Minority Tartars Consider Pragmatic Approach To Crimea Annexation

Tatars were vocal in their opposition to the Russian takeover of Crimea. That's because they remember their history of maltreatment under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Eastern Ukraine remains tense today. There was an exchange of gunfire over the weekend. It was at a checkpoint run by pro-Russian militants. Nobody knows what might happen next.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

But things are fairly settled to the south in Crimea. People are absorbing the new reality - they're under Russian control. That's especially difficult for Crimean Tatars. They're a Muslim minority.

INSKEEP: The Tartars say people from their group are the original inhabitants of the area. Now they don't agree on who should govern them. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The Crimean Tatars are keenly aware that a change in the geopolitical climate can be deadly to minority groups.

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FLINTOFF: The latest change in Crimea has raised tensions that are felt even here, at a morning rehearsal of the Crimean Tatar Folk Ensemble. The dozen or so musicians and singers consider it their mission to preserve and promote a culture that has been on the brink of extinction before. The entire Tatar population of Crimea, more than 200,000 people, were uprooted from their homes during the Second World War and deported to Central Asia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: The Soviet Union under Stalin accused them of collaborating with Nazi Germany, a charge that wasn't officially withdrawn until the 1980s. It wasn't until then that the Tatars were allowed to return home and begin re-establishing themselves.

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FLINTOFF: Some Tatar families are reacting defiantly to the region's sudden change of nationality. They see themselves as former victims of Russia, who were helped by Ukraine.

Susanna Tasheva's family was exiled to Uzbekistan, where she was born. She returned to Crimea around the time that the former Soviet Union was breaking up. She's 56 now, sitting in the sunny living room of a small house that she and her husband built for themselves on farmland outside of Simferopol. She says they started from scratch, almost broke.

SUSANNA TASHEVA: (Through translator) We survived and it's because of Ukraine - not Uzbekistan, not Russia. It's thanks to Ukraine.

FLINTOFF: Tasheva says Crimean Tatar children learned their Ukrainian patriotism with their mothers' milk, and she vows that they will never give up their loyalty to Ukraine.

TASHEVA: (Through Translator) I can say on behalf of my people, whatever they do to us, we'll give our lives, but we will never betray our motherland. And we will never go from this place.

FLINTOFF: Not everyone in the Crimean Tatar community agrees with Tasheva's defiant stance. Some leaders are saying the community can't stand by and let other people decide its fate.

Abduraman Egiz is a member of the Mejlis, the executive body that carries out policy for the Crimean Tatars as a group. He doesn't hide his contempt for the process that led to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

ABDURAMAN EGIZ: We boycotted so-called referendum and the puppet government. But now we are in a de facto situation, and we are trying to co-exist.

FLINTOFF: Egiz says now that annexation is a fact, Crimean Tatars are divided about whether to cooperate with the new government and how far to go.

EGIZ: We cannot allow to become a marginal group here in Crimea. We have to exist. We have to live. And we have to be part of economic life, social life, and to guarantee security of our people.

FLINTOFF: The Kuraltai, the Tatars' parliament, is scheduled to meet next week to debate the issue. As a group that's faced near-extinction, the Tatars' priority will be how to preserve themselves as a distinct culture and people.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Simferopol, Crimea.

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