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The following paper was presented by Natalya Belitser at the "Fuzzy Statehood and European Integration in Eastern Europe" conference, University of Birmingham, England, on 10 March 2000. The paper will be updated and revised for publication at a future date. We are grateful to Ms. Belitser for making the text of her paper available on the Web. - Ed.


The Constitutional Process in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea
in the Context of Interethnic Relations and Conflict Settlement

Natalya Belitser
Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy
Kyiv, Ukraine

On 21 October 1998, the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) adopted the Constitution of the ARC which was then approved by the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) of Ukraine on 23 December 1998. It was signed almost immediately by the President of Ukraine, and entered into force on 12 January 1999. The version of the Constitution eventually passed by the Verkhovna Rada was the fifth, this time successful attempt to adopt the Main Law of the ARC. This event seemingly terminated a drawn-out crisis that characterized relations between the Ukrainian central authorities and those of the ARC. But, as will be seen later on, this event neither resolved the power struggle between Kyiv and Simferopol nor did it promote more stability or interethnic accord in the peninsula. As Inci Bowman, the Executive Secretary of the International Committee for Crimea stated in her 20 January 2000, letter to the Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer, "the current political and social conditions in Crimea are not conducive to maintaining a pluralistic and democratic society where the cultural, linguistic, and religious identity of ethnic groups is respected." But the main problem of interethnic relations in Crimea Bowman defines as follows: "The Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains a land where Crimean Tatars, who consider themselves indigenous people, are discriminated against not only by the Slavic population, most of whom settled there within the last 50 years, but by local authorities as well." [1]

A Brief History of the Crimean Separatism

To have a deeper insight into the causes and circumstances of the current Crimean crisis, and the means employed in attempts to resolve it, it is necessary to briefly delve into the history of the post-W.W.II and post-soviet Crimea. In particular, it should be recalled that Crimea had been stripped of its autonomous status on 30 June 1945, by the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, and that in June 1946 the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic passed a law giving the peninsula the status of an ordinary oblast of the RSFSR. Over the following years, this region, which had been degraded and devastated by the forceful deportation of its indigenous population during the W.W.II, turned into a dreadful economic failure that the newly arrived Russian settlers were unable to overcome. Despite the widespread view that in 1954, Crimea was just "presented" to Ukraine by Nikita Khrustchev to commemorate the three hundredth anniversary of Ukraine’s union with Russia[2], this very failure was the main reason why Crimea was moved from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction. It was believed that the situation could be alleviated if the peninsula was administered by that entity with which it had closer economic, geographical, and cultural links.

This decision was issued by the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet and then approved unanimously by a law passed by the USSR SS on 26 April 1954. It is important to stress that throughout the following period until late 80s, when the Crimean peninsula still held a status of an oblast of the Ukr SSR, this status had never proven contentious either within Crimea, Ukraine, or the USSR, or beyond.

During the turbulent perestroika period, Crimea proved to be a stronghold of Communist party diehards for several reasons. These included the composition of its population, which consisted mainly of the post-W.W.II settlers, principally ethnic Russians and so-called Russian-speaking people with generous share of party, military and KGB pensioners. Strong links between the local authorities and central (Moscow) government and nomenklatura, and the military ambitions of the Black Sea Fleet added to the potential separatist tensions. No organized pro-Ukrainian movement was then yet visible, and the only political and social force emerging as an anti-regime opposition were the Crimean Tatars who had just begun large-scale repatriation from exile, mainly from Central Asia. This nation, subjected to genocidal deportation in 1944 under the allegations of collaboration with the Nazis, was the last of the repressed peoples and nationalities of the USSR allowed to return to their homeland, and only in the very late stages of perestroika.

Therefore, political and social unrest relating to the so-called constitutional process in Crimea in fact began with the first recognizable signs of Ukrainian quest for independence. From the very beginning, all claims, declared intentions and actual events accompanying this process were characterized not so much by legal considerations as by some rather highly politicized manipulations and maneuvers by the actors involved. [3]

The story of Crimean separatism in Ukraine could thus be perceived as beginning in September 1990, when the Soviet of People’s Deputies of Crimean oblast called for the rescinding of the decree and corresponding law on the abolition of the Crimean ASSR, and demanded the restoration of autonomy to the peninsula. This claim was supported by the referendum held in Crimea on 20 January 1991, in which 93,3 percent of the participants voted for the restoration of the Crimean ASSR not only as a subject of the USSR, but also as "a party to the Union Treaty," i.e., a sovereign subject of the "renewed" and "reformed" USSR proposed by the first and only Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. After much heated debates and, perhaps, keeping in mind the possible bloody and violent consequences of rejecting demands similar to those made in other parts of the ailing Soviet Union, on 12 February 1991, the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet adopted a law providing autonomous status for Crimea within the borders of Ukraine. That this autonomy would have nothing to do with restoring the pre-war situation, when the then Crimean ASSR could be considered as a de-facto Crimean Tatars’ autonomy, had never been raised at the official level by anybody but the Crimean Tatars themselves.

Following the failed August 1991 coup which precipitated the collapse of the USSR, and resulted in Ukrainian independence, all of the issues relating to Crimea’s legal status, the mass repatriation of Crimean Tatars and other ethnic groups deported from Crimea, and the generally disquieting state of interethnic relations on the peninsula became not only a deep problem for the fledgling independent Ukrainian state, but to a large extent also a significant factor in Ukrainian-Russian interstate relations.

The principal issue fought over by different political forces has been the sovereignty of (or over) Crimea. Three main options were debated. The first one argued for the creation of an independent Crimean Republic. [4] The second option suggested a fully-fledged autonomy within Ukraine (e.g., according to the Constitution of the Crimean Republic of 6 May 1992). The third and most radical scenario was propounded by pro-Russian forces which exerted pressure by threatening Crimean secession from Ukraine and annexation to Russia. [5] The separatist trends seemed rather successful during the first half of 90s. An anti-Ukrainian mood spread among the majority of the Crimean population, while a hesitant and feeble policy meant that the central authorities lagged behind the events, and no comprehensive strategy for solving the whole complex of Crimean problems had been elaborated.

