May 13, 2016

What the History of the Crimean Tatars Can Tell Us About Turco–Russian Relations

Crimean Tatars living in Turkey hold flags during a protest to call for human rights and the liberation of political prisoners in Crimea on December 10, 2015 outside the Russian embassy in Ankara.
Crimean Tatars living in Turkey hold flags during a protest to call for human rights and the liberation of political prisoners in Crimea on December 10, 2015 outside the Russian embassy in Ankara.

The West should recognise that it has much to offer the Turkish-speaking population in Crimea.

The past two decades were good for relations between Turkey and Russia. The two countries, formerly on opposing sides of the Iron Curtain, were now two large economies eagerly privatising their markets. Tourism flourished as Russians started to stream to beach resorts in Turkey. The Turkish construction sector found a reliable market to the north, building Russia’s hotels and airports.
This trajectory in Turco–Russian relations has now changed for the worse. To understand why, it is useful to look at the history of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea that has been crucial in the history of the two countries.
Crimea was ruled by the Golden Horde, a successor khanate to the greater Mongol Empire that took the peninsula in the 13th century. As the Golden Horde broke apart, the Khanate of Crimea became a vassal of the Ottoman State in 1475. Crimea’s Khan was appointed by Istanbul, and gave support to the Ottoman army.1 Since the Crimean Tatars are Oguz and Khipchak Turks, they had strong linguistic and cultural ties to Anatolian Turks. The Crimean Turkish that this group speaks to this day closely resembles the language spoken in Turkey.2
But Crimea’s proximity to Russia made it an easy prize once Turkish rivalry with Russia flared up in the 18th century. During the 1768–74 Turko–Russian war, the Russian army began to enter Crimea. Following a devastating naval defeat, the Ottomans lost the war, and the treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarca stipulated that Istanbul would still appoint the Crimean Khan, but the territory was now open to Russian expansion. In the following decade, Crimea lived through a bloody civil war, and in 1783 Russia annexed Crimea for the first time. The 18th and 19th centuries saw Russian expansion against the Ottomans, only occasionally buffeted by the British and French. The biggest such action was the Crimean war of 1853–6, in which Ottoman troops briefly reached Crimea, but the peninsula remained under Russian control.3
Crimea had been under Ottoman sovereignty for three centuries. Unlike Ottoman territories in the Balkans, the Tatars were Muslim and Turkish, and occupied an important place in the Ottoman presence in Europe. Now they were cut off from their imperial centre and at the mercy of a rival power. The experience proved devastating. During these wars, Russia saw the Tatars as an Ottoman fifth column and subjected them to ill-treatment. Tatar families who had been in Crimea for centuries, now deprived of land and titles, set out to start new lives in Anatolia. Wave after wave of hundreds of thousands of Tatars reached Ottoman provinces in the 19th century. Many perished along the way. The population of Crimea lost its Muslim Tatar majority during this time, and was increasingly settled by Russian-speaking Slavic peoples.4
The Tatars’ suffering increased with the Russian Revolution that brought the Soviets to power. Crimea was one of the territories worst hit by the 1921–2 famine that claimed some five million lives. Turkey had been on the losing side of World War I and was now fighting its “war of independence” against the allies, but there were still food shipments from Anatolia to Crimea during this time. In the 1930s, Stalin expelled thousands of Tatars who had been to Turkey and carried Turkish passports.5
But World War II would be even harder on the Tatars. In 1941, the German armies reaching Crimea sent some Tatars to Germany to work in their war effort. There are stories of Tatars in the Soviet army who became prisoners of war, joined the German army and, when the war ended, made their way to Turkey. By the end of the war, the notion that the Tatars were disloyal to the Soviet empire had spread, with devastating consequences.6
The population of Crimean Tatars had been declining for two centuries at this point, but the coup de grâce came in 1944, when they were deported en masse to Central Asia, mostly to Uzbekistan, the Ural Mountains and Siberia. According to name-by-name research undertaken by Tatar activists, 46% of Crimea’s Tatars lost their lives in what remains one of the worst campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the already bloody 20th century.7 There was still a trickle coming into Turkey. But Crimea was now emptied of Tatars. Their cultural sites, libraries containing ancient scriptures, and cemeteries were almost all destroyed.
In the 1960s, the Soviet government admitted to wrongdoing and allowed some deported Tatars to return to their homeland. National Tatar Committees were formed to facilitate this process. Tatar groups at times acted with government permission, but many were still brutally suppressed. The makeshift homes of Crimean Tatars were repeatedly destroyed by the Soviet authorities, and many activists were jailed and subjected to inhumane treatment. Today, there are about 300,000 Tatars in Crimea and 100,000 in exile in former Soviet territories.8
Once the Soviet Union had collapsed and Crimea became part of a nominally sovereign Ukraine, Turkey reinvigorated its relations with the Crimean Tatars. The “Autonomous Republic of Crimea” was now a territory bound to Ukraine, but had its own Supreme Council, a legislative body elected by the people of Crimea. In 1994, President Süleyman Demirel visited Crimea and took on the construction of 1,000 housing units for the Tatars. He visited again in 1998, after an unusually short interlude, indicating that the Tatars had become the backbone of Turkish–Ukrainian relations. In 2005, Turkey and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea signed an agreement to further cultural cooperation. In a world without borders, Turkey and the Crimean Tatars would resuscitate the ties that had been severed in 1783, when Russia annexed the peninsula for the first time.9

