Exiled by Stalin, Ukraine's Tatars still struggling to recover

Many Tatars have returned to the Crimean Peninsula, but they continue fight for the return of their land and rights.

A man cries during an international gathering of Crimean Tatars in Simferopol on May 19. The First World Congress of Crimean Tatars brought together representatives of Crimean Tatar organisations from around the world and was held one day after the 65th anniversary of their people's deportation from the peninsular to distant parts of the Soviet Union.

KYIV, UKRAINE – Twenty thousand Crimean Tatars marked the 65th anniversary of their deportation from Crimea in southern Ukraine by marching in Simferopol, the peninsula’s capital, on Monday. The march was as much in protest as commemoration, as the Tatars complain that they have not been treated fairly since they started to return to their homeland 20 years ago.

“[Ukraine] has not passed a single law aimed at the restoration of the political, economic, social, and cultural rights of the Crimean Tatar people,” read a resolution by the protesters.

The Crimean Tatars had populated the Crimean peninsula for centuries before Stalin ordered them to be deported in May 1944 on false charges of collaborating with Nazi forces. Of the more than 180,000 who were sent by train to Central Asia, almost half died during the first year (for more on the Tatars, view past Monitor stories here and here).

When they started to return during perestroika in the late 1980s, things were far from easy. Many sold everything they had in order to return to Crimea, and then lived in poor conditions.

Tatars now number around 250,000, or 12 percent of Crimea’s population, but although their situation has improved, a number of problems still remain, the sorest of which is the question of land. By law, Tatars should be able to receive land plots to build on, but the practice is very different.

“Local officials prefer to receive bribes for land than to share it out legally,” says Lilia Budzhurova, a prominent journalist in Crimea. As a result, many Tatars live on land that they simply seize and start building on.

The Tatars are also still struggling to preserve their language and have it taught in schools.

If relations were previously “hostile” between local authorities and the Tatars, they are less so now, says Ms. Budzhurova. “But the authorities and the media blame the Tatars for trying to get more than Slavs.”

Crimea's population, more than 50 percent of which is ethnically Russian, is well-known for its pro-Russian leanings, which caused concerns last August that the peninsula would be Russia's next target after South Ossetia. The Crimean Tatars have been the Ukrainian state's staunchest supporters in Crimea, and politicians in Kyiv (Kiev) were quick to offer kind words on Monday: Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko promised them “a prosperous European future,” and President Viktor Yushchenko has called for an investigation into the repression of Tatars during Soviet times.

But some Tatars accuse the government in Kyiv of not doing enough. Last week, one group went on a hunger strike outside a government building in the Ukrainian capital demanding the resolution of their problems.

The central authorities are widely seen as lacking the will – or the power – to influence the situation in Crimea.

“Kyiv doesn’t know about the problems, or is completely indifferent to them,” says Budzhurova. “It is more concentrated on events in Kyiv."

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