The initial responses to Crimean crisis on the part of the world community revealed its principal preoccupation to be the rights and interests of the Russian majority, because of the obvious fears of a "Balkanization" of the Crimea problem.

As a result of the above mentioned trends, the first versions of the Crimean Constitution heavily exploited the notion of a "Crimean people" as being the subject of the right to self-determination, including the right to determine political future of the territory it occupied (and providing, in such a way, every advantage to the Russian and Russian-speaking majority of residents of the peninsula). The Russian language had to be made dominant, and any attempts - no matter how mild or irresolute - to introduce the state (Ukrainian) language as well as other measures perceived to be aiming at "Ukrainization" of Crimea, were readily resisted "from below." At that time, even those provisions declared as complying with Kyiv’s requirement to bring Crimea’s Constitution and laws in line with those of Ukraine, still defined Crimea as "a law-governed, democratic and secular state... which builds its relations with Ukraine on mutually coordinated acts and agreements." [6]

Hostility to Ukraine reached its peak in 1993 at a time of a hyperinflation and deep economic crisis, that in Ukraine seemed much more severe than in Russia. Manipulating this situation, the Crimean parliament adopted a number of resolutions and laws strengthening its autonomy, including the creation of a Crimean presidency, and scheduled presidential elections for January 1994. At the same time, following acts of civil disobedience organized by the Mejlis of Crimean Tatar people, and its prolonged and complex negotiations with Crimean deputies, the Crimean Supreme Council agreed to grant Crimean Tatars a quota of 14 seats in the republican legislature. This decision also brought advantages to other groups of returnees - the formerly deported Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans and Greeks - who practically without any efforts or struggle on their own behalf were also guaranteed representation in the peninsula’s legislature (one seat for each group). The main drawback of this compromise was that it was adopted for one term only, as a provisional measure to support ethnic groups suffering from the consequences of deportation.

The presidential elections in Crimea did take place on 16 January 1994. As a result of a broad dissatisfaction with Ukraine, the winner was Yuri Meshkov who had based his electoral campaign on a platform of union with Russia. One of his first steps was a decree on a referendum on Crimean independence. Until the end of the year, there was a persistent turmoil between Kyiv and Simferopol. Both the Ukrainian parliament and President Leonid Kravchuk responded to Crimean laws and presidential decrees with counter-resolutions and statements denouncing those steps as contradicting the Ukrainian Constitution. Leonid Kuchma, President Kravchuk’s successor in July 1994, did not come up to expectations of his Crimean electorate, and continued to veto those Crimean laws that violated Ukrainian legislation.

This situation resembled a legal vicious circle. At the same time, the very indecisiveness of the national authorities and their unwillingness to take drastic measures or use military force to curb separatist passions in Crimea meant that violent clashes were avoided and the necessary time for finding more acceptable solutions was gained. Thus, engagement in numerous negotiations between central and Crimean authorities over the status of Crimea and the separation of powers between Kyiv and Simferopol obviously helped both sides to refrain from open violence and to pacify their most aggressive elements who were demanding prompt and decisive measures to end the crisis. Meanwhile, Meshkov’s popularity had been rapidly declining as a result of his inability either to improve the economic situation or to involve Russia decisively in support of the secessionist movement. The power struggle between the executive and legislative branches in Crimea loosened Meshkov’s grip further still. Moreover, with the start of the Russian military operation in Chechnia in December 1994, pro-Russian sentiments among the Crimean population clearly diminished. Ordinary people grew much more cautious and restrained in their rhetoric, perhaps because that time, they were able to appreciate possibly the greatest advantage of Ukrainian citizenship: not being sent to fight in someone else’s land, with a big chance to be killed or become a killer.

These changes in the Crimean political environment were felt in March 1995 when the Verhovna Rada suddenly took decisive steps to integrate the ARC into the legal space of Ukraine. The Law of Ukraine on the Status of Crimea, adopted on 17 March 1995, abolished not only the Crimean Constitution of 1992 and all laws and decrees contradicting those of Ukraine, but also the very office of Crimean Presidency. The much feared mass protests in Crimea failed to occur, and the reaction from Moscow was relatively mild. The steps taken by Kyiv to draw Crimea and the City of Sevastopol closer into the Ukrainian legal space rebounded negatively on the negotiation of the Russia-Ukraine basic treaty, since some factions of the Russian State Duma refused to sign it until more concessions, particularly over the status of Sevastopol - "a city of Russian glory" - were made. [7] But this obstacle was removed in 1997, when this treaty was ratified by both sides, together with the agreement on the division of the Black Sea fleet and its bases.

Though these events represented a rare example of a peaceful curbing of rebellious separatism in a post-Soviet state, the principal achievement of the Crimean Tatars and the other formerly deported ethnic groups - namely, their guaranteed representation in the republican legislature - was lost together with all of the other legal points that were not to be found in Ukrainian national legislation.

This loss occurred despite the fact that a growing proportion of Crimean Tatar returnees added a new element to the Ukrainian-Russian struggle over Crimea by actually supporting Ukrainian state integrity, and thereby becoming a factor that all the conflicting sides, as well as international bodies and organizations, were compelled to reckon with.