History Repeats Itself

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia on the pretext of defending South Ossetian rebels. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, said following a NATO meeting on the issue “It would not be right for Turkey to be pushed towards any side” and that “one of the sides is our closest ally, the United States. The other side is Russia, with which we have an important [amount of] trade …. We would act in line with what Turkey’s national interests require.”10 The assumption here was that the war in Georgia was a blip in the post-Cold War peace on Russia’s borders, and that things would go back to normal. They did not.
Since its invasion of Georgia, the Kremlin has been engaging in a military build-up matched by an aggressive regional policy. In 2013, Valery Gerasimov, the newly appointed chief of the Russian general staff, wrote an article outlining new methods of conflict involving “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures”.11 In what is today called “hybrid warfare,” Russian troops have learned to operate in a way that disarms its opponent politically while projecting power. It is increasingly clear that Russia is using this strategy to undermine the post-war liberal order, hitherto ensured by the transatlantic Alliance.12
The most cited case of hybrid war so far has been Russia’s despatch of unmarked Russian troops into Ukraine, when that country was in turmoil in the summer of 2014. The annexation of Crimea started in late February, when unmarked Russian troops took over the Supreme Council of Crimea, and was completed on 18 March, when a representative of the now-independent “Republic of Crimea” signed an accession treaty with the Russian Federation. As Putin put it, Crimea had been “returned” to Russia, and he had done the returning.
Russia’s other significant move has been to move to a southern seaport from which it has conducted extensive military operations bordering Turkey’s territory. In Syria, Russia is now at the centre of a coalition including Iran, Hezbollah and local Shia militias bolstering the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, who has been mired in a brutal civil war since 2011. Russian air power has been crucial in Assad’s survival, and Russian diplomats will likely secure the dictator a deal at the end of the war. Forces supported by Turkey and the Gulf countries have steadily been losing ground.13 Turkey also set off a costly diplomatic crisis with Russia when it shot down one of its jets, after repeated violations of Turkish airspace. The episode has been a reminder of what the countries have to lose—Russia’s sanctions alone could shave close to a percentage point off Turkey’s GDP growth in 2016.14
In retrospect, even a cursory study of history is enough to understand that, once Russia decided on expansion, Crimea and Turkey would be immediately affected. Russia is a former superpower with nuclear weapons, a conventional military unmatched in the region and a unitary structure that allows it to make snap decisions. Even if the Russian economy is in a shambles and its military build-up is unsustainable, the risk of damage in the short term is very real. The history of the Crimean Tatars can attest to that.
The Crimean Tatars are, per se, a small part of a larger geopolitical picture, but their long history makes them a bellwether for the political winds in the region. When Russia loosened its grip on the region, even temporarily, the Tatars began to rebuild their lives, re-establishing relations with their natural partner—Turkey. As Russia began to challenge the liberal order that made this possible, the Tatars once again found their gatherings banned, their leaders exiled and their existence under threat.
In looking for a solution to the Russian threat, Turkey and Crimea will find that they have been more integrated into the liberal order than they realised. Turkey’s membership of NATO since 1952 gives it pull with countries whose military power that can outmatch that of Russia. The recent generation of Tatar leaders have, in turn, been toughened by decades of civil disobedience under the Soviet Union, and have now found a powerful ally in the Western media and civil rights organisations. The West should recognise that it has much to offer the Turkish-speaking population on its fringe, and make sure that it enlists them in upholding its liberal order.
1 Dr Hakan Kırımlı, “Kırım’dan Türkiye’ye Kırım Tatar Göçleri”, 2 Hüseyin Raşit Yılmaz, “Savaşa, Göçlere, Sürgünlere Rağmen Kırım Tatarları,”… 3 Kırımlı’’.
4 Kırımlı.
5 Kırımlı.
6 Yılmaz.
7 Yılmaz.
8 Yılmaz.
9 Yılmaz.
10 Bulent Aliriza, “Turkey and the Crisis in the Caucasus”, CSIS, 11… 12… 13 Koru,… 14 Idil Bilgic-Alpaslan, Bojan Markovic, Peter Tabak and Emir Zildzovic, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development,…


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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