With the prospect of Crimea’s de-occupation growing, we should ask what happens after that. In dealing with the many challenges in restoring its territorial sovereignty, Ukraine should not forget about the indigenous Crimean Tatars. Prioritizing their right to self-determination might be a way to ensure long-lasting stability in the region.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyi likes repeating the phrase coined by Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars: “It all began in Crimea, and it will end in Crimea.” The peninsula was the first victim of Russia’s aggression in 2014, a precursor to the Donbas war and to the full-scale invasion started in February 2022. For eight years, the brutal Russian annexation was seen as a fait accompli by most actors, including Ukraine’s governments, which avoided bringing up the question of de-occupation. This has radically changed over the past year, as neither the government nor the Ukrainian people are ready to sacrifice their territories anymore.
Yet, as Tamila Tasheva, the permanent representative of the president of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, has noted, de-occupation is only the first step in the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and many more challenges lie ahead. In contrast to the recently de-occupied territories of Kharkiv and Kherson, Crimea has been under occupation for almost a decade and thus requires a comprehensive strategy of reintegration.
There will be many ethical dilemmas facing the government: What to do with the hundreds of thousands of Russians who settled in Crimea after the annexation? How to treat collaborators and those who worked for the occupying state? How to demilitarize and de-Russify the region without resorting to the same methods as the occupier? How to return stolen property and businesses?
The de-occupation of Crimea and the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity is viewed largely as a step in the country’s overall process of decolonization. Yet in this thorny process Ukraine itself needs to be careful not to behave like a colonizer. This can only be avoided if the state prioritizes the indigenous Crimean Tatars in its de-occupation efforts.
The Crimean Tatars, who lived in Crimea long before it was conquered by the Russian empire in 1783, have demanded their right to self-determination since the last century. The Soviet Union, which occupied Crimea in 1920, deprived them of this right, and Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of the whole nation to Central Asia in 1944. Ever since, the survivors have organized politically to demand their right to return to their homeland, which in 1954 became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Returning to Crimea in the early 1990s, they advocated for autonomous status within independent Ukraine. This would have given the Crimean Tatars protection from the racial discrimination they ended up suffering from the ethnic Russian majority, who settled in the peninsula after the deportation and viciously opposed their return.
Constituting only 13 percent of the peninsula’s population, the Crimean Tatars put their hopes on the Ukrainian state as it showed its potential for democratic transformation. Over the next twenty-five years, they voted for pro-Ukraine candidates, learned the Ukrainian language, and participated in the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
But Ukraine’s governments, for the most part, gave the Crimean Tatars the cold shoulder, generally neglecting the region and their problems lest they provoke the pro-Russia population. No work has been done to address the vicious racism toward the Crimean Tatars that was a cause as well as a consequence of the unequal distribution of state resources, sharp economic inequalities, and disregard for basic human rights.
Nonetheless, the Crimean Tatars remained loyal to the Ukrainian state, when Russian troops took over the peninsula in 2014. For their outspoken position against its illegal annexation, they have been labeled Islamists and terrorists by the occupying authorities. A disproportionate number of Crimean Tatars have received sentences of 10–15 years on trumped up charges. Over 20,000 have been forced to relocate to mainland Ukraine, fearing for their safety. What has been witnessed in the country’s regions occupied since February 2022—torture chambers, killing sites, absolute lawlessness—is very similar to what has been happening in Crimea to those who do not support Russia.
Ukraine’s governments have taken some steps to address the demands of the Crimean Tatars, recognizing them as an indigenous people in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, legitimizing their self-government bodies (the Mejlis and the Kurultay), and promoting their language and culture. In 2014, the government recognized the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 as genocidal. A 2021 law “On Indigenous Peoples” enshrines their right to self-determination in Crimea. Two decades in the making, this has been seen largely as a symbolic gesture since it cannot be enforced while the peninsula is under Russian control. It will be Ukraine’s responsibility to ensure these were not mere gestures in the event of de-occupation.
While most Crimean Tatars, from mainland Ukraine and in the occupied peninsula, strongly support the goal of liberation, as shown by their number in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and in the underground resistance, Ukraine should not treat this support as unconditional. Finding a solution to handling the pro-Russia, ethnic Russian, and Russian citizens in a de-occupied peninsula will be incredibly challenging and could eclipse or sideline the Crimean Tatar question. The government should not repeat past mistakes by accommodating the pro-Russia majority there at the expense of the Crimean Tatars. Not only has this approach been deeply problematic from an ethical standpoint; it has also failed miserably to prevent the conflict.
A successful de-occupation and decolonization of Crimea requires subverting a power hierarchy that has always prioritized Russian and pro-Russia people there. The Crimean Tatars should not only have their rights as an indigenous people enforced and guaranteed; they should also be included in decision-making processes, restitution and retribution policies, environmental policies, and other important decisions. Some form of affirmative action will be required to eliminate existing inequalities and to compensate for their disproportionate oppression over the past decade.
The legal right of the Ukrainian state to Crimea should not be an impediment to it facing up to historical guilt of its own. Although Ukraine has never colonized Crimea or the Crimean Tatars, which makes it inappropriate to conceptualize their relationship as colonial, old power relations and injustices are still present. Just as Ukraine will have to rethink its past crimes committed against Poles and Jews, or its current racism and homophobia, so will it have to reckon with its unjust treatment of the Crimean Tatars in the most recent past and during Soviet times. Ukraine will have to acknowledge its partial complicity in preventing the Crimean Tatars from returning to their land after Stalin’s brutal deportation, as well as its most recent neglect and denial of their rights as equals to other residents of Crimea.
This reckonning will undoubtedly require equal effort by Ukraine’s government and society. While it would be strange to expect Ukrainians to think about their own crimes at a time when they are the victims of Russia’s genocide, these discussions are necessary for a more mature postwar democratic development and for purely security concerns in Crimea. Expecting unconditional loyalty from the Crimean Tatars without acknowledging their claims to the peninsula as an indigenous people would repeat past mistakes and lead to further destabilization of the region.
Ukrainians—who in recent years came to appreciate and love Crimean Tatar cuisine, coffee, and music—will have to extend their open-mindedness to the idea that their summer trip to a de-occupied peninsula would not necessarily be a homecoming but rather a guest visit. This attitude is necessary to cultivate mutual respect and boundaries, keep in check one’s entitlement and privilege, and nourish long-term peaceful and amicable relationships. I remain optimistic that the Ukrainian state and society will rise to the challenge, just as they always do.
Mariia Shynkarenko is a research associate with the Ukraine in European Dialogue program at the IWM.