The claims of the Crimean Tatars in the documents adopted at the sessions of Kurultayi (National Assembly) or between the sessions, by the Mejlis (the main representative body of the Crimean Tatar people elected by the Kurultayi), underwent a certain transformation in the period following the first session of the Second Kurultayi in June 1991. [8] Although the Declaration on the National Sovereignty of the Crimean Tatar People, adopted in June 1991, is still being used by some politicians as a tool of anti-Crimean Tatar propaganda, it is crucial to remember that all of this occurred when the Soviet Union still existed. After its collapse, the Crimean Tatars’ political elite demonstrated a rare political wisdom and pragmatism by never supporting any claims threatening the integrity of Ukraine or the inviolability of its borders, and by looking for legal ways to establish their right for internal national self-determination within Ukraine. These circumstances also explain the strong Crimean Tatar drive to get an official status as an indigenous people rather than one of the national minorities of Ukraine. This claim has been based on international documents such as the ILO Convention N 169, and the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which is still under consideration by the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations and has not yet been presented to the General Assembly). The Crimean Tatars believe that gaining indigenous people status, together with Ukraine’s joining the ILO Convention N 169, would assist them in their quest to secure, for example, a guaranteed proportional representation, at least commensurate with their population, in legislative and executive bodies at all levels, the official recognition of the Mejlis as the main representative body of Crimean Tatar people, and the genuine protection of their cultural, educational, linguistic, and religious traditions. [9]

Meanwhile, new versions of the Crimean Constitution had been prepared, but none of them regarded the need to re-establish the rights of the indigenous population of Crimea as an issue. The only concession, for instance, in the version adopted by the Crimean parliament on 21 September 1995, recognized the co-existence on the territory of the Crimean Republic of three state languages: Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean Tatar (though only Russian was identified as an "official" language to be used in offices). The same provisions were carried over into the next draft of 1 November 1995. These versions of the Crimean Constitution were then widely discussed between the working groups of the VR of the ARC and the VR of Ukraine created to reconcile the positions of the two sides. By the end of 1997, agreement was reached over the vast majority of the articles (only 22 articles of the overall 136 remained disputed). However, some key questions were still unresolved; among them Crimean internal citizenship, as well as references to "Crimean people" and "Crimean statehood" in several draft articles.

It should be noted that at this stage, when the worst of the Crimean secessionist crisis of early 1990s had passed, and the immediate danger of violent clashes had been avoided, some international organizations and experts became more actively involved in the Kyiv-Simferopol negotiations and legal disputes. For example, OSCE offices were opened both in Kyiv and Simferopol at the end of 1994, although the results of their efforts to settle the Crimean crisis were not always regarded as successful. In fact, a speech on 31 May 1995, to Crimean deputies by the Swiss diplomat, Andreas Kohlschutter (the then head of the OSCE mission to Ukraine), provided full support for only one, i.e. the Crimean, side of the conflict and charged "powerful radical forces in the Ukrainian parliament" with vicious intentions to "punish and discipline the Crimea, and to destroy Crimean autonomy." [10] This intervention evoked many protests within Ukraine and was given sharply negative appraisal by some prominent independent international experts. [11] More fruitful turned out to be the activities of the OSCE Office of High Commissioner on National Minorities established in 1993. Its head, Max van der Stoel, has focused much personal attention to Crimean issues, particularly to the problems of repatriation and resettlement of Crimean Tatars, citizenship, and, also, to some provisions of the draft Crimean Constitution.

Thus, for example, when the draft Constitution of 21 September 1995 that proposed Crimean citizenship was considered, he correctly recommended that there is no need to stipulate it in addition to Ukrainian citizenship. [12] High Commissioner also commented on the delineation of powers between the Ukrainian national authorities and those of the Republic of Crimea as laid down in the law of Ukraine of 30 June 1992, [13] the division of property in Crimea, and a special status for Sevastopol. Recommendations were also given that the resettlement of the Crimean Tatars should be decided in collaboration with their representatives appointed by Mejlis and, most important, "to continue the present quota system (for Crimean Tatars) as long as the present electoral law of Crimea remains in effect... A continuation of the quota system would not be justified if an electoral system will come into being which would give them a near certainty of having a representation broadly commensurate to their percentage of the total population of Crimea." [14] Similar recommendations concerning, inter alia, Mejlis participation in the nomination of candidates for elected bodies and a proportional representation of Crimean Tatars in the ARC parliament, were also made in subsequent letters dated 19 March and 5 April 1996. [15]

It should be noted that at that time Ukrainian governmental officials objected to any special measures singling out Crimean Tatars from among the other returnees, and intended to solve the whole complex of repatriation problems on the basis of the criterion that they all belonged to the category of formerly deported people rather than to a specific ethnic group. For example, Hennady Udovenko, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, in his letter to Max van der Stoel expressed his belief that adopting such a course "may create an undesirable precedent in the aspect of development of the constitutional system in Ukraine." [16]

Thus, Crimean Tatars who by that time had developed a strong sense of self-identification as a coherent people or nation were equated with all other returnees to Crimea, belonging to ethnicities (namely, Armenians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Germans) that already had their own firmly established kinstates. The same status - of them being just one of among many national minorities of Ukraine - was earlier stipulated for the Crimean Tatars by the Ukrainian law on national minorities adopted on 25 July 1992. All claims, draft proposals for the Crimean Constitutions suggested by Mejlis and later, by the Kurultayi faction of the Crimean parliament, and statements and resolutions of the Mejlis and the Kurultayi were neglected. [17]

This awkward situation subsequently changed somewhat, especially after the new Constitution of Ukraine was adopted by the Verkhovna Rada on 28 June, 1996. For the first time, the term "indigenous peoples" has been introduced into Ukrainian legal terminology. Thus, Article 11 stipulates that "The State shall facilitate the consolidation and development of the... ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious attributes of all indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine." According to Article 92 p.3, the rights of indigenous peoples and national minorities are to be determined by Ukrainian law, whereas Article 119 p.3 reads that programs of national-cultural development of indigenous peoples and national minorities in areas of their compact residence must be supported by local state administrations. [18]

