Having faced deportation under Stalin, the Tatars of the Ukraine are strongly opposed to Putin’s actions in the Crimea. Russia is perceived to be hostile to its Muslim minorities, and the Tatars overwhelmingly incline to Kiev rather than Moscow.
There have been reports that the homes of some Tatars have been marked with a cross, a threatening reminder of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing:
At first, Rustem Kadyrov could barely make out the mark outside his house, in the Crimean town of Bakhchysarai, but it filled him with terror. It was an X, cut deep into the gray metal of the gate, and its significance cut even deeper, evoking a memory Kadyrov shares with all Crimean Tatars. Kadyrov, who is thirty-one, grew up hearing stories about marks on doors. In May of 1944, Stalin ordered his police to tag the houses of Crimean Tatars, the native Muslim residents of the peninsula. Within a matter of days, all of them—almost two hundred thousand people—were evicted from their homes, loaded onto trains, and sent to Central Asia, on the pretext that the community had collaborated with the Nazi occupation of Crimea.
Some Tatars have already fled West, to Lvov, where they have been warmly welcomed:
“I’m scared for my children as long as Russian soldiers are in Crimea,” said a young Tatar mother accompanied by her three children, aged two to five.
“Here I feel safe,” she added, one of 200 Crimean residents who have accepted an invitation from Lviv authorities to come and stay in this bastion of Ukrainian nationalism in the west of the country near the Polish border.
Not only the authorities but the local population have opened their arms to 500 Crimeans, with hotel and spa owners even offering to host them for free.
Back in the Crimea, Tatars are becoming more vigilant, in response to increased tensions:
Yakub Nematulayev is the 63-year-old imam of the mosque in Stroganovka, a Tatar community of about 1,000 families just outside Simferopol. At the request of the Tatar National Assembly and local community leaders, his mosque has been regularly watched at night by Tatar self-defense forces since last week’s scuffles.
One danger in the situation is that Russia’s actions may increase support for extremism among the Tatars:
For one who is likely to be among the first to be taken away at gunpoint if the new men in power here have their way, Fazil Amazayev, was being remarkably calm. Such actions, he insisted “will unite all the Muslims here; they will make enemies of us all”.
Mr Amazayev is a senior member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic political organisation which is legal in Ukraine. However, among the first pronouncements made by the new separatist Prime Minister of Crimea and the security chief he has appointed is that it is a “ dangerous terrorist organisation” which will have to be dealt with.
By contrast, Ukrainian MP and leading Tatar spokesperson Mustafa Cemilev opposes Russia’s actions in the name of democracy and freedom.