`I SPENT only 15 years in prison,'' says Mustafa Djemilev, sitting back in his chair.
The former Soviet dissident talks about doing time in a Soviet gulag as if it were all simply in the course of things, but he's come a long way since Stalin exiled Mr. Djemilev's people, the Crimean Tatars, to Central Asia in 1944. ``There were rather few complications in the end,'' he adds.
They have returned - 250,000 of them so far - to a land no longer their own, with houses they lived in 50 years ago but cannot claim today. Many have found housing. But others must live in anything from tent villages on the outskirts of Crimean cities - just past the last bus stops - to empty railway cars or ditches.
But Djemilev is now leader of the Medjlis, a kind of shadow parliament in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, and the Crimean Tatars have begun reestablishing their homes in this region, which is now part of Ukraine. Their story, like that of other ethnic minorities long repressed under Soviet rule, illustrates one of the greatest challenges still facing nations of the old Soviet empire: determining how much autonomy minorities will be allowed in their ancestral homelands.
How such disputes are resolved will help dictate how former Soviet states develop effective democratic rule. In some cases, the minority and the majority can reach a compromise, as in Russia's semiautonomous republic of Tatarstan. But other conflicts, as in Moscow's rule over Chechnya, have brought on brutal warfare and questions about democracy in Russia.
Annexed by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century, the Crimea sat at a crossroads of the Russian and Ottoman empires that was fought over well into the 19th century. Waves of Ukrainian and Russian resettlement - after Stalin accused the Crimean Tatars of collaboration with the Nazis and deported them - largely erased a past of ethnic diversity and cooperation.
A minority within a minority
Today, the Crimean Tatars do not always get sympathy from Russians, who make up a two-thirds majority in this population of 2.7 million people, but are themselves a minority in Ukraine. Ukraine rejected a resolution by the Russian parliament in 1992 to return control of the Crimea to Russia.
``The Tatars weren't the only ones who suffered,'' says one Russian woman. ``Any one of us could have been sent off right along with them. They had houses and jobs in Uzbekistan. Why are they returning now and demanding special treatment?''
Crimean Tatar nationalists, for their part, see the Russians as transplants and themselves as the Crimea's native people, who first came to the peninsula in the Middle Ages. ``We are not guests here. We are masters,'' says Shevket Romazanov, one of the 14 Tatar parliamentary deputies in the 94-member local Crimean parliament.
Their search for special status as an indigenous people ``is not entirely disadvantageous'' to the Ukrainian government, says Bogdan Lisovich, the deputy United Nations representative in Ukraine. ``The Crimean Tatars are extremely loyal to Kiev and adamantly support Ukrainian sovereignty over the Crimea.''
As such, they are a counterweight to Crimea's separatist-minded ethnic Russian majority. Although Ukrainian aid to the Crimean Tatars has been significantly cut in Kiev's 1995 draft budget, the two sides will likely remain political allies.
Using the `cattle prod'
But the government in Crimea, dominated by ethnic Russians, resists Crimean Tatar demands. Local authorities ``never take the step of compromise voluntarily,'' says Djemilev. ``We are constantly forced to resort to old methods; closing railroads, mass demonstrations, acts of self-settlement, before they realize that compromise is necessary. It is like herding cattle - they only understand when you prod them.''
Even so, the Crimean parliament voted earlier this year to guarantee local representation for the Crimean Tatar minority - roughly 10 percent of the Crimea's population. The measure was adopted without major civil disturbances.
``It is almost as if the Tatar politicians are suffering from lack of attention,'' says Galina Kostina, a Russian journalist who works for a Yalta-based newspaper. ``People have other things to think about right now besides the Tatars.''
But nationalist aspirations among the Crimean Tatars still simmer. Another 250,000 of them remain in the former Soviet states of Central Asia, stranded by visa restrictions and economic hardship. If and when they arrive, housing and land distribution questions will grow more urgent.
``We are trying to do something for ourselves,'' says Lilliya, who studies Crimean Tatar literature at Simferopol State University. ``We are trying to remember our past, who we are, so that our children will live better than we do. Right now it's hard ... because we have no power in our hands.''
Many Crimean Tatars are, for now, more interested in immediate problems than self-determination. ``But this is only the beginning,'' she insists. ``After people have places to live and work, they will begin to think about how to reassert their identity.''