At the same time, the entire chapter of the Main Law of Ukraine dealing with the ARC bears no mention of indigenous peoples or any kind of specific provisions to protect their rights and/or ensure their sustainable development, referring only (among the prerogatives of the ARC) to "participating in the development and realization of state programs for the return of deported peoples" (Article 138, p.9). Accommodating the concept of Crimean autonomy into the principles defining the state structure of Ukraine is also rather strange because Article 132 says that the territorial structure of Ukraine is based on the principles of the unity and integrity of the State’s territory, whereas Article 133 declares that "the administrative and territorial structure of Ukraine consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, provinces (oblasts), regions, cities, settlements, and villages." The Ukrainian Constitution also states that "The Autonomous Republic of Crimea is an inseparable constituent part of Ukraine and decides on the issues within its competence within the limits of authority determined by the Constitution of Ukraine" (Article 134). Article 135 in fact confirmed that the ARC has its own Constitution, adopted by the Verkhovna Rada of the ARC and approved by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine by no less than one-half of its constitutional composition.

Following the adoption of the Ukrainian Constitution and decrees of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, a joint working group was formed by the Ministry of Justice and the VR’s Committee on Human Rights, National Minorities and Interethnic Rrelations, with the participation of the Law and Politics department of the Mejlis. Its aim was to draft legislation dealing with the indigenous peoples of Ukraine. In 1996-1997, a draft Concept of National Policy of Ukraine Relating to Indigenous Peoples, as well as a draft Law on the Status of Crimean Tatar People were developed and subjected to international review. Some positive responses were received, and even Mr. Max van der Stoel who, quite understandably, would still prefer to solve the Crimean Tatars’ problems within the framework of the rights of national minorities, admitted that "When referring to international and Ukrainian legal instruments regarding national minorities which are applicable to indigenous peoples, I do not intend to suggest that no distinction can be made between national minorities and indigenous peoples. An important difference is, in my view, that in contrast to a national minority, an indigenous people does not have a kinstate." [19] This passage can be regarded as granting implicit support for Crimean Tatars’ claim concerning the uniqueness of their situation. Unfortunately, neither draft prepared by the working group has yet been accepted by the VR of Ukraine for further consideration, and the high expectations raised by these developments seem to be gradually petering out.

And indeed, the worst predictions of the Crimean Tatars came true. Despite all their protests, appeals and statements, in February 1998 the heated debates over the electoral system in the Crimea and the functioning of its legislature concluded in two laws adopted by the Verkhovna Rada and signed by the President. One of them, "On the Elections to the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea," stipulated that the Crimean Parliament, unlike the Parliament of Ukraine, [20] would be elected under a purely majority system. The second law, "On the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea," stated that all the 100 deputies are elected on the basis of universal, equal, and direct suffrage (without any mention of the national electoral districts, or quotas for either the Crimean Tatars, or other formerly deported groups, or national minorities). Since the Crimean Tatars constituted a minority, though sometimes a substantial one, in all of the electoral districts, this decision practically stripped them of any chance to be represented in the Crimean legislature. Besides, their opportunities to vote, or run in the elections, were also sharply reduced because at that time (29 March, 1998), approximately 90000 Crimean Tatars had still to acquire Ukrainian citizenship. [21]

As has been anticipated, today approximately 270 000 Crimean Tatars, - an indigenous people of Crimea comprising approximately 12 percent of the peninsula’s population - have not a single seat in the Crimean legislature. The Communist, Lentul Bezaziyev, the only ethnic Crimean Tatar elected due to the overwhelming support of his party, can by no means be regarded as representing or acting on behalf of the Crimean Tatar community. [22] At the same time, the two leaders of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, - the Chairman, Mustafa Djemilev, and his First Deputy, Refat Chubarov - were elected to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (Mustafa Djemilev - on the Rukh ticket, and Refat Chubarov in a single mandate district under the majoritarian system). Although it was an important achievement that for the first time provided the Crimean Tatars with the possibility of continuing their struggle for the full restoration of their rights at the level of the national legislature, it was of little help in resolving the numerous accumulated problems at the local level.

The Adoption of the Crimean Constitution

Following the 1998 elections, the situation deteriorated even further, especially after Leonid Hrach, the leader of the Crimean Communists, became the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of the ARC. A skillful and experienced politician, Hrach accomplished what his predecessors had failed to achieve. Under his personal guidance, the fifth version of the Crimean Constitution was prepared (without the participation of the Crimean Tatars) in such a way that after eight days after the failed attempt of 15 December 1998, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine approved the Main Law of the ARC. This occurred under the heavy prompting of the left-wing Speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko and other Left deputies who did not take into consideration the valid arguments of the deputies from the right-centre factions. The latter argued that though the most unacceptable notions like Crimean citizenship, Crimean statehood etc. had been eliminated, a number of articles still conflicted with the Ukrainian Constitution, also that the draft Constitution of the ARC did not take into account the specificity of the legal status of the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of the autonomy, in particular, did not provide them with guaranteed representation in the republican legislature. [23] There is also considerable evidence that parliamentary procedure was seriously violated. For example, a "fatal" step was taken during the discussion by Rukh deputy Ivan Zayets, who proposed an amendment that in the case of a collision between the provisions of the Crimean and national Constitutions, the latter takes precedence. The inclusion of this amendment (that Zayets later explained was more a question addressed to the chairman of the Crimean parliament) added some votes in favour even though the Ukrainian deputies had no right to introduce any changes into the text of the Constitution adopted by the Verkhovna Rada of the ARC, being able only to approve or disapprove it as a whole. [24]

These legal and political uncertainties urged a number of Ukrainian deputies to apply to the Constitutional Court of Ukraine for a decision on whether the adopted Crimean Constitution complies with national legislation. The submission, signed by 50 M.P.s, had been accepted by the Court but its consideration was delayed initially by the forthcoming presidential elections and then under the pretext that more urgent issues were still unresolved. Today, it is still a pending case, and no date has been fixed for the review.

