An extraordinary session of the Crimean Tatars' national assembly voted Saturday to hold a referendum on autonomy after Russia unilaterally annexed the region earlier this month, a move the Tatars consider illegitimate.
"In the life of every nation there comes a time when it must make decisions that determine its future," the chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Refat Chubarov, said before the 250 delegates who had gathered in the former capital of the Crimean Tatar Khanate, Bakhchisaray. "I ask you to approve the start of political and legal procedures aimed at creating ethnic and territorial autonomy for the Crimean Tatars on their historic homeland," Chubarov said.
Crimea's indigenous population, the 300,000-strong Tatar community boycotted the March 16 referendum that saw the region vote for unification with Russia.
Deported en masse in 1944 by Moscow to Central Asia, the Tatars are deeply suspicious of the Kremlin's intentions for the community.
"I never again thought we would see Russian soldiers in our villages again, Crimean Tatar Women's League Chair Safinar Dzhemileva said in an interview with AA. ""If you have a heart and a brain, anyone would be scared. We are all scared. We are scared for our children, the elderly…our homeland. If you want to know what will happen to us, just go to a village somewhere in the middle of Russia to see how ethnic minorities live. Alcoholism, drugs, and unemployment are rampant. Its absolute despair…they are simply slaves."
Dzhemileva's husband, renowned Soviet dissident and current Ukrainian MP Mustafa Dzhemilev, will discuss the plight of the Crimean Tatars with the UN Security Council next week.
In addition to boycotting the Russian-backed referendum, the Tatars fear Moscow will outlaw community councils, including the mejlis and national assembly, as Russian law bans represented bodies outside the legislative and executive branches of government.
The community was also alarmed by comments from Crimea's Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliev, who said certain land plots held by the Crimean Tatars would have to be returned to the state and the inhabitants relocated.
The Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union began to dissolve. Many illegally acquired empty land plots to build new homes. Over the years, their property rights were upheld by Ukraine as ownership was formally transferred to those residing or working on the sites.
"We've been receiving signals from the so-called Vice Premier of the Crimean Parliament about forcing some families to leave. They haven’t given any specifics as to what their comments mean,” Mejlis Vice Chairman Ayder Adzhimambetov said in an interview with AA “The Crimean Tatars have come home. For the last two decades we’ve demanded that the government uphold our constitutional rights. We will not abandon any of our land,” he added.
A date for the upcoming referendum on autonomy has not been set.