring Ukraine into their respective spheres of influence. The country is increasingly divided between President Viktor Yushchenko's pro-Western supporters and the pro-Russian opposition under Viktor Yanukovych. As Ukraine oscillates between strengthening traditional ties with Russia and forging closer links with the European Union, all eyes are on Crimea, a region which occupies a strategic position on the Black Sea and whose population is ethnically Russian for the most part.
Conscious of the importance of the Crimea in Eastern European politics, one group of Ukrainians has launched a campaign aimed at revoking Crimea's status as an autonomous republic. Supporters of the campaign hope to prevent Crimean authorities from exploiting the legal difference between Crimea and other Ukrainian provinces and - with Russian support - seceding from Ukraine to join Russia, as has happened in the Caucasus with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The campaign is being led by the ultranationalist ‘Freedom' party, which doubled its support in the 2007 parliamentary elections (from 90,000 votes to almost 180,000 within the space of a year). The leader of the party, Oleh Tyahnybok, makes his stance quite clear: "The fate of Crimea, as well of any other part of Ukraine, must be determined by the whole Ukraine," he explained to the ForUa website.
A province with notable differences
The problem, however, is that Crimea is markedly different from the rest of the country. According to the 2001 census, the majority of the population (58.5%) is of Russian extraction, and Russians outnumber Ukrainians (24.4%) by a large margin. Moreover, Crimea is also home to an autochthonous Tatar minority (not to be confused with the Tatars of Tatarstan, a republic within the Russian Federation). Crimea has been part of Ukraine since 1954, when Soviet President Nikira Krushchev separated it from Russia and attached it to Ukraine.
But Tyahnybok thinks Crimea's differences are minimal and intends to collect three million signatures from across Ukraine so that a state-wide referendum on the revocation of Crimean authority can be held. Tyahnybok has a mammoth task ahead of him, not only because he requires an enormous number of signatures (7% of the total Ukrainian population) but because constitutional amendment would be needed before any changes to the status of Crimea since the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is protected by the Ukrainian constitution.
Looking towards Russia
Crimea's ruling classes have distanced themselves from the Ukrainian Government in recent years, particularly since Russia's intervention in Georgia. Last month, for example, the Crimean Parliament put pressure on the Ukrainian Parliament to recognize the independence of Akhazia and South Ossetia after the Kremlin asked governments across the world to follow its lead in acknowledging the independence of the two breakaway regions. Needless to say, the pro-Western Ukrainian President, Victor Yushchenko, did not follow the advice. In fact, Yushchenko quickly accused Moscow of distributing Russian passports to the Crimean population as a preliminary step towards annexing the entire territory just as it annexed the breakaway Georgian republics.
On October 16, the German newspaper Der Spiegel printed an interview with Viatcheslav Nikonov, a political analyst with close links to the Kremlin. Asked about Crimea, Nikonov delivered a stark warning to Kiev: "We support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, just as we supported the territorial integrity of Georgia before they began killing our people." To clarify Nikonov's position further, the interviewers asked if "new republics" might be created in Ukraine in the future. In response Nikolov said that "if the West keeps up its attempts to drag Ukraine into NATO against its will, anything is possible."
Then there is the closely-related issue of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is based primarily in the port of Sevastopol in South Crimea. In 1997 Ukraine agreed to lease the naval base to Russia for a period of 20 years. But Kiev has said that it would not be willing to extend the lease beyond 2017 and that Russia will need to seek anchorage for its fleet elsewhere. Some analysts believe that the pressure Russia is directly and indirectly exerting on Crimea is aimed at giving Moscow leverage in negotiations for extending the lease date beyond 2017.
And the Tatars?
The Crimean affair is at the heart of tensions between Russia and the West, with Ukraine split between the pro-West camp and the pro-Russian camp. Between these two poles, or perhaps relegated to the margins, are the Crimean Tatars. The Tatars are native to the peninsula and were in the majority as late as the nineteenth century. Although they only make up 12% of the population today, they have their own parliament (or Mejlis) which has a legal right to address the Ukrainian Parliament.
The leader of the national Tatar movement and President of the Mejlis, Mustafa Abdülcemil Qırımoğlu, has elected to side with Yushchenko. He has recently spoken out against Russia's attitude towards Ukraine and fears Russia may annex Crimea in much the same way that it annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia earlier this year. He has called for the Ukrainian Government to take a tougher stance in its defence of the peninsula. As early as 2005, in an interview for RFE/RL, Qırımoğlu argued that Russia was opposing the return of the Tatar population to Crimea (half of all Tatars live outside Ukraine after being deported by Stalin), concerned that the ethnic Russian population might lose its majority on the peninsula.
The impoverished Tatar communities of the Crimea continue to demand recognition as the autochthonous population of the peninsula and official status for their language, which is closely related to Turkish. But Russian extremists are keen to curb Tatar nationalism and in recent years there have been a number of violent attacks on Tatars and their property. With no improvement in their situation, the Tatars - a minority in their own country - have no choice but to come to an understanding with Kiev and keep up demands for national and territorial autonomy. The vice-president of the Mejlis recently declared that the Tatar community "is not satisfied" with the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.