As regards the reaction of the Crimean ethnos to the final version of the Crimean Constitution, only two of them, namely, the Russians and the Crimean Tatars, expressed a clear-cut position. The former, represented by the Russian Community of the Crimea and the regional branch of the Slavic party, protested against it on the grounds that a "betrayal of Russians in Crimea" had occurred (referring in particular to Article 10, p.1 which stipulated that in parallel with the State (Ukrainian) language, the functioning, development, usage and protection of the Russian, Crimean Tatar, as well as the mother tongues of other nationalities, shall be protected in Crimea). On 23 October 1998, the Russian State Duma also issued an angry Statement "On the Affirmation by the Constitution of the ARC of the Ukrainian as the Only State Language on the Territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea." Although in point 2 of the same Article 10 it was indicated that only Russian - as the language of the majority and that of the interethnic communication - can be used in all spheres of public life. Therefore, it can be easily seen that by merely mentioning the State language to be recognized as such in Crimea a certain, if only declarative, concession had thus been made to Kyiv. At the same time, nothing actually prevented Russian speakers from continuing to use their language, whereas the Crimean Tatar language was indeed relegated to the status of that of any other nationality in Crimea.

No wonder, then, that there was a sharp, almost immediate reaction to this and other provisions (neither of which contained any special measures for restoring and securing the rights of the indigenous people of Crimea) of the draft Constitution adopted by the Crimean VR on 21 October 1998. This issue was a major topic of the regional conference of the delegates to the Third Kurultayi, convened on 21 November 1998. The delegates appealed to the Ukrainian Parliament and President not to consider the Draft Constitution of the ARC until special laws and regulations on Crimean Tatar issues were adopted. [25] In his report to the conference, the Chairman Mustafa Djemilev emphasized that the Constitution provided Leonid Hrach with almost unrestricted powers, and aimed at turning the Crimean Tatars’ historic homeland into a Russian stronghold on the territory of Ukraine. According to the Crimean Tatars’ leadership, the adoption of this version of the Constitution would not promote interethnic tolerance and mutual understanding among the peninsula’s population. These concerns were repeatedly expressed by Refat Chubarov, Nadir Bekirov and other leaders of the Crimean Tatars. Moreover, recalling the last round of negotiations between Hrach and Ukrainian deputies preceding the final vote, Refat Chubarov stressed that "Hrach was ready to meet many demands and give his consent for changing a number of articles - except those proposals concerning the Crimean Tatars." [26]

Post-Adoption Events and Developments

The negative impact of the adopted Crimean Constitution for the Crimean Tatar community, as well as the general deterioration of the interethnic situation in the peninsula, soon became evident. As Bruce Pannier commented, "The adoption of the new Constitution seems to have sparked a new round of violence against Tatars." [27] During the night of 15 January 1999, the building of the Mejlis was attacked, and the office of its Chairman burned and completely destroyed. Prior to the attack, water and telephone services to the building had been cut, thus providing some evidence that the crime was premeditated. Throughout 1999, several mosques were burned. Also, graveyards, and a monument in Simferopol dedicated to the deportation were vandalized. Anti-Crimean Tatar (and more generally, anti-Muslim) propaganda has been resumed in the Crimean print and electronic media, being especially fanned by the events in Kosovo and, later, by the second Chechen war. These negative trends still seem to persist and the events of 11 January 2000, may serve as evidence.

That day, three plain-clothes militia officers entered the Mejlis office and tried to confiscate the documents of the "Krym" Foundation located in the same building, the latter being accused of misappropriating public funds allocated for housing construction. 17 officers of the "Berkut" special militia unit then surrounded the building, and they left only after the intervention of Mustafa Djemilev. The whole incident lasted only 15 minutes. The next day, Gennadiy Moskal, the Chief of the Crimean militia forces, came to the Mejlis with apologies, admitted that his officers acted illegally and promised to conduct an investigation. Nevertheless, this event certainly added to the rising confrontation and while being vigorously discussed on the Internet, was once even referred to as a "Stalinist type" action. [28]

As regards the recent interethnic situation in Crimea and its coverage by the national and international media, it should be noted that there is a significant difference, not always recognized from the outside, in the attitude to the problems of the Crimean Tatars by Russians and Ukrainians, and in Crimea particularly. The latter, in general, express much more sympathy with the plight of this long-suffering people and share something of a sense of "common fate; " that both the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar peoples have been victimized by the Russian and then the Soviet Empire.

Ukrainian NGOs and the local branches of national-democratic parties support the demands of the Crimean Tatar. Close links have been established between some Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian NGOs for furthering effective collaboration. [29] As a result of the growing attention paid by the Ukrainian community of Crimea to Crimean Tatar problems, in 1998, an Ukrainian language Quarterly Bulletin "Crimean Tatar Issues" was established by the Crimean Independent Centre of Political Researchers and Journalists. It covers all of the most important events concerning the Crimean Tatars, publishes research studies, and translates into Ukrainian the documents issued by the Mejlis and Kurultayi. Regrettably, most of the pro-Ukrainian "shoots" of civil society in Crimea are still too weak to influence the political decision making process, or to influence events more favourably for the Crimean Tatars. It should be admitted that Crimean Tatar NGOs are actually more advanced than their local Ukrainian counterparts, and often play a leading role in many joint initiatives.

In the context of Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar relations, it is especially interesting to note the mutual support of the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities on such a sensitive issue as linguistic rights and their implementation in the Crimea. Ukrainian public figures living in Crimea express, inter alia, their belief that the Crimean Tatar language should to be learned not only by Crimean Tatar pupils, but also by Ukrainian children. [30]Among the Russian majority of Crimea such understanding is rare, although there are striking exceptions such as Vladimir Polyakov, the principal of a secondary school who introduced, on his own initiative, courses in both Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar in his Russian-language school. [31] On the other hand, Crimean Tatars for whom studying Ukrainian is much more difficult than it is for the Crimean Russians, generally express more positive attitude towards using Ukrainian. Moreover, one of the few local Ukrainian newspapers "Dumka" was initiated in 1999 in Bakhchesaray by the "Ukrainian House" NGO with a huge support from, and in close collaboration with the Bakhchesaray Regional Mejlis.

