A group of some 50 gunmen seized control of parliament and government buildings in Simferopol, capital of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, raising Russian flags above them Feb. 27—just as the US warned Russia that military exercises planned near the border of Ukraine could "lead to miscalculation." With the top floor of the building occupied by the gunmen, Crimea's parliament voted to hold a referendum on the region's future—whether to remain in Ukraine or join Russia. Earlier, in his first statement since being voted out of office by MPs last week, Ukraine's fugitive ex-president Viktor Yanukovich said he had been "compelled to ask the Russian Federation to ensure my personal security from the actions of extremists," and that he still considered himself the legitimate president of Ukraine. The Ukrainian parliament in Kiev meanwhile voted to send Yanukovich to The Hague to be tried over the violence that led to at least 82 deaths in Kiev last week. (AFP, The Guardian, BBC News, Globe & Mail, Feb. 27; The Guardian, Feb. 25)
Clashes broke out at the Simferopol parliament building on Feb. 26 between Crimean Tatars and pro-Russian demonstrators, with several hundred flag-waving protesters from both sides facing off. The fracas caused a one-day postponement of the vote to approve the referendum. Speaking to anti-Russian protesters at the parliament building, lawmaker Refat Chubarov, a leader of the Crimean Tatars, warned against moves that could see Crimea annexed by Russia. "We urged [lawmakers] not to convene the session [on the future of Crimea], not to aggravate the situation in Crimea," he said. "It was clear even yesterday that the session was being convened with one single purpose—to take actions today which would lead to the separation of Crimea from Ukraine and its unification with Russia." (EuroNews, AFP, Feb. 27; EuroNews, Bloomberg, RFE/RL, Feb. 26)
The Crimea is majority Russian-speaking, and hosts the Russian naval base at Sevastopol; the peninsula was actually part of Russia until the Soviets transfered it to Ukraine in 1954. But the region's Tatar minority have good reason for their historical mistrust of Russia. A Turkic and Muslim people said to descend from the Golden Horde that ruled a vast area of what is now Russia and Ukraine after the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, the Tatars had an autonomous khanate in the Crimea under Ottoman protection until becoming a Czarist protectorate in the Russo-Turkish Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. Their territory was formally annexed to the Russian empire along with the rest of the Crimea in 1783. Tatars suffered persecution under the czars, and many were exiled into Ottoman territory, forming a diaspora which today extends to the Balkans. By 1900, the number of Tatars in Crimea had been reduced by half.
During World War II, Tatars came under suspicion of disloyalty, and were forcibly relocated from the Crimea by Stalin in 1944 to resettlement camps in Central Asia. Thousands perished in the ordeal, which is bitterly remembered today as the Sürgün, or banishment. The survivors were allowed to return to the Crimea in 1954 (the same year Khrushchev transfered the peninsula to the Ukrainian SSR). An official apology for the Sürgün, and a call for Tatars to return to the Crimea, was issued by Kiev after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Another significant Tatar population survives in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains. (VOA, Feb. 27; Informed Comment, Feb. 24; International Committee for Crimea)
Two journalists from the Republic of Tatarstan were reportedly abducted and severely beaten in Kiev on Jan. 31 Reporter Nikita Perfilyev of the KazanFirst online news portal and his cameraman, Anton Zakharov, said their assailants spoke Russian without Ukrainian accents. The attackers took the journalists' passports, money, and credit cards before releasing them, bruised and bloody. A delegation of lawmakers from the Republic of Tatarstan has left for Crimea to investigate the matter. Tatar parliament speaker Farit Mukhametshin said the delegation will seek to assist Crimean authorities to restore order on the peninsula, where he said "destructive forces are trying to disrupt interethnic concord." (QHA, Feb. 27; RFE/RL, Feb. 3)