Fri, Dec 24, 2004 - Page 6 News List

In Crimea, Tartars still loathe Moscow

AFP , Simferopol, Ukraine

A 7m-high balloon resembling a giant orange, Ukrainian opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko's campaign color, is seen tethered to the ground against the background of a huge crowd waving orange flags during a rally in Yushchenko's support in Kiev on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AP

On a crooked lane in the Crimean capital the afternoon prayer in the Kebir mosque has just let out and a group of believers gathers beneath its lone minaret to say their presidential vote in Ukraine's weekend ballot will be a vote against Russia.

It is a heartfelt sentiment among Crimea's quarter of a million Tartars who make up 12 percent of the peninsula's population.

More than 60 years have passed since the Soviet Red Army drove the entire Tartar population from Crimea at gunpoint on suspicion of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II and it has been more than a decade since Ukraine parted ways with Russia.

But the Tartars still regard Moscow's policies with deep distrust.

"Better dirty American democracy than Russian totalitarianism," said Muhamad Vilor Osmanov, a Tatar student in a local university who like many of his kin opposes the Russian-speaking, Moscow-backed presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich.

Yanukovich, who has pledged closer ties to Russia and official status for the Russian language in Ukraine if he is elected, had Russian President Vladimir Putin's backing from the beginning of the campaign.

He has proved massively popular with the Russian-speaking populations elsewhere in eastern and southern Ukraine, but Crimea's Islamic residents do not share that enthusiasm for Moscow's man.

"If Yanukovich comes to power he will emulate Putin's regime. Look at the mess he made in Chechnya," Osmanov said of the Russian president.

The Tartars' relationship with the much larger Russian population of the Crimean peninsula has never been easy.

In 1944, more than 200,000 Crimean Tartars, descendants of the Mongol Golden Horde, were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

And for centuries the Russian Empire fought bloody wars with the Tartars' ethnic cousins from Ottoman Turkey to retain control of this strategic Black Sea territory, which was only signed over to Ukraine in 1956 by the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

But the elections have pitted the two communities against each other anew ahead of a rerun presidential vote scheduled for Sunday.

The Tartars' modest tent camp in support of the Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko -- modeled on the massive opposition tent city which sprang up in Kiev after a contested November ballot -- is overshadowed by masses of Yanukovich supporters who wave Russian flags and brandish banners reading "Forever with Russia."

Data from the last vote, which was declared invalid by Ukraine's top court due to massive fraud and ballot-rigging, point to a vote along ethnic lines with some 16 percent of the population voting for Yushchenko and 82 percent for Yanukovich.

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