It would therefore be a mistake to generalize a notion of hostile behaviour on the part of the entire "Slavic population" of the peninsula as has been done, for example, by the CoE Rapporteur Lord Ponsonby, who stated that: "The local Slavic population displays a regrettable degree of xenophobia vis-a-vis returnees and at best, is disinterested in their plight." [32]

But it is important to be aware that despite the rather high level of understanding and support achieved by the Crimean Tatar political elite and NGOs in their relations with national democratic forces, all the developments following the adoption of the Crimean Constitution upset the precarious interethnic accord in the peninsula and resulted in the further disillusionment of the Crimean Tatars and their growing dissatisfaction with the positions and actions of not only the local, but also the national authorities. [33] Accordingly, the scale of their protests has been increasing. This was clearly revealed by the protest march preceding the meeting of 18 May 1999, commemorating the 55th anniversary of the deportation. In an attempt to improve the situation, on 18 May 1999, the President of Ukraine signed the Decree "On the Council of Representatives of the Crimean Tatar People," which, in compliance with Article 106, p. 28 of the Ukrainian Constitution, de facto legalized the Mejlis as a consultative-advisory body under the President. [34] But even this delayed compromise has failed to be fully implemented: the Council is still not functioning because of the incompatibilities between the two sides over, in particular, a number of draft regulations determining the mechanisms of the Council’s interaction with the Office of the President and other authorities.

Apart from the disquieting events relating to the interethnic situation in Crimea, the consequences of the adopted Constitution have by no means had a positive impact on the general stability in the peninsula. The enormous powers gained by Chairman Hrach, particularly control over the appointment of local officials, soon led to a crisis in relations between the peninsula’s legislature and government. The latter, headed by the pragmatic Sergiyi Kunitsyn, managed, for the first time in the history of the ARC, to achieve some positive economic changes. [35] On 16 December 1999, Mr. Kunitsyn appeared to have gained an upper hand by persuading the majority of Crimean deputies to vote for the dismissal of the VR’s Presidium that consisted wholly of Hrach’s stalwarts. [36] This has not yet occurred. And the power struggle, so typical for the ARC, continues in an even more acute form than before. Both sides are trying to get support from their respective lobbying groups in Kyiv and appeal to the President who, in turn, prefers not to take any decisive steps, trying to demonstrate instead his impartiality. The high degree of economic independence gained by the ARC at the expense of disavowing any overt pretensions over political independence, resulted also in increasing disputes between the central and Crimean authorities over, for example, such issues as the fate of all taxes collected on the territory of Crimea, and of the value-added tax in particular.

The turbulent national events of 1999-2000, and especially the continuing confrontation between the executive and legislative branches, and between the pro-presidential majority and the left minority within the parliament itself at the beginning of this year, further delayed the long-awaited parliamentary hearings on the "Legal Solutions to the Problems of the Crimean Tatar People." Preparations for these hearings actually began in mid-1999. [37] The hearings were initially scheduled for September 1999. They were then rescheduled for December and again for the beginning of 2000. Regrettably, considering the current overall political situation, neither the parliamentary Committees nor any of the other interested parties seem ready to organize hearings within the foreseeable future.

Therefore, a great opportunity to implement timely a relatively "mild" solution to the problems of the Crimean Tatars through passage of a law granting them the special status of an indigenous people has been lost. As a result, the demands of the Crimean Tatars have changed to the more radical claim of converting the ARC into a national Crimean Tatar autonomy within Ukraine. This demand, until recently propounded only by more radical members of the Crimean Tatar community, is now shared by the vast majority of its political elite, as was confirmed by the last session of the Kurultayi held between 31 October - 2 November 1999. At the same time this claim is today perceived as not excessively extreme by at least some Ukrainian deputies and public figures. Several M.P.s of the Rukh and the Reforms-Centre factions, having visited the Kurultayi as invited guests, expressed their unconditional support for such a solution, and even some former presidential candidates indicated publicly that they would like the see a future Crimea as a Crimean Tatar Autonomy. This issue is surfacing with an increasing frequency at roundtables and NGOs’ meetings examining interethnic relations in Ukraine, and the discussion occurs quite calmly without eliciting any "shock" or openly adverse reaction. These very facts may reflect a growing - albeit slow and painful - acceptance by Ukrainian society of such a prospect. Only a few years ago, this would have been looked upon as a kind of "heresy," a subject not even worthy of serious discussion.


Proceeding from the above account, it is possible to reach the conclusion that from the very beginning, the principal aim of the entire constitutional process in Crimea was not so much to find a proper legal solution that would take into consideration all of the historic, ethnic, and cultural specifics of this region and integrate them into the general texture of Ukrainian political and economic life, but rather to appease the pro-Russian majority there, to pacify its pronounced secessionist trends, and by doing so, to avoid more violent scenarios. As a result, the Crimean peninsula has been turned into something akin to a Russian national autonomy within Ukraine - a fact never officially recognized by the state authorities, but gradually becoming a matter of public debate.

The main problem of interethnic relations in Crimea and, actually, in Ukraine as a whole, remains that of the Crimean Tatars.  The Crimean Tatar community represents the most organized, easily mobilized political force in the ARC, and a further delay in the adoption of legislative and normative acts for securing the full restoration of their rights is fraught with the danger of a more radicalized movement. This would result almost inevitably in a serious ethno-political conflict which might develop into a crisis more severe than ever before. In this respect, the eventual adoption of the Constitution of the ARC in December 1998 aggravated the situation instead of promoting its amelioration.

