Friday, March 14, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin Tries But Fails to Neutralize Crimean Tatars

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 14 – In yet another indication that the worst is still ahead in Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin unsuccessfully sought to neutralize the Crimean Tatars in a telephone call with Mustafa Cemilev, the past chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and the spiritual leader of his nation.

            In an article posted on yesterday, Aleksandr Podrabinek draws that conclusion after providing the most detailed reporting yet on what he called the maneuvering this week of “The Dissident and the Chekist” that culminated in a 30 minute telephone call between Putin and the Crimean Tatar leader (

            The Kremlin’s approach to Cemilev is striking because Moscow has been unwilling to speak with Ukrainian leaders since the ouster of Viktor Yanukovich by the Maidan forces.  On February 18, a senior Russian official met with Cemilev in Sevastopol and told him that Putin wanted to meet with him.

            Cemilev, not surprisingly given his past as a dissident in Soviet times and especially his role in the creation in 1969 of the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, treated this suggestion with extreme caution, lest he be “compromised” by a meeting whose results he could not foresee.

            Obviously, the Crimean Tatar leader did not have to accept. But as the commentator pointed out, he had to take into account the fact that “the Ukrainian authorities and Western politicians live with the dream of dialogue with Russia which supposedly will help resolve the situation in Crimea” and elsewhere.

                Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseni Yatseniuk and the Turkish foreign minister asked Cemilev not to reject a meeting with Putin. As a result, on Tuesday, Cemilev flew to Moscow where he met with the Ukrainian and Turkish ambassadors to Russia who also asked him to agree to meet Putin.

            The mediator between Cemilev and Putin was Mintimir Shaymiyev, the former president of the Republic of Tatarstan. On Wednesday, Cemilev met with Shaymiyev at the Tatarstan permanent representation in Moscow, and after a hour-long conversation, Shaymiyev went into another room and Cemilev was called to the telephone.

            On the line was Putin who politely but firmly reiterated what have become the basic propaganda lines of the Kremlin about what is occurring in Crimea and Ukraine and what should happen next. Cemilev subsequently told journalists that he was shocked by Putin’s use of propaganda as a substitute for argument in what was after all a private conversation.

            The Crimean Tatar leader for his part responded that however the Crimean issue is resolved, it is essential that the territorial integrity of Ukraine be preserved.  Putin said that he knew how difficult had been the life of Cemilev and the Crimean Tatars and that an increase in the powers of the autonomy could be discussed in the future after the March 16 referendum.

            Cemilev said that joining Crimea to Russia would be “a crude violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the 1994 [Budapest] agreement which guaranteed Ukraine the preservation of its sovereignty in exchange for its giving up nuclear weapons.” Putin parried that the residents of Crimea must be allowed to express their opinion.

            With regard to the Crimean Tatars, Putin, in the words of Podrabinek, “promised that all the rights of the Crimean Tatars will be reestablished quickly and effectively” after the referendum “and not as had been done in Ukraine.” Cemilev warned that the situation in Crimea is “explosive” and that provocations were all too possible.

            Putin said no one should try that, adding that he had already given the order that “no harm was to come to the Crimean Tatars.” Concluding the conversation, the Kremlin leader said he hoped that their conversation could be continued in the future.

            What was this all about? Podrabinek asks rhetorically. Cemilev hadn’t been in Russia since 1986. He was never a partner for Russian politicians. And at present, he “does not occupy any positions even in the Mejlis.”  In short, the Crimean Tatar patriarch would not seem a likely candidate for a conversation with Putin.

            According to the commentator, Cemilev believes that “Putin wants to achieve the neutrality of the Crimean Tatars in the current unstable situation,” especially since “the most serious events are still ahead.”  The Kremlin leader “clearly understands that the Crimean Tatars are the single real and well-organized political force in Crimea.”

            All that suggests, Podrabinek concludes, that “Moscow is concerned about a military response in Crimea even if this will be a civil conflict or partisan war” and wants to take steps to prevent it.  At the very least, it would appear, Putin wants to be in a position to claim that he went as far as he could to prevent such an eventuality.

            But despite this polite phone call, Putin has failed to shake the position of Cemilev and the Crimean Tatars. He and they remain committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine and opposed to the illegal March 16 referendum that Putin is orchestrating.


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