As Russians Return, Crimean Tatars Fear Repeat Of History

Not everyone in Crimea is happy with recent events. Muslim Tatars, who'd lived there for centuries, were exiled by Stalin and could only return with the fall of Communism. Now, the Russians are back.

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The pro-Russia majority in Crimea may be pleased to see Russian troops in control there. But it's a different story with the regions Muslim Tatar minority. Their bitter history under Russian and Soviet rule has them worried about the new strongly pro-Russian government in Crimea. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Simferopol.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Zair Smedlyaev, a leading member of the Crimean Tatar parliament or Mejlis, watched in stunned disbelief as Sergei Aksyonov was named prime minister of Crimea last week. Smedlyaev knows Aksyonov as a small-time, fringe politician, running a separatist party called Russian Unity, which advocates returning Crimea to Russian control. In short, someone who could never win an actual election for prime minister.

ZAIR SMEDLYAEV: (Through translator) He's the leader of Russian Unity, although in criminal circles, he's known by his nickname, Goblin. In the last elections, three separatist parties formed a coalition: the Russian People's Front, the Russian Block, and Russian Unity. Altogether, they received just over 4 percent of the vote. That is all the support they have from the Russian population here.

KENYON: And yet, Aksyonov now claims the title of prime minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, as well as commander-in-chief of Crimean military and security forces. Tatar see Aksyonov not as commander-in-chief but as a would-be warlord. His ascent from obscurity to political stardom was orchestrated in a bizarre, closed-door parliament session in a building full of heavily armed men. After which, Aksyonov asked Moscow to help defend Crimea against Ukrainian radicals from Kiev.

Crimean Tatars have their own government here for centuries until they were annexed by the Russian empire and then became part of the Soviet Union. For them, the appearance of the Aksyonov government, combined with a sudden and growing Russian military presence evokes memories of their darkest time - the 1944 deportation when those who didn't die wound up in Central Asia or Siberia.

Abdurahmann Egiz, a Tatar parliament member, says since returning to Crimea after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tatars have lived in peace with all other communities here. Now, he says, they're determined not to be used as an excuse for more bloodshed.

ABDURAHMANN EGIZ: We are occupied territory. It is foreign invasion. So we ask our people to be calm and not to go for provocations. We cannot call people to go to streets and to organize meetings in front of political terrorists, you know? These political terrorists, they control government buildings now.

KENYON: Many Tatars find it perplexing to hear Russian leaders speak about threats to the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Every Tatar interviewed for this story spoke Russian and said they have no idea when, if ever, their own Tatar language will enjoy the same rights as Russian.

Despite President Vladimir Putin's recent moves on Crimea, few here believe another mass deportation is being planned. But 71-year-old Asan Sait Asanov, who was 10 months old when his parents bundled him up for more than a half-century of exile in Uzbekistan, says whatever the future holds, nothing will force the Tatars from their homeland again. When asked if the younger generation understands their history, he nods firmly.

ASAN SAIT ASANOV: (Through translator) Absolutely. Kids, teenagers, and adults, all of the people know one thing: We came back to the native land, to the motherland, and their whole life is connected with this land, the land of Crimea.

KENYON: Tatar leaders say Aksyonov's government is making promises now of more money to repatriate Tatars still in exile, of a grand mosque, offers they see as an effort to co-opt them. When the government realizes that won't work, they say, then the real repression will begin. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Simferopol.

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