Sunday, March 2, 2014

Crimea and its Tatars - A Backgrounder

Vladimir Putin's recent moves in Ukraine, particularly Crimea, have many people scratching their heads, particularly since many of us are not familiar with Crimea, where it is or its history.

Here is a map showing the location of Crimea in Ukraine:

Crimea is an important strategic location with access to the Black Sea and a natural harbour at Sevastopol.  The Crimean Peninsula has a long history of conflict with many different ethnic groups claiming the land as their homeland.  According to the 2001 census, ethnic Russians made up 58 percent of Crimea's population of 1.994 million (2005), ethnic Ukrainians made up 24 percent and Crimean Tatars, who consider themselves to be an indigenous population, made up 12 percent of the total.  In 2001, Russian was the native language of 77 percent of Crimean inhabitants with 10 percent speaking Ukrainian and 11.4 percent speaking Crimean Tatar.

During the Second World War, the battles for Crimea were fierce, largely because of its location.  The Axis, comprised of German, Romanian and Italian troops fought agains Soviet troops for control of Sevastopol, one of the world's most heavily defended naval bases.  The defences at Sevastopol were strong enough to repel the Axis, resulting in a siege that lasted for several months.  The siege which began in October 1941 finally ended on July 3rd, 1942 when the last Soviet defences at Sevastopol fell after a heavy air offensive by the Luftwaffe and an assault by German infantry.  In total, there were at least 36,000 Axis casualties and 95,000 captured and 18,000 killed on the Soviet side.

During the period from early April to mid-May 1944, offensive moves by the Soviet Army pushed the Axis forces out of Crimea, freeing the peninsula.  In the Battle of the Crimea, it is estimated that nearly 85,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or wounded and 57,500 Axis soldiers were killed or missing with an additional 39,000 wounded by the time hostilities ended on May 12, 1944.  Many of the 57,500 men lost on the Axis side drowned when the German and Romanian forces were evacuated from the peninsula.

Even though thousands of Crimean Tatars (Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group with significant populations in the Russian republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan) fought against the Nazis during the Second World War, shortly after Soviet troops pushed the Axis forces from the Crimean Peninsula, Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Tatar civilian population from Crimea.  This Stalinist purging of Crimea was typical of the Soviet Union in the wake of the Second World War; any perceived disloyalty to the leadership was deemed treasonous and entire ethnic groups from the Soviet hinterland were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.  While the death toll of the exportation from Crimea is unknown, it is estimated that between one-quarter and one-half of the total population perished as a result of the deportation.  A total of 200,000 Tatars were deported along with around 100,000 Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans and Greeks.

In 1956, the Crimean Tatars were declared "rehabilitated" by then Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev but were not allowed to return to their homeland.  In fact, Khrushchev even transferred control of the Crimean Peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the "voluntary union" of the Ukraine with Russia

With the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s and early 1990s, beginning in 1989, Crimea began to experience a return of Crimean Tatars and other ethnic groups that were deported during Stalin's reign.  Here is a chart showing the number of deported people and how many of each group have returned:

FDPs returned to Crimea in three waves:

1.) 1960s and 1970s: Returnees were part of a USSR programme to promote agricultural development.  A total of 5400 returnees received both housing and employment from Soviet authorities.

2.) 1989: Authorities constructed 80 settlements in economically depressed areas of Crimea and returnees moved to these new collective farms.  This programme ended with the collapse of the USSR.

3.) 1991: In the years following the 1991 independence of Ukraine from the USSR, over 200,000 Tatars returned to their homeland without regard for the economic, social and political climate in Ukraine.  Significant numbers of FDPs settled around the Crimean peninsula in compact settlements.

Attempts to reintegrate what are termed formerly deported peoples or FDPs has been difficult and the government has allocated substantial resources to the programme as shown on this chart:

Unfortunately, irregular funding and slow implementation has meant that only 70 percent of the total allocated funding of UAH 1.2 billion ($150 to $300 million US depending on the exchange rate) has been spent, an average budget of about $10 million annually since 1991.  

Because the FDPs have returned to areas that are economically depressed, tensions over access to social services, resources and employment have been experienced.  As well, rising intolerance with the influx of hundreds of thousands of Tatars has been observed with increasing incidences of hate speech, vandalism of religious sites and violent clashes, resulting from prejudices that have been nurtured over the past three generations or more.  On top of the prejudices, returning FDPs face much higher costs of living than they were accustomed to in many of their Central Asian adopted homes.  Property values in Crimea are often ten times the value of properties in Uzbekistan, making it difficult for returnees to purchase new homes.  There are also disagreements about the location of returning FDPs; many wish to return to the parts of Crimea that were their family homes for many generations, however, some of these ancestral lands are located in parts of Crimea that have very high property values (i.e. coastal regions that are prime tourist destinations).  This means that FDPs, particularly Tatars, have had to settle near major urban areas including Sevastopol and Simferopol.  This has created a "land squatting" problem with an estimated 8000 to 15000 people living in 56 unauthorized settlements on 2000 hectares of land.  

Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has been making moves toward restoring the rights of FDPs, however, efforts have generally failed.  FDPs returning to Crimea from different Central Asian nations face widely varying difficulties in the process; those leaving Uzbekistan do not require an immigration permit to enter Ukraine, however, they have difficulty renouncing their Uzbek citizenship, a process that is both costly and can take up to three to four years to complete.  Since Ukraine does not permit dual citizenship, this can prove to be problematic.  FDPs in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan must have an immigration permit to enter Ukraine to take up permanent residence.  An additional complication exists for FDPs living in Tajikistan since until recently, Ukraine had no diplomatic embassy there, meaning that FDPs there had to get an entry visa to Uzbekistan first in order to visit Ukraine's embassy there.  These permits are very expensive and take between six and eight months for issuance.  On top of all of this, the Ukraine State Migration Service must assess if their is sufficient housing available for the immigrants with family members already living in the Ukraine.  

From this backgrounder, I hope that you have gained a better understanding of another of the issues facing Ukraine.  The ethnic divisions in the nation will most likely prove to be a barrier to any solution over the short-term, with or without the involvement of Russia and the rest of the developed world.  With the Tatars' historical relationship with the Russians/USSR being far less than positive, it will be interesting to watch the events as they unfold over the coming weeks.


  1. You may want to edit your dates on the siege of Sevastapol. You have it ending before it began.

  2. Regarding "Crimean Tatars, who consider themselves to be an indigenous population" - even a Russian Wikipedia agrees that Crimean Tatars as an ethnic group are natives to the peninsula and have been living there since at least XIII century. Neither Russians, who conquered Crimean territory in 1783, nor Ukrainians have ever doubted this fact. BTW, here is the official website of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars (its most up-to-date news are in Russian and Ukrainian). Generally as I know they are now very scared since they previously openly supported current Kyiv pro-EU authorities and didn't support this pro-Russian government. They had asked for protection Turkey as well as few Central Asian countries of former USSR. Regarding "it will be interesting to watch the events as they unfold over the coming weeks" - lucky are those who can safely enjoy watching others probably destined to die because some politician decided to flex his muscles and to wage a war.

  3. Would be nice if you let the reader know what an FDP is BEFORE you use the term umteen times.

  4. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.