Ethnic Tension Over Ukraine Land Disputes
By STEVE GUTTERMAN, Associated Press Writer
VESELE, Ukraine - >From his sparsely furnished house in a valley winding down to the Black Sea, Bekir Abilvapov can almost see his childhood home, but he hasn't set foot in it since he returned to Crimea after a half-century in exile on the steppes of Central Asia.
"They didn't let me in," Abilvapov said of the Slavic family now living in the house he left at age 14 when nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatars were forcibly removed from their homeland.
The old man's grizzled face, with its look of sorrow and anger, reflects this painful history and helps explain the Tatars' volatile relations with the mostly Slavic non-Tatars who are the majority on the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine.
In Vesele, a Slavic man died in January after a beating blamed on Crimean Tatars that gave rise to a bloody brawl involving dozens of people. Each group has its version of the incident, but one thing is certain: it turned remote, placid-looking Vesele — whose name means "happy" in Ukrainian — into a town of wary glances and mutual recriminations.
The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic people who inhabited Crimea for more than seven centuries; historians trace their origins to the invasion by Mongols who seized much of present-day Russia and Ukraine in the 13th century.
In 1944, dictator Josef Stalin accused the Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis and ordered them exiled to the then-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. On May 18 — 60 years ago Tuesday — tens of thousands were packed into trains for an agonizing journey, and nearly 200,000 were deported within three days. Thousands died of hunger and disease during the first weeks of exile.
Abilvapov was among some 265,000 Crimean Tatars who have come to the peninsula in a wave starting about 15 years ago, as the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of collapse. They now make up 13 percent of the population.
With their own homes mostly occupied by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians settled there by the authorities, Tatars were given land — or just took it, squatting in mud huts or tarpaper shacks — and built homes of sand-yellow brick that now dot the peninsula.
The Tatars say that the best land was handed out to non-Tatars, leaving them with rocky, swampy or hard-to-reach plots. They are struggling for more, better land — a process given added urgency by a law, expected to be introduced by 2007, that will allow land sales and grant of plots to individuals around their homes.
Tension has increased as Tatars seek land on Crimea's lush southern coast, meeting fierce resistance from local authorities clinging to control over lucrative real estate in what was the Soviet Union's most desirable vacation destination.
Remzi Ilyasov, vice chairman of the Crimean Tatar leadership body, the Mejlis, claimed 75 percent of Crimean Tatars lived in the south before the deportation. He accused authorities of foot-dragging on ceding land to the Tatars while selling choice property to others — including Russian interests.
Non-Tatars in Crimea, where ethnic Russians are the majority, dispute the historical claim to the land.
One land dispute on the southern coast led to violence twice this spring, and in March several people were injured in ethnic-based clashes in the regional capital Simferopol.
Most Crimeans, Tatar and non-Tatar, say they get along fine and accuse community leaders, officials and politicians of aggravating ethnic differences for personal gain.
"They say, 'You know, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, it will be Kosovo, Chechnya (news - web sites),'" Ilyasov said, referring to two lands in the former Eastern Bloc where wars pitting Orthodox Christian Slavs against Muslims have flared in the past decade.
In Crimea, the post-Soviet revival of both faiths throws religious tension into the volatile mix. Mosques have sprouted in Tatar communities, and some Slavs have formed Cossack detachments — informal policing organs — with ties to Russian Orthodox churches.
Crimean Tatar leaders advocate secular democracy and traditional Islam, and a senior Western diplomat in Ukraine said there seems to be little religious extremism in the community. But there is fear that extremists from outside could foment conflict.
"It just needs an external actor to come and ignite the whole process," said Manoj Basnyat, the U.N. Development Program's deputy resident representative in Ukraine.