Crimean Tatar people
Crimean Tatars —not to be confused with Tatarstan Tatars— are an indigenous people of the Crimean peninsula, where they currently make up some 13% of the total population. Crimean Tatar is their historical language, which some of them still speak, although during the 20th century an increasing number of Crimean Tatars adopted Russian. Crimean Tatars are mostly Sunni Muslims.
Crimean Tatars established themselves as a differentiated people during the Khanate of Crimea era (15th-18th centuries). Under the Russian Empire (19th century) they were the demographic majority in Crimea. The progressive settlement of Russians, Ukrainians and other peoples reduced their share to 35% (late 19th century) and 25% (early Soviet era).
Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars to the center of Asia and Siberia in 1944, accusing them of having collaborated with the German occupation. Their massive return to the peninsula did not take place until the independence of Ukraine.
Since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, the collective rights of the Crimean Tatar people have been increasingly restricted by Russian authorities.
The Crimean dispute
In February 2014, after the events of the Ukrainian revolution, Russian special troops occupied key places in Crimea, including the Parliament building. On 27 February Crimean deputies were forced to vote for a new government headed by Sergei Aksyonov. On 11 March the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol adopted a joint declaration of independence as the Republic of Crimea. On 16 March, in a referendum organised under military occupation and regarded as illegitimate by Ukraine, Crimean Tatar organisations and most countries in the world, 96 percent of voters approved joining the Russian Federation according to official data. On 21 March the procedure for the accession of Crimea to Russia was completed.
Since then Crimea has been the subject of a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine considers that the annexation constituted a violation of its right to territorial integrity and that it was carried out through illegal procedures, a view shared by most countries in the world and most Crimean Tatar groups. Russia claims instead that Crimea legitimately exercised its right to self-determination, that it briefly became a sovereign state, and only later joined the Russian Federation.
On 27 March 2014 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution in favour of Ukraine’s territorial integrity with Crimea within its borders and against annexation by Russia. 100 members voted in favour, 11 against, 58 abstained and 24 were absent.
The language of this people is Crimean Tatar, which belongs to the Kipchak branch of the Turkic family. Crimean Tatar is therefore related to languages such as Turkish, Azeri, Kazakh, Volga Tatar, Bashkir, and Karachay-Balkar.
Crimean Tatar has official language status in the Republic of Crimea along with Russian and Ukrainian. In practice, authorities exclusively use Russian as the official language.
According to Ethnologue, Crimean Tatar has just over half a million speakers worldwide. About a quarter of a million people declared Crimean Tatar, or just Tatar, as their mother tongue in the 2014 Russian census on the Crimean peninsula. This does not necessarily mean that all these people are fluent in Crimean Tatar, as some may have declared Tatar as their mother tongue because it is the language of their national group.
The three main pillars of the Tatars’s identity in relation to the rest of the Crimean population are a shared memory of an uninterrupted presence on the peninsula since the founding of the Crimean Khanate, the Crimean Tatar language, and the Muslim religion.
According to the 2014 Russian census, about 15% of the population of the Republic of Crimea and 1.5% of the population of the federal city of Sevastopol identify as Tatars. In all, there are about 250,000 Tatars in Crimea, which means most of the global Crimean Tatar population live outside the peninsula: roughly the same number is estimated in Uzbekistan —people who did not return from exile in 1944, and their descendants—, several tens of thousands in Ukraine, and an undetermined number in Turkey.
The Ukrainian Parliament recognised the Tatars as an “indigenous people” in March 2014, when the country had already lost control of Crimea. The Russian Federation recognises the Tatars as a “national minority”.
Politics and organisations
The Republic of Crimea (83% of the peninsula’s population and 96% of its territory) and the Federal City of Sevastopol (17% of its population and 4% of its territory) are the two administrative units of the Russian Federation corresponding to Crimea. As previously explained, Crimean Tatars are a demographic minority in both units.
As regards specifically to Crimean Tatars, until the Russian annexation the Mejlis and the Qurultay were the two main and officially sanctioned representative bodies of the Crimean Tatar people.
The 33-member Mejlis is a permanent executive and representative body,elected for a five-year period by the Qurultay, which performs parliamentary functions and only meets at the request of the Mejlis, at least once every two and a half years. Crimean Tatars and their family members with Ukrainian nationality or residents in Ukraine are eligible to vote to elect the 250-member Qurultay.
Ukraine continues to officially recognise the Mejlis as a representative body of the Crimean Tatars.
In 2016, the Mejlis was declared illegal by the supreme councils of Russia and Crimea. The body has since been in exile in Kiev, denounce repression against the Crimean Tatar people under Russian occupation, and demands the right to national self-determination of the Crimean Tatars. Even so, and bearing in mind the circumstances, it has lost ability to influence the Crimean Tatars.
As regards religion, the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Crimea, more commonly known as the Muftiyat, was founded in 1992 and is closely linked to the Mejlis —which is, however, a secular organisation. The Muftiyat vows a type of Islam rooted in the traditions of the Crimean Tatar people, and opposes foreign-imported currents such as those of Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Muslim Brotherhood. With the Russian occupation, the Muftiyat has split in two: the sector that has remained loyal to the Mejlis has settled in exile in Kiev, while the sector that has preferred to collaborate with the new Russian authorities has established the new Taurida Muftiyat, which is officially recognised by Russia.
Under Russian occupation, associations have emerged seeking to establish a network of Crimean Tatar mutual support and to denounce the persecution of Crimean Tatars. Crimean Solidarity is the most prominent among them.
Muratova, Elmira. “The Transformation of the Crimean Tatars’ Institutions and Discourses After 2014”. Journal of Nationalism, Memory & Language Politics, vol. 13:1.
Osipov, Alexander. “What do the Crimean Tatars face in Crimea?”. ECMI Issue Brief, n. 32, 2014.
(Last updated December 2020.)