New hotspot for Russia-Ukraine tensions forms in Crimea (+video)

Pro-Ukraine Tatars, who suffered under the Soviets, clashed with a pro-Russian rally in front of Crimea's parliament in Simferopol today. 'They have never treated us as equals, and they won't now,' one said.

By , Correspondent

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    A Crimean Tatar holds a banner which reads: 'Crimea + Ukraine=Heart' during a protest in front of a local government building in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 26. More than 10,000 Muslim Tatars rallied in support of the interim government, clashing with other pro-Russian protesters.
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For Crimean Tatars like Ibazir Ilyasov, the only option for his people is for the Crimean peninsula to remain part of Ukraine. If the Russians send their troops to his city, he says, he will lie down before their tanks and let them roll over him before he gives up his homeland.

"My family has seen nothing good come out of Russia," says the unemployed laborer.

In 1944, Stalin deported Mr. Ilyasov's parents and 250,000 other Tatars from the Crimean peninsula to Uzbekistan, where he was born. "They have never treated us as equals, and they won't now. This is our homeland, and we aren't leaving. We are part of Ukraine."

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Ilyasov was one of thousands of Tatars who converged in front of the Crimean parliament Wednesday in a bid to block deputies from passing any legislation that would support the separation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine. The resulting clashes that left several injured, along with Russian moves to beef up security, underscores Simferopol's status as the latest flashpoint in a political crisis that many fear could split the country.

"We warned them not to arrange a [parliamentary] session," says Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Tatar council, the Mejlis, which speaks for the more than 300,000 Crimean Tatars living in Ukraine. Mr. Chubarov led the calls for protest Wednesday. "Do not explode the situation in the Crimea. We know they need that session to tear Crimea from Ukraine. We warned that the Crimean Tatars will not allow this to happen."

Tatars massed on the parliament waving the blue Crimean Tatar national flag as well as the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, and chanted "Ukraine" and "Motherland! Crimea! People!" in Tatar, a Turkic language spoken by a majority of the mostly Muslim Tatar population here. Their chants were matched by an equal number of pro-Russia demonstrators waving the red, blue, and white flag of Russia, and shouting, "Crimea is Russia!"

"We are here to defend ourselves from those western Ukrainians, who think they can decide our future here in Crimea. They never asked us what we wanted," said Galina Valentina, a colonel in the local police department. "We've spoken Russian for 200 years here, and we're not going to start speaking that Ukrainian. It's not even a real language, it's a dialect."

The large number of supporters from each side suggested that the conflict over the fate of the Crimea was more evenly split here in the peninsula's capital than it is 40 miles south in Sevastopol, where demonstrations over the past few days have been decidedly pro-Russia and in favor of separation from Ukraine.

Russia steps up military presence

Sevastopol is the home of Russia’s Black Sea Naval Fleet of ships and submarines, which can be seen in the harbor of the port city, on the southernmost tip of the peninsula.  Russia's role in the conflict intensified on Wednesday as the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said he was carefully watching developments in Ukraine and would “take measure to guarantee the safety of the facilities, infrastructure and arsenals of the Black Sea Fleet.”

At least two Russian armored personnel carriers were parked in the city center Wednesday, and Russian military checkpoints had been established on the city’s outer limits, where a Russian military truck with a Russian flag flying from its cabin’s roof was parked across from another armored personnel carrier. Soldiers in camouflage and black balaclava were checking cars entering into the city limits.

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, ordered Russia’s western military units to conduct combat readiness exercises.

With tensions ramping up in east and south, particularly in Crimea, three of Ukraine’s past presidents issued a joint statement that accused Russian of “direct interference in the political life in Crimea.” The urges politicians in Kiev to restrain from taking any legislative action that could be seen as “fermenting hostilities” between Ukraine’s now deeply divided regions.

A long history for Tatars

The population of Crimea is about 58 percent ethnic Russian, 12 percent Tatar and 24 percent Ukrainian. But out of those three populations, the Tatars have the longest history in the peninsula.

A Turkic, mostly Muslim people, the Tatars once ruled the peninsula as the Crimean Khanate until the 18th century, when the peninsula was annexed by Russia after the Russian-Turkish war. The population was swept into the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. In 1944, Joseph Stalin order the Crimean Tatars to be rounded up and deported to Soviet Central Asia as punishment for what the Kremlin said was collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II. The Tatars have since struggled for greater recognition within the post-Soviet sphere.

For the most part, most of the Tatars gathered to stand against pro-Russian demonstrators Wednesday said that their relationships with local Russian and Ukrainian populations have been good, with a mixing of the ethnic groups socially a common sight in the metropolitan areas, like Simferopol.

But politics in Kiev, and manifestations by Russian media intent on stirring up tension in the Crimea, have made things worse here in the last few weeks, some Tatars say. "Crimean is not Russia, we are for a united Ukraine," said Lilia, who said she did not want to give her last name in case the tide changed, and Russian authorities came after her. "We don't want to be part of Russia. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a killer. We've gotten rid of one killer, Yanukovych, and we don't want a new one to come in here."

Russia's reputation of oppressing Muslim populations, such as the Chechens and other North Caucasus groups, is enough evidence for Tatars to want nothing to do with becoming part of "Putin's empire," Lilia says. 

Late Wednesday, the Crimean Tatars dispersed, having won a small victory by preventing the parliament from voting on any legislation on separation. They promised to continue their fight to remain part of Ukraine.

"Go home, go to your neighbors, go to the Russians, the Ukrainians, and to people of different nationalities," Chubarov, the Tatar leader, told protesters from the steps of parliament. "Ask them to form self-defense units, and together protect our churches and mosques. Together keep a watch on cemeteries and schools." 

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