Crimean vote sparks talk of war

Those with a long view of history say the fight will be for Ukraine’s independence.

MCCLATCHY FOREIGN STAFFMarch 7, 2014 

Ukraine Protests

Riot police officers block pro-Russian supporters during a rally Thursday in Donetsk, Ukraine. “If Crimea wants to return to Russia after 20 and some years of very conditional separation, it has the right to do so,” read an editorial in a Russian newspaper.

SERGEI CHUZAVKOV — AP

  • U.S. DENOUNCES ANNEXATION PLAN

    President Barack Obama ordered the West’s first sanctions in response to Russia’s military takeover of Crimea on Thursday, declaring his determination not to let the Kremlin carve up Ukraine. He asserted that a hastily scheduled referendum on Crimea seceding and becoming part of Russia would violate international law.

    European leaders announced their own measures but split over how forcefully to follow America's lead. Obama threatened further steps if Russia persists.

    After announcing his sanctions at midday, Obama emphasized his resolve in a personal telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin later Thursday, the White House said. In a one-hour discussion, Obama affirmed his contention that Russia’s actions violate Ukraine’s sovereignty.

    The U.S. president told Putin there was still a way to resolve the dispute diplomatically, the White House said — with Russian forces moving back to their base in Crimea, the governments of Ukraine and Russia holding direct talks and international monitors arriving.

    The U.S. is also calling on Russia to recognize the legitimacy of Ukrainian plans for elections in May, not the Crimean referendum a week from Sunday.

    The Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine — In a Crimean Tatar cafe just off Kiev’s now-famous Maidan, or Independence Square, Igor Semyvolos looked at his phone Thursday and saw the news he’d been dreading.

The Crimean Parliament had just announced that its contested peninsula is now part of Russia. A referendum would be held March 16 to confirm the popularity of the decision, but the move, the Parliament said, was already done. Crimea might still be part of Ukraine in the eyes of the world, but to its regional Parliament, it was now Russian.

“This is war,” said Semyvolos, the director of Ukraine’s Association of Middle Eastern Studies. “Ukraine will need help from the United States in this.”

CRIMEA UNDER RUSSIA

But, according to the view from Moscow, Crimea would be Russian today were it not for a historical accident. The legend is that native Ukrainian and then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — reportedly feeling especially proud of his republic — to mark his birthday in 1954 transferred responsibility for administering Crimea from Russia to Ukraine.

It was a grand gift. Crimea, taken into Russia by Catherine the Great in 1783, was almost as Russian to many Russians as Moscow, and more beloved than bits such as Siberia.

But it was also a largely symbolic gift. Ukraine and Russia then were both part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Khrushchev’s gift would change nothing: Orders would continue to come from Moscow, the Kremlin still would control the military and Russian would remain an official language.

The political elite would remain Russian or beholden to Russian leadership.

Nothing changed in reality — until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Ukrainian Republic became a freestanding nation, one that included Crimea.

That’s the Russian view.

HISTORY OF CONQUESTS

Crimea has been Russian for all but two decades of the last two centuries.

The Russian view, of course, is not the only one. It may involve 200 years of history, but that’s the short version, said Stanislav Kulchytsky, a Crimea specialist at the Ukrainian Institute of History. The longer view of Crimea involves the Mongol Khans, whose reign here began in 1237, and the Ottomans, whose alliance with the Mongol Khans dates to the 1400s.

When the Russians conquered Crimea, it was the Tatars who were conquered. The Tatars were a Muslim group, born of the unification of tribes from the peninsula. Their history had been shaped by centuries of alliance with larger, dominant groups, including the Ottoman Empire and the descendants of Genghis Khan.

It’s long been a Russian goal to empty Crimea of its Tatar natives.

“It’s a tragic history,” Kulchytsky said.

The high point for the Tatars under Russian rule may have come, he said, when Lenin ruled after the Bolshevist revolution in the early 20th century. Lenin, in Kulchytsky’s words, “put them into a shop window trying to convince Ataturk to bring his modern Turkey into the Soviet world.”

TRAGEDY OF TATARS

But that was a rare moment. For most of the time Russia has ruled Crimea, its goal was to drive the Tatars from their homeland.

The most notable moment in this effort was Soviet Leader Josef Stalin’s 1944 orders to relocate the entire Tatar population to Uzbekistan or Siberia. Within days, he’d moved 250,000 to Uzbekistan, where the Tatar population eventually topped 600,000. Five million are thought to have fled to Turkey.

That, as much as anything, is why Tatars today are just 13 percent of the Crimean population, while Russians make up 60 percent, with other ethnic groups holding the balance.

But that, too, has been changing. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, Tatars have been returning to Crimea from Turkey and Uzbekistan.

They’ve also been having babies — at so fast a rate, Kulchytsky said, that the number of Tatars is expected to surpass the number of Russians in Crimea in just 13 years. That surge is helped by the demographic fact that many Russians there are retirees who’ve picked Crimea as a place to live because it’s cheap, a place where a pension can go a long way.

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