Struggles of Turkic peoples bedevil Moscow, Ankara
BY EMMA JOHNSON
As tensions between Moscow and Kiev ratchet up around Crimea, and while Moscow and Ankara move to improve relations despite backing opposite sides in the civil war raging in Syria, the large numbers of Turkic peoples in Russia and adjacent former Soviet republics pose potential sources of instability for the rulers of both Russia and Turkey.
The Tatars, Crimea’s inhabitants for centuries, are an oppressed nationality making up 12-13 percent of the peninsula’s population. They were brutalized by czardom before the 1917 Russian Revolution. In the early 1920s, under the Bolsheviks’ Crimeanization policy led by V.I. Lenin, Tatar culture flourished.
After the death of Lenin, the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy that consolidated control headed by Joseph Stalin reversed this course. They subjected the Tatars to mass deportation during the Second World War.
While Tatars are discounted and ignored by the major capitalist governments in Washington and Europe and persecuted by Moscow, they are part of some 200 million people in the world speaking a Turkic language and practicing Islam. The Crimean Tatars have close ties with Turkey.
In Turkey, approximately 150,000 people are Crimean Tatars, and an estimated 5 million are of Crimean Tatar descent, the result of waves of refugees fleeing czarist and later Stalinist rule.
Following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, which was opposed by the Tatars, they have been subjected to repression. Their national assembly, the Mejlis, has been banned and many historic leaders barred from entering Crimea.
Following the Second World Congress of the Crimean Tatars, held in Ankara in August 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov. He pledged never to recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Another branch of the Tatar people make up the majority of the population of Tatarstan, which has been at the forefront of the movement for autonomy for republics within the Russian Federation, leading to friction with Moscow, and posing questions over the conditions of Muslim people there.
During the last two decades Ankara has built close economic, educational and cultural ties with Tatarstan. Turkish businesses today account for an important portion of jobs and direct foreign investment there, estimated at $1.5 billion and expected to increase.
When Ankara shot down a Russian plane over the Syrian border in November 2015, Moscow severed ties and instituted economic sanctions against Turkey. The Tatarstan government declined to issue any statement of political solidarity with the Russian government and opposed cutting ties with Ankara.