Crimea: ethnic melting pot heating up

Ukrainian Parliament members are warning of growing ethnic tension in Crimea. The area in the south of Ukraine is home to Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars.

The peace and serenity of a seaside resort. Picturesque landscapes, multi-ethnic culture, and prices much lower than at any European holiday destinations. This is the Crimea – a peninsula on the Black Sea, off the coast of Ukraine.

Crimea appears to be a holiday paradise, with mild climate, and unique flora and fauna. But it is also an important strategic region. The peninsula has thousands of years of rich history – war history, that is.

This land is soaked with the blood of those who fought for it – from Greeks and Persians, to Italians and Mongols. For 200 years, it was a part of Russia. Now it belongs to Ukraine.

Some two million people call Crimea their home, 15 percent of which are Crimean Tatars – people who claim to be the land’s natives. They are reported to live in peace with the Russian-speaking majority of the region. However, experts now say that the Crimea’s ethnic issues are becoming a PR-weapon in Ukraine.

Political conspiracy?

“Politicians in Kiev try to instigate ethnic conflicts in Crimea – through the media, for example. If we open just about any Ukrainian newspaper – especially those supported by the government – we see that the Crimean issue dominates the news,” says Vladimir Kornilov, a political analyst.

Andrey Senchenko, a member of acting prime-minister Tymoshenko’s party (BYuT), lends support to such a theory. He states he has evidence of high-ranking politicians' plans to spill blood in Crimea.

“I have information that the presidential administration is working on a plan of lighting an ethnic conflict between the pro-Russian population and the Tatars. This would allow the president to proclaim a state of emergency, and cancel the scheduled presidential vote," Senchenko said.

He believes that this would allow president Yushenko, whose popularity has gone down to less than 3%, to stay in power for a little longer.

Leaders of different political movements in the peninsula do acknowledge this scenario would not be too hard to implement.

Tatars as a possible tool

According to Oleg Rodiviliov of the Russian Community of Crimea, “In 1992, the Crimean Tatars assaulted the parliament and prosecutor generals’ office here. They burned three floors of the building, and injured more than a hundred policemen. And I have information that extremist organizations of Tatars are spreading across Crimea nowadays. Organizations with ideas which strongly differ from those of the society.”

“Should any incident happen in the streets of Crimea – even if it is just a drunken brawl – and if people who took part in it belong to pro-Russian and pro-Tatar movements, some political forces use it to incite ethnic hatred,” explains Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatars.

All throughout its history, Crimea has seen a lot of violence, and it still seems to be a barrel of powder which would explode should someone find a burning match. In this case, even a minor provocation could ignite it. However, Mustafa Dzhemilev – leader of the Crimean Tatars – says that they are trying to do everything possible to keep peace.

“We have often been compared with Chechnya, now we are labelled as second Kosovo. But so far, we have managed to avoid any violence. And I can say that the Tatars of Crimea cannot be used as a weapon, or a tool of destruction,” Dzhemilev states.

Merely a PR-move, or a grim forecast? Members of different ethnic groups of Crimea say it is not likely that their land will witness any more bloodshed. But in the on-going power struggle in Ukraine – prior to this year’s presidential vote – nobody can say how far some politicians would go to stay afloat.