Earlier this week, Rustam Minnikhanov, President of Russia’s Republic Tatarstan and emissary of the Kremlin, arrived in Crimea to meet with Tatar leaders, likely reiterating restraint following recent clashes with the local Russian population over Russian intervention in Ukraine. The visit culminated in the signing of a cooperation agreement with the recently installed, pro-Russian Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergei Aksionov. Both leaders promised to pursue closer economic and cultural ties between the two autonomous republics in the coming weeks.
Significantly, Minnikhanov declared that the new partnership not only aims to promote increased collaboration on investment, tourism, sports, education, and health care but also moral support, “The Crimean Tatars are our brothers. They lived through a great tragedy; we cannot be indifferent to their fate. Most important today is to ensure calm, interethnic and interreligious harmony in Crimea. This is the problem that now confronts us all.”
It is likely that this is the latest attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to woo Crimean Tatars, who represent 12% of the largely Russian population in the region according to a 2001 national census. Two delegations of Volga Tatar officials as well as Tatarstan’s Grand Mufti Kamil Samigullin also held talks with Crimean Tatar leaders over the past several days. Initial reports suggest the general response of the Crimean Tatar community to the cooperation agreement has been positive.
Moscow’s maneuvers come amidst dangerous tensions between the Tatar and Russian peoples in Crimea. Thousands of Crimean Tatars clashed with pro-Russian demonstrators in the Crimean capital of Simferopol last week, fueling fears of potential interethnic violence. Self-defense units have started to appear in local Tatar neighborhoods in preparation to confront unidentified gunmen, widely assumed to be Russian troops, who seized strategic sites across Crimea in February.
The majority of Crimean Tatars staunchly oppose the proposed referendum for Russian reintegration. With an historical legacy dating back to the military campaigns of Genghis Khan, this Turkic people, still haunted by their massive and deadly deportation to Central Asia during the rule of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, remain fiercely suspicious of Russia. Since their return in 1989, the Crimean Tatars have become a well-organized and politically mobilizable group, peacefully struggling to improve their minority economic status. If their activism turns violent, they would pose a serious threat to Russian interests in Crimea as well as at home and abroad.
As Oxana Shevel, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at Tufts University, insists, “Whatever the Tatar grievances against the Ukrainian state may be, when faced with the choice of being either under Russian or Ukrainian control, the Crimean Tatar leadership has consistently and unequivocally chosen Ukraine.”
This reality explains the recent efforts by President Putin to soften relations with the pro-Ukrainian Tatars, preemptively trying to undermine a potential resistance movement through diplomatic persuasion. Protests across Russia including in Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan further showcase public solidarity with the Russian and Tatar peoples in Crimea. However, Russia’s bid to reacquire Crimea will likely still face strong opposition by the Crimean Tatars in the form of primarily peaceful demonstrations that could easily lead to bloodshed when provoked.
Russia risks hurting its influence in the Middle East if compelled to crack down on the Crimean Tatar population. Already strained due to the Syrian conflict, Turko-Russian relations would deteriorate further. President Putin has coordinated with Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ensure frequent political contact throughout the Ukrainian crisis.
Directly repressing the Crimean Tatars also threatens to compromise Russia’s domestic security, particularly in the North Caucasus and Volga-Ural regions. Such turmoil could result in increasing unrest incited by regional Islamic extremist and ethnic nationalist groups. Often associated with radicalism, the pan-Islamic organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir is legal in Ukraine and may work to rally Sunni Muslims toward the Crimean Tatar cause. Another group called Azatlyk, which harbors separatist aspirations for Tatarstan, also organized a small protest in Kazan to support the Euromaidan movement in December.
For now, President Putin appears to be taking several steps to woo the Crimean Tatars through diplomatic means. But with the referendum on March 16th likely to result in reintegration, Russia will face even greater challenges in Crimea, struggling to control a frustrated Tatar minority and to withstand growing pressure from Kiev and the West.