Having come through so many ordeals in their recent history, the Crimean Tatars have developed a strong sense of self-identification as a coherent nation with distinct ethno-cultural and religious traditions to be restored, secured and bequeathed to the next generations. Their claim to self-determination should properly be understood and acknowledged as stemming mainly from an acute (and to a certain extent quite justifiable) fear of losing this identity, if simply through a gradual and apparently "natural" assimilation into the Slavic majority of the peninsula. To relieve the resulting tensions, the self-identity of the Crimean Tatars must be fully recognized, fully respected and meet with a favourable response from both the national authorities and society as a whole.

It seems impossible to find successful solutions to the problems of the Crimean Tatars by continuing to regard them as just one of the national minorities of Ukraine, or on the basis of the observance of individual human rights alone. The collective rights of the Crimean Tatar people should be protected by means of a full development of those articles of the Ukrainian Constitution recognizing the existence of indigenous peoples on its territory, and in the spirit of international law dealing with this category of peoples. Otherwise, even more serious measures will be required, such as the adoption of particular models designed for small nations having no nation state of their own (such as, the autonomous territorial units of Basques and Catalans in Spain).

In contrast to the Crimean Tatars, the Russian diaspora in Crimea, especially (and this must be stressed) when not provoked from the outside, has a much lower potential for mass mobilization and large-scale protests, and, in reality, has no justified grounds for doing so. The problems of national minorities in Crimea, including those belonging to the formerly deported groups lack, as a rule, a political dimension as an obligatory component for expressing their demands and therefore could be settled in parallel with an improvement in the general socio-economic situation in Ukraine.

It appears that the international community, and especially the bureaucracies of some of the international intergovernmental organizations, is often far from understanding the plight of the Crimean Tatars beyond their socio-economic conditions (even though these are indeed terrible). The political demands of the Crimean Tatars are therefore perceived sometimes as a manifestation of political extremism. It is highly desirable that a deeper insight into the problem is achieved and that concerted actions aimed at preventing one more ethno-political conflict in Europe, are undertaken. As a concrete step towards such a strategy, the Ukrainian government - the only post-Soviet government with an active state program for repatriating and integrating the Crimean Tatars and other returnees to Crimea - should be encouraged and supported and not only through badly needed financial and economic assistance. It seems equally important to urge national decision makers to develop a legal system that would be able to provide reliable and genuine protection for minority rights with perhaps a special emphasis on the political rights of the indigenous Crimean Tatar people.

20 February 2000


End Notes

[1] See also RFL/RL Watchlist, v. 2, N 2, 13 January 2000; v. 2, N 4, 27 January 2000.

[2] See, for example, "Minority Rights in the Former Soviet Union" by Tim Potier, in: Law Journal, Special Issue, September 1999, p. 63.

[3] Some aspects of the Crimean crisis, and chronology of events till April 1995 are covered by: "Crimea: Dynamics, Challenges, and Prospects," edited by Maria Drohobycky, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1995, 250 pp. For an analysis of the Crimean Tatars’ movements and positions during the events of early and middle 90-s, see "Politics in and around Crimea: A Difficult Homecoming" by Andrew Wilson, in: The Tatars of Crimea: Return to the Homeland, Edward A. Allworth, ed., Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 281-322. The most updated information on the issue can be found in: The Repatriation of the Crimean Tatars: A Chronicle of Events by Julia Tystchenko & Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, published (in Ukrainian) by the UICPS, Kyiv, 1999, 343 pp..

[4] The name Crimean ASSR was changed to Crimean Republic by the Crimean Supreme Council in February 1992, whereas on 5 May, 1992, its independence was declared subject to an all-Crimean referendum to be held that August.

[5] They referenced the arguments made repeatedly by the Russian Parliament and Ministry for Foreign Affairs that the act of the 1954 transfer had been "illegal."

[6] See, for example, the version of Crimean Constitution adopted by the Crimean Supreme Council on 24 September 1992.

[7] For more details, see "Crimea and Sevastopol" in: Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry by Anatol Lieven, United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999, pp. 105-133.

[8] This first meeting of elected delegates was named the Second Kurultayi to emphasize the continuity of the democratic tradition of the Crimean Tatar system of self-government. In 20th century, the first and only Kurultayi, which proclaimed the restoration of Crimean Tatar statehood, was held in November 1917. This attempt was brutally suppressed by the Soviets who used the Red Army against the Crimean Tatars.

[9] The texts of the most important documents issued by the sessions and conferences of the Kurultayi can be found in a Russian language publication by the Mejlis of October 1999: "The Documents of the Kurultayi of the Crimean Tatar People, 1991-1998."

[10] See "Conflicting Loyalties in the Crimea" by Natalia Belitser & Oleg Bodruk, in: Conflicting Loyalties and the State in Post-Soviet Russia and Eurasia, M.Waller, B.Coppieters, A.MaLashenko, eds., 1998, p.65.

[11] See, for example, "An OSCE Diplomat Bungles Diplomacy in Crimea" by Adrian Karatnytsky, Wall Street Journal Europe, 7 June 1995.

[12] OSCE REF.HC/10/95, 15 November 1995.

[13] This law granted Crimea greater autonomy, but it would come into effect only after Crimea’s Constitution and laws were brought into harmony with those of Ukraine, and the independence referendum was cancelled.

[14] OSCE REF.HC/10/95, 15 November 1995.

[15] See Ref.HC/7/96, Ref.500/R/L.

[16] See OSCE REF.HC/10/95.

[17] For more details, see: "Politics in and around Crimea: A Difficult Homecoming" by Andrew Wilson, in: The Tatars of Crimea: Return to the Homeland, Edward A. Allworth, ed., Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 289-291, and The Repatriation of the Crimean Tatars: A Chronicle of Events by Julia Tystchenko & Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, Kyiv, 1999, pp. 57-145.

