Crimean Tatar community leader Mustafa Jemilev has said that Ukraine is preparing to establish a military unit comprised of Muslim minority soldiers to guard its battlefront with pro-Russian rebels along the border of the Crimean peninsula.
Speaking at the World Congress of Crimean Tatars in the Turkish capital of Ankara over the weekend, Jemilev reportedly said the new battalion of Crimean Tatars, Kazan Tatars, Uzbeks, Chechens, Azeris, Meskhetian Turks and other Muslim groups will be used to monitor imports and exports in the Kherson region on the Crimean border on behalf of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.
The Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group indigenous to the northern Black Sea peninsula, have largely opposed the Russian annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine last year.
Crimea was annexed by Russia in March 2014 following a referendum organised by the peninsula’s autonomous authorities, in which the majority ethnically Russian population voted to join Russia just weeks after the same authorities declared independence from Ukraine.
The referendum, which was organised almost immediately after Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned his post amid pro-EU protests in Kiev, was condemned by the international community as illegal, especially as it was held under the threatening presence of armed militiamen in unmarked uniforms - believed to be Russian soldiers - who occupied Crimea shortly after Yanukovych's demise.
The Crimean Tatars have since been under pressure from the peninsula’s new Russian authorities to accept the annexation, with those who have refused to adopt Russian citizenship becoming foreigners in their homeland.
During the Ankara congress over the weekend, the attendees called for international intervention in Crimea, saying the rights of Crimean Tatars “forced to live under Russian occupation… must be ensured under the supervision of international institutions and prompt and robust international intervention must be made.”
The annexation of Crimea “cannot be accepted under any circumstances. All necessary measures must be taken to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” a statement read out at the congress said.
Although representatives of 184 Crimean Tatar NGOs from 12 different countries attended the congress, some Crimean Tatar community leaders were reportedly blocked from attending after being summoned for questioning by a Russian investigative committee ahead of their planned departure.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Chairman of the Central Election Commission of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (Assembly), Zair Smedlyaev, and the first deputy of the Mejlis, Nariman Celal, were given subpoenas, preventing them from leaving Crimea.
“The Russian authorities are putting pressure on us and we are not being allowed to leave Crimea, but we do not want to remain cut off from the World Congress and have therefore taped this address,” Zair Smedlyaev said on his personal Facebook account on the eve of the congress.
Meanwhile, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev and current Crimean Tatar Mejlis head Refat Chubarov, who have both been barred entry to Crimea for five years by the peninsula’s Russian authorities, met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their visit to Ankara.
Expressing regret over the annexation of Crimea, President Erdogan said, "Unfortunately, throughout history, the right of the Crimean Tatar people to live in dignity in their own homeland has been undermined with collective deportations and repression.”
“Today we have witnessed the illegal annexation of the Crimea and other regrettable events," the Turkish president added.
In 1944, Crimean Tatars were forcibly deported in their entirety from their homeland by Soviet Russian leader Josef Stalin - who accused them of conspiring against the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany - to various parts of central Asia and the Caucasus. A large community of Crimean Tatars also settled in Turkey to escape persecution at the hands of the Soviets.
However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Crimean Tatars began returning to their homeland in droves.
Today, there are around 300,000 Crimean Tatars living in the peninsula, comprising 12 percent of its population.