Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Monday ‘rehabilitating’ Crimea’s Tatar’s and other ethnic minority groups, i.e., officially clearing them of the political crimes they were accused of during the rule of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The move is a clear attempt at courting the politically significant Crimean Tatar population, which has been vocal in its opposition to Moscow’s annexation of the territory from Ukraine. Putin’s announcement of the decree on Monday was remarkable in its conciliatory tone towards the ethnic minority groups. “I have signed a decree to rehabilitate the Crimean Tatar population, the Armenian population, Germans, Greeks – all those who suffered (in Crimea) during Stalin’s repressions,” said the leader at a State Council meeting aired live on state television.
Stalin’s mass deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia at the end of World War Two, during which nearly half of the population died of starvation and disease, continues to cast a shadow over Russia’s present-day moves in Crimea. Last month’s disputed referendum in Crimea was largely boycotted by the region’s 300,000 Tatars, who constitute around 12 percent of the population. As a significant and well-organized minority bloc, the group’s vocal opposition to Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula has represented one of the most significant internal threats to Russian dominance there.
As tensions continue to escalate between Russia and Ukraine with last week’s agreement teetering on the verge of collapse, Putin’s rehabilitation decree represents an attempt at addressing this major lingering challenge by easing Tatar concerns around the Russian take-over. Putin’s order, which also called for measures to encourage the “national, cultural and spiritual renaissance” of the listed groups for the objective of restoring “historical justice and remov[ing] the consequences of the illegal deportation (of the groups) and the violations of their rights” is an almost entirely symbolic (and heavy-handed) gesture aimed at at nipping nascent ethnic strife in the bud.
The return of Mustafa Dzhemilev, the spiritual leader of Crimean Tatars, to the region on Sunday has already raised the hackles of Kremlin supporters. Dzhemilev, who along with other Crimean Tatar leaders was briefly detained at the border upon his return, is vocally pro-Kiev and requested that the Ukrainian flag be re-hoisted on top of the Tatar assembly building in Simferopol. The flag was, according to Tatar officials, pulled down after camouflage-clad men stormed the building — just hours before Putin’s rehabilitation decree was announced.
The potential for a further escalation of these tensions remains, especially with talk of a Tatar plebiscite on broader autonomy growing in volume alongside burgeoning Tatar fears of a return to Stalinist tactics. Despite Putin’s attempts to change the tone here, incidents like the storming of the Tatar assembly building will ensure that the ethnic minority group continues to eye the Kremlin warily.