[18] The English translation of the term "indigenous peoples" instead of "people" or "populations" fully complies here with its intended meaning in Ukrainian. The appearance of this term within the text of the Constitution reflected a compromise between different political views, following efforts to explicitly designate the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of Ukraine failed because of the stubborn resistance of the parliamentary left-wing deputies. The latter strongly opposed the introducing the very notion of "indigenous peoples" in addition to "titular ethnos" and "national minorities."

[19] OSCE Ref.HC/4/97.

[20] At the national level the electoral system is mixed; half of the deputies are to be elected under a majority system, the remainder under a proportional system.

[21] The new law on Ukrainian citizenship, which entered into force on 20 May, 1997, provided a simplified procedure for gaining Ukrainian citizenship by affiliation for those persons and their first- and second-degree descendants, who were forcibly displaced from Ukraine by the Soviets. But there was simply not enough time for tens of thousand of Crimean Tatars to make use of this opportunity. Besides, a serious obstacle remained in the shape of the requirement that any other citizenship should be relinquished. That was practically impossible in the case, for example, of the Crimean Tatar returnees from Uzbekistan. The process of gaining Ukrainian citizenship received an impetus only following an intergovernmental agreement for simplifying the procedure for the renunciation of Uzbek citizenship by the formerly deported people of Crimea, concluded at the initiative of the Ukrainian government after prolonged and complex negotiations. The outstanding role played by the UNHCR Offices in Kyiv and Simferopol in bringing these negotiations to a success conclusion, and in promoting amendments to the previous Law on Ukrainian citizenship, as well as in implementing the legal provisions and regulations to benefit both the de facto stateless returnees and those who were wishing to exchange Uzbek citizenship for Ukrainian, has been greatly appreciated.

[22] For more details characterizing the turbulent events surrounding the 1998 Crimean parliamentary elections, see The Repatriation of the Crimean Tatars: A Chronicle of Events by Julia Tystchenko & Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, Kyiv, 1999, pp. 204-215.

[23] See, for example, the Conclusion on the draft Constitution of the ARC issued by the Rukh faction of the VR on 15 December 1998, and Rukh’s statement dated 24 December, 1998. A detailed analysis of the fourth and fifth versions of the Constitution of Crimea was prepared by the Institute of Politics, see "The Political Calendar," Supplement 1, Kyiv, December 1998, pp. 3-121.

[24] A detailed description of this dramatic stage of the constitutional process is given in: "The Repatriation of the Crimean Tatars: A Chronicle of Events" by Julia Tystchenko & Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, Kyiv, 1999, pp. 238-247.

[25] See "The Documents of the Kurultayi of the Crimean Tatar People, 1991-1998," pp. 117-125.

[26] For responses to the adoption of the Constitution of the ARC see "Avdet," N 21, 24 November 1998, N 22, 8 December 1998, N 1, 20 January 1999; "Today," 24 November 1998; "Voice of Ukraine," 11 December 1998; "Ukraine and the World," 15-21 January 1999, and many other publications by the national and Crimean newspapers and magazines. See also The Repatriation of the Crimean Tatars: A Chronicle of Events by Julia Tystchenko & Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, Kyiv, 1999, pp. 254-267.

[27] "Ukraine: Crimean Tatars Begin Protest March" by Bruce Pannier, RFE/RL, 6 May 1999.

[28] See, for example, the contributions to the, and, and also the information distributed by the MINELRES and the CRIMEA-L: A Discussion List on Crimea and Crimean Tatars. It should be added, however, that the incorrect information presented by the RFE/RL Watchlist of 13 January 2000 - that about 200 militia officers surrounded the Mejlis instead of the 20 that actually participated according to the data submitted by the Mejlis - may to some extent have influenced public opinion.

[29] Some examples of such a successful collaboration can be found in: "Ulterior Integration" by Natalya Belitser, NGO News, Freedom House, N 13, Summer 1999, p. 8.

[30] See, for example, "Ukrainian-Russian-Crimean Tatar Relations in Crimea" by Sergiy Lyastchenko, March 1997, author’s archive.

[31] Vladimir Polyakov is also a writer who published many articles in the local media, and a book: Crimea: The Fates of Peoples and the People. Simferopol, 1998, 270 pp..

[32] Preliminary Draft Report to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on: "Repatriation and Integration of the Tatars of Crimea," 8 October 1999, AS/Mig(1999)30.

[33] See, for example, the Parallel Report Prepared by the Foundation for Research and Support of the Indigenous Peoples of Crimea "About the Situation in Crimea (Ukraine)." This document, intended to supplement the official report of the Ukrainian government to the Council of Europe on the observation of the provisions of the CoE Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, accused the Ukrainian state of not only the ongoing discrimination against the Crimean Tatars, but also, surprisingly, with such "sins" of the past as, for example, preventing the Crimean Tatars from returnining to their homeland during the Soviet period.

[34] The composition of the Council is exactly the same as the list of the members of the Mejlis; Mustafa Djemilev is its Chairman, and Refat Chubarov is his first Deputy.

[35] See: "The Comparative Analysis of the Economic Situation in Crimea for a Period 1998-1999," Roundtable on Crimean Issues, Kyiv, 2 January, 2000, author’s archive.

[36] See, for example, RFE/RL Newsline, v.3, N 245, December 1999.

[37] A formal request to hold the hearings had been submitted by Roman Bezsmertny, the Permanent Representative of the President in the Parliament of Ukraine, to the parliament’s chairman Oleksandr Tkachenko. Every point addressed in his letter of 27 June, 1999, was articulated in such a way that revealed a more than adequate understanding of the specificity of the Crimean Tatar problematique. This specificity was described as arising from their actual position as a people rather than a national minority - in fact, an indigenous people whose situation has been seriously aggravated by deportation and the hardships of repatriation, and whose rights and interests are not secured either in Ukrainian law or by the Crimean Constitution.