The West Should Not Ignore Crimea’s Tatars


Recently, The Wall Street Journal remarked that the Russian military has seen Crimean support for its presence on the peninsula dry up. Opposition to Russian control continues to be strongest amongst the indigenous Crimean Tatars, who have long possessed national desires that have been repeatedly suppressed by Russia. Though Western governments continue to rightfully support political independence for Ukrainians, Tatars are notably absent from the discussion; few entertain the possibility of any expression of Tatar self-determination when the Russian occupation is finally broken. This approach, which is purportedly intended to support the West’s Ukrainian allies in their fight to retake Crimea, only imperils Western multilateralism. Erratic signals from the West concerning its position on self-determination have confused partners in the past and could shatter partnerships in the future. If the West wants to remain united behind the Ukrainian cause, it must also indefatigably support the cause of the Tatars.

The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Turkic-speaking people who once had a much greater degree of autonomy in Crimea. They established the Crimean Khanate in 1443, which basked in prosperity until it was conquered by the Russian Empire in 1783. Generations of Russian antagonism toward the Tatars followed, culminating in the Soviet deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea in 1944. The USSR subsequently embarked on a campaign of detatarization, attempting to erase the Tatar heritage of Crimea in a brazen act of cultural genocide. The Tatar names of Crimea’s towns were replaced with Russian names. 80,000 homes were confiscated from the Tatars and given to Slavic settlers. When all was said and done, Crimea was left devoid of its indigenous people, who were only able to return to their land after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, one in eight Crimeans is a Tatar –– in 1795, seven in eight were.

Understandably, the Crimean Tatars are steadfast in their belief that Crimea must never be in Russian hands again. They have frequently boycotted Russian referenda regarding the status of the peninsula, such as the fraudulent one held after its annexation in 2014. In response to that sham vote, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, the internationally recognized representative body of the Tatars, voted to “start… political and legal procedures aimed at creating ethnic and territorial autonomy [for] the Crimean Tatars [over] their historic territory.” Fearing that such an expression of Tatar national desires might pose a threat to Russian objectives in Ukraine, Putin’s regime banned the Mejlis for “inciting ethnic nationalism” and promoting “hatred toward Russia.” The International Court of Justice concluded that the banning of the Mejlis amounted to an “act of racial discrimination.”

Still, the cri de cœur of the Crimean Tatars went unheard in Ottawa and London, in Paris and Berlin. Beyond platitudes, no Western government has explicitly defended Tatar self-determination. Nowhere is this disregard louder than in Washington, where the hypocrisy surrounding the situation is almost palpable. The White House’s National Security Strategy (NSS) released in October of last year states that “[n]o nation is better positioned to succeed in [the] competition [between major powers] than the United States, as long as we work in common cause with those who share our vision of a world that is free… this means that the foundational principles of self-determination, territorial integrity, and political independence must be respected.” Since the onset of Russia’s brutal war, this respect has been justly extended to the Ukrainian people and their state; the Tatars, however, have never been graced with such recognition. Why are they the exception to this rule of freedom? In keeping with their credo, it is in the interest of Western states to emphasize that liberation from Russian imperialism should be a right enjoyed by all the peoples of Eastern Europe, including the Tatars. The United States, for example, must not sacrifice two of its NSS’ pillars –– self-determination and political independence –– in order to uphold the status quo of territorial integrity.

The problem is not just a moral one, but a strategic one as well. Inconsistency in such a basic foreign policy position is bound to generate rifts in the partnerships between Western countries. An important historical precedent for this lies in the early reaction of the United States to the Yugoslav Wars. In that instance too, despite its self-professed adherence to Wilsonian idealism, the US held the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia to be paramount. It refused to recognize or support the republican movements that espoused self-determination for Bosniaks, Croats and Slovenes in the early 1990s. The Serbian-led Yugoslav army interpreted Washington’s inaction as a “green light” to invade the other republics, which ultimately led to the Bosnian genocide and countless other crimes. Though a US-led NATO intervention did take place a few years later, America’s initial failure to defend the republics was lambasted by its European allies. The Washington Post noted that interviews with European officials “degenerated into finger-pointing” with the White House “repeatedly being singled out for blame.” Such a major disagreement portended serious security implications for Western countries, endangering their ability to cooperate and exposing a weak spot that handed a propaganda victory to the Serbian regime. Down the line, a similar conflict regarding the issue of self-determination may have disastrous consequences that could fracture Western alliances entirely.

To assert that the West defends unrepresented peoples while providing uncritical support for the powers that claim their territory constitutes an unsustainable paradox. It will naturally generate friction between partners, friction that could spell the end of the close relationships that have been instrumental in opposing Russian dominance over Eastern Europe. This time, in the case of Crimea, Western states must avoid making the same mistake they did with Yugoslavia –– when Crimea is freed, the West should clearly convey to Ukraine that the Tatars deserve to be in charge of their own destiny. No decision on the final status of Crimea can be reached without input from every party that has been affected by the Russian occupation. If it wishes to circumvent future division between its constituent states, the West needs to be unambiguously committed to its defense of national self-determination.

It is important to note that national self-determination for the Crimean Tatars does not necessarily mean statehood. The Tatars have been receptive to mere autonomy within Ukraine in the past. But it is important for the Tatars to decide that for themselves, without the imposition of a haughty directive by foreign powers. When the Russian occupation of Crimea eventually ends, it is the duty of the West to demand a legitimate referendum be held and to invite international observers to verify its validity. It cannot allow itself to favor self-determination for one people victimized by Russia but not another, for its unity is weakened if it contradicts its principles. It is high time for the West to hear the voice of Crimea’s indigenous people and to welcome them to the table as equals.

Thomas Ullman
Thomas Ullman
Thomas Ullman is an international affairs student at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is a research assistant at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES).


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