Crimea's return to Russia leaves Tatars fearful of future

Crimea's return to Russia leaves Tatars fearful of future
People hold their Ukrainian national flags and a poster featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading "Stop Putin" as they demonstrate in front of the Russian Ambassy in Berlin on March 17, 2014

BELOGORSK, Ukraine - Among the voices drowned out by victory celebrations across Crimea as it voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia were those of the Tatars, a minority group for whom the prospect of a return to Moscow rule brings only fear and uncertainty.

The Sunni Muslims, who are of Turkic origin, consider Crimea their home, and their deportation to Central Asia by Soviet forces during World War Two and earlier suppression by Josef Stalin meant they were far more comfortable with Ukraine.

Now they face being dragged into modern-day Russia against their will, despite their boycott of Sunday's referendum in which 97 percent of voters in the Russian-majority region were said to have rejected Kiev.

Tatars account for 12 percent of the Black Sea peninsula's population of two million people and their protest was not enough to change the outcome of a vote that has brought East-West relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.

"Why do I not want to be a part of Russia?" asked Mustafa Asaba, a regional leader of Crimean Tatars.

"Russia's government is unpredictable, because at its head sits a dictator," he said, referring to President Vladimir Putin who has masterminded the annexation of Crimea and alarmed Europe and the United States in the process.

Asaba, wearing a traditional black wool hat, said he feared pro-Russian agitators in Crimea would resort to "provocation" to chip away at Tatars' identity, by curtailing their language, culture and religion.

"We have always enjoyed freedom of expression ... and I think that if they oppress us, we will resist," he told Reuters at a friend's home in the windswept town of Belogorsk, 50 km (30 miles) east of the Crimean capital Simferopol.

"There will be trials and prisons. Nothing good will come of it."

The stocky 58-year-old was born in Uzbekistan, where his family was banished in the 1944 deportation - punishment for Tatars who joined special Nazi units and fought the Soviets.

Many also served in the Red Army, but when Soviet troops retook the Black Sea peninsula, Stalin punished the entire Tatar population by loading them into railway cattle cars to spend a life in exile.

Many died from disease or starvation, and Tatars were only allowed back to Crimea in the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev.

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