Crimea’s Tatars on Saturday voted to push for self-rule in their historic homeland following its annexation by Russia, but remained torn on how to engage with the new authorities.
Ethnic Tatars from all over Crimea convened in the town of Bakhchysaray for an emergency Qurultai, or congress, to decide on the fate of the Muslim community of about 300,000 people on the Black Sea peninsula.
“There comes a moment in the life of every people when a choice must be made that will determine its future,” Tatar leader Refat Chubarov said.
The Tatars, which make up about 12 percent of Crimea’s population, strongly opposed and largely boycotted the hastily organized March 16 referendum that saw the peninsula split from Ukraine.
Chubarov said that if Russians in Crimea were given the chance to determine their future, all those involved “have to proceed from the premise that the Crimean Tatars also have this right.”
Suspicion of Moscow is high among the community, who were deported en masse by then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to central Asia during World War II and only started returning home in the late 1980s.
After hours of debate the delegates voted to “launch political and legal procedures [for the] ethnic and territorial autonomy of the Crimean Tatar people on their historical territory, Crimea.”
However it was not immediately clear how they planned to go about this or whether they sought to become an autonomous entity in Ukraine, or Russia.
“This land is the Crimea, the motherland of the Crimean Tatars,” Grand Mufti Ravil Gainutdin said to huge applause from more than 200 people attending the congress.
Russian delegates were also present, sparking anger and indecision over how to deal with the new authorities.
“We didn’t reject Russia, Russia was the one that rejected us,” said veteran Tatar dissident Ayshe Seitmuratova, who spent several years in Soviet penal camps and then in exile.
Djalil Ibragimov, 30, wearing a jacket with the insignia of Ukraine’s Olympic team, stormed out of the room in protest when the Russian delegates spoke.
“I want an autonomy that is part of Ukraine, not Russia,” the young man said.
“We don’t want to go back to the USSR,” he added.
Others called for a more pragmatic approach to the new authorities in order to resolve day-to-day issues and not become outcasts in their own land.
“A whole nation cannot be dissident,” said Lenur Islyamov, a businessman who owns the Tatar television channel ATR.
“There is Russia on one side, there is Ukraine on the other side, the EU, the USA and the others. We are only interested in getting strong guarantees for our safety and the development of the Crimean Tatar people,” said Ali Khamzin, who heads the Department of Foreign Relations in the Mejlis, the authoritative body of the Crimean Tatars.
There was no immediate reaction from the Crimean authorities.