Crimean Tatars in Ukraine
Deep-seated fears

The Crimean Tatars, numbering some 250,000, are the third largest demographic group in Crimea. They fear that their rights will be sharply curtailed should the referendum on 16 March turn out in Russia's favour. Fear of Putin and his supporters is equally palpable amongst the millions of Crimean Tatars living in Turkish exile. By Luise Sammann

"Keep calm!" – that's the order of the day in Crimea, where these days, one wrong word, one wrong move can have grave consequences. "Keep calm!" is also what people are being told in Ankara, 1,000 kilometres away, because what happens in Crimea will sooner or later also affect Turkey, which is home to millions of Crimean Tatars.

Foreign forces may be keen to turn the Crimean crisis into a crisis between the Tatars and Russia, or ultimately a crisis between Turkey and Russia, warned Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on his visit to Kiev a few days ago. "We will not allow that to happen!" he emphasised, adding: "Territorial integrity, peace and stability in Ukraine are extremely important to Turkey. Crimea in particular is a key concern for us as the gateway to Ukraine, but also because of the Crimean Tatars who live there and the region's Turkish heritage."

Celal Icten is grateful for the words of his foreign minister, as diplomatic and indefinite as they may be. "Turkey can and must play an active role in this conflict," says the chairman of the Istanbul Association of Crimean Tatars. After all, his ethnic group are a Turkish people and are considered a little brother to the Turks. And now they are in danger!

Crimean Tatars demonstrating for their rights in front of the parliament in Simferopol on 26 February 2014 (photo: Reuters)
Turkish PM Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu carry the hopes of an entire ethnic group: the Muslim minority in Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, do not want the peninsula to break away from Ukraine. The fear of Russian intervention is great, which is why many are pinning their hopes on the government in Ankara

Persecuted and forgotten

Since the beginning of the Crimean crisis, Celal Icten and other representatives of the Turkish Crimean Tatars have been asking the government in Ankara for help. As far as they are concerned, the situation is clear: the more power the Russians gain over the peninsula that became part of Ukraine in 1954, the greater the threat to the Crimean Tatar minority living there. "We fear for the lives of our relatives there," says Icten.

Up to seven million Crimean Tatars live in Turkey today, says the 59-year-old. Even though the last count was taken in 1927, it is obvious that there are many more here than in Crimea itself. Some 45 clubs and associations uphold their heritage in Turkey, organise student exchanges between the old and new homelands, host evenings of culture or readings, and see themselves as nothing less than protectors of their relatives in Crimea and as representatives of their interests.

Expatriates like Celal Icten do not have a high opinion of Russians. Like many other Tatars, he believes that Putin is intentionally escalating the current crisis in order to justify military intervention in Crimea. "Why should we like those guys?" he exclaims from his armchair. "Nowadays, the majority of our nation lives far away from our homeland, although we have a place where we belong. Crimea is our country!"

Celal Icten (photo: Luise Sammann)
"Turkey can and must play an active role in this conflict," says Celal Icten, chairman of the Istanbul Association of Crimean Tatars (pictured here)

Indeed, historians consider their ancestors to be the indigenous people of Crimea. The fact that they now make up only 12 per cent of the population of the peninsula in southern Ukraine is due to the many past conflicts with Russia, which repeatedly caused the Tatars to flee further into what was at the time the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean Tatars suffered their last significant trauma in 1944, when Stalin accused them of collaborating with German armed forces and deported over 180,000 of them to forced labour camps in Siberia and Central Asia. Thousands of them met a gruesome death in overcrowded trains.

"None of them were given a proper grave or burial," laments Celal Icten in Istanbul. Even after the survivors were allowed to return to Crimea in 1988, a large number of them remained in exile, where they had long since built a new life for themselves. Celal Icten removes a jar containing Crimean soil from a cabinet. He commutes between Istanbul and the home of his ancestors several times a year. Naturally, he speaks their language fluently and probably knows more about their history than about Turkish history.

Crimean Tatars outside a mosque in Simferopol (photo: AP)
From 1475 to 1774, the Crimean Peninsula was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the Russo–Turkish War (1770–1774), Crimea gained independence. In 1954, it became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It has been part of Ukraine ever since

"We Crimean Tatars are Europeans"

If Crimea were to detach itself from Ukraine and move closer to Russia, as has been threatened on a number of occasions in recent days, this would be "the end of the Crimean Tatars", declared Tuncer Kalkay, chairman of the Tatar association in Ankara, last week. Celal Icten agrees with him: "We Crimean Tatars are Europeans," he emphasises again and again. And as such, they are demanding that Crimea remain close to Ukraine and not Russia, he says. "Look what is happening in Russia," he fumes. "Look at how the Volga Tatars live there. They are not educated in their own language, their language institute at the university was closed down: they are being forced to assimilate! Or look at what happened in Chechnya...!"

This hatred towards Russians is something that Crimean Tatars living in Turkey learn from a very young age, even more so than their kin in Crimea itself, who, despite everything, have repeatedly had to come to terms with their powerful neighbours and until recently lived in peace with the Russian majority on the peninsula. Now, however, Celal Icten is extremely busy with demonstrations, meetings with politicians and press releases. The Turkish Crimean Tatars will not grow weary of raising awareness about their relatives' unfortunate situation.

Despite the recent words of hope for the Crimean Tatars spoken by the Turkish Foreign Minister, great political and economic risks loom for Ankara. A long-standing good relationship with Russia is at stake, should Turkey intervene in the conflict too conspicuously – and that at a time when Erdogan's government is hemorrhaging allies on the international stage.

Luise Sammann

© 2014

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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