Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Window on Eurasia: ‘I’m Proud to Be a Ukrainian,’ Crimean Tatar Leader Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 26 – Mustafa Cemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement for much of the last generation, says that he is “proud to be a Ukrainian,” an assertion that echoes the views of almost all of his nation and that represents yet another obstacle to any Russian effort to “retake” Crimea.

            Born in 1943, just 18 months before Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia, Cemilev grew up in Uzbekistan but remained passionately committed to his people and to their place within Ukraine.  For many, he is the embodiment of the Crimean Tatar movement and its commitment to human rights. (

            In 1961, he organized an underground Union of Crimean Tatar Youth. He spent time in the camps supposedly for refusing to serve in the Soviet army. He established contacts between the Crimean Tatars and human rights groups in Moscow. And in 1968, with Academician Andrey Sakharov, formed the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR.”

            Cemilev was able to return to Crimea only in 1989. Later, thanks in large measure to his efforts, about 300,000 of his nation were able to do the same.  He founded and until November of last year was head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars and has been a deputy in the Verhovna Rada of Ukraine since 1998.

            Throughout his career – and this will certainly play a role in the coming days – he always has allied himself with the national-democratic wing of Ukrainian politics, with the Rukh, then Our Ukraine and most recently with Batkovshchina.  In 2004, he was on the Maidan; and this year, he has backed the Maidan this time around as well.

            As Abdulla Rinat Mukhametov, a political scientist, observes this week, Cemilev “made a strategic bet on the national democrats, and they on him.  For the Crimean Tatar national movement, [he adds], there was no other possible solution” in the 1990s in the last decade or now (
            A major reason that the Crimean Tatars have supported the Maidan, Mukhametov says, is that “the moving force” behind it was a social protest. Those who opposed Yanukovich were “anti-bureaucratic, anti-oligarch, and anti-corruption.” And those attitudes, although sometimes clothed in nationalist rhetoric, are the most important.
            (Mukhametov doesn’t say, but from his words, it is not unreasonable to conclude that these factors rather than any concern about ethnic Russians in Ukraine or Ukraine’s links with the West are the moving forces behind Vladimir Putin’s opposition to and even fear of the Ukrainian revolution.)
            Despite some problems, the analyst continues, “the Crimean Tatars actively participate in state-political construction of today’s Ukraine as a special subject” and have integrated themselves into a Ukrainian “political nation.”  This does not exist in Russia, where “the specific interests of Muslims and particular Muslim peoples are not represented at the federal level.”
            Kyiv’s recognition of Cemilev and the role of the Mejlis has “helped form among the Crimean Tatars loyalty and patriotism toward Ukraine,” despite all efforts by Russians and some others to present the Crimean Tatars as Islamic radicals and a danger to the region, Ukraine and the world – a notion that even ethnic Russians in Crimea have pointedly rejected.
             Cemilev enjoyed unquestioned authority among the Crimean Tatars for much of his career, but now some critics have appeared, particularly in the Milli Firka and Hizb ut-Tahrir. They argue that as a former Soviet dissident, he is overly suspicious of Moscow and overly supportive of Turkey and the West.
            Clearly, Cemilev is “a man of his era [or] even several eras, Mukhametov says. Each has left its mark. But his views on the place of his nation within Ukraine are still a reflection of those of the overwhelming majority of Crimean Tatars who today make up more than a sixth of the population of their homeland.
            For that and for his contributions to human rights and the recovery of his people, the political commentator says, Cemilev “will go into the history of his people alongside Ismail Gasprinsky the legendary Crimean Tatar enlightener and scholar” who gave not only the Crimean Tatars but other Turkic Muslims of the Russian Empire a written language.
            Today, given the challenges that Crimea and the Crimean Tatars face from Moscow and some of the ethnic Russians who now live in their homeland, Cemilev appears set to play yet another “legendary” role, one that may prove to be equally important to those he has played in the past.

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