Cover Image for Crimean Tatars’ Story of Recognition

Crimean Tatars’ Story of Recognition

Mariia Shynkarenko
Issue 2 (2024)

The histories of anti-colonial resistance of Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian peoples provide a common ground for them to construct a non-competitive and hopeful story of Crimea’s future. Mariia Shynkarenko argues that a key component of this future is Ukraine’s recognition of Crimean Tatars’ Indigeneity as a political rather than just cultural category.


In November 2000, members of the Verkhovna Rada convened to debate a bill that defined the appropriate compensation for ethnic minorities who were deported during the Soviet period and whose property had been lost or taken. The bill especially concerned Crimean Tatars, who were deported en masse on the order of Stalin in 1944. Only with the Soviet Union’s collapse were they allowed to return to their ancestral homeland of Crimea. Just another item on the agenda, the bill stood out for it signified an attempt to grapple with the crimes of the Soviet Union, the state of which Ukraine was part for seventy years.

Not everyone among Ukraine’s parliamentarians, however, thought such a law was necessary. Some, like Pavel Baulin, a member of the Communist Party, believed that it was not Ukraine’s responsibility to atone for Soviet wrongdoings: ‘Let’s first determine why should we who live in the twenty-first century have any moral, and especially financial responsibility for someone else’s actions? Neither me, nor you deported or repressed anyone’. Some, like Olena Mazur from the ‘Yabloko’ party thought the very idea of rehabilitation was absurd: ‘Why not suggest that the United States of America adopt a similar law on rehabilitation of all Indian [sic] tribes; that Washington is renamed to something like Semenolia [sic], and so on. And return American lands. Rename the American continent into its original name, rename Washington, and so on. That is totally absurd!’ More progressive parliamentarians, including Crimean Tatar Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, did all they could to challenge their opinions, to no avail: the bill never passed the hearing.

This routine and unremarkable parliamentary debate was emblematic of the attitudes and the discourse of the moment, but it is also a great reference point to trace the progress.

In 2000, Crimean Tatars had been living in Ukraine for just a decade. Returning from their places of exile to their homeland in Crimea, they found themselves in a newly independent state, to which they had no prior connection or affinity. Similarly, Ukraine, taking its first steps in state- and nation-building, did not have the capacity or knowledge to develop a strategy of engagement with Crimean Tatars. Hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars lived on the very margins of society in Crimea, discriminated against and racialised by local politicians and people. Neither the local Crimean authorities, nor central Kyiv government, nor people at large were willing to accept responsibility for their repatriation and restitution. It was the Soviet state that was responsible for crimes, and with the dissolution of the state, the responsibility dissolved as well.

To their benefit, Crimean Tatars constituted the most politically cohesive and mobilised group in Crimea, with clear demands, leadership, and structure. By 2000, they had already scored some major victories in their battles with Crimean authorities, such as successful land squatting, the quota for political participation in Crimea’s parliament, and the Bishkek agreement between Ukraine and Uzbekistan that simplified the procedure for obtaining citizenship. Crimean Tatars proved vocal enough to be paid attention, yet not important enough to be acknowledged on their own terms.

Consider the aforementioned bill on compensation for deportation. While in general such effort was welcomed by Crimean Tatars, it failed to take into account their main concerns. The bill used categories of ‘ethnic minority’ or ‘deportee’ when referring to Crimean Tatars even though such terms were not acceptable to them. The first term did not account for the fact that Crimean Tatars, in contrast to other ethnic minorities, did not have a homeland outside Crimea and, therefore, were Indigenous to the place. The second term assumed an individual character to their repatriation, rather than establishing collective rights. The preferred term was ‘Indigenous people’, a category that existed in Ukraine’s legislation, yet was vague and undefined. This misunderstanding was not merely semantic, it was substantive, and it affected the way Crimean Tatars were perceived and treated.

Part of the problem lay in the absence of indigenous discourse in Ukraine: let us not forget that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted only in 2007. Indigeneity was commonly viewed through the lens of Soviet racial tropes: exotic and underdeveloped tribes dancing by the fire in Chunga-Changa (a Soviet cartoon). Crimean Tatars, in this view, were not like that: they were modern, urban, sedentary, and educated. On the one hand, this was a sign of inclusion: Muslim Turkic Crimean Tatars were not exoticised or othered by the Ukrainian state but rather accepted as part of its homogeneous body politic. On the other hand, the lack of understanding of Indigeneity as a political category deprived Crimean Tatars of collective rights to land, resources, and self-determination.

With little understanding on the part of Ukraine’s governmnt of Indigenous issues and in the absence of consensus over Ukraine’s collective responsibility for the Soviet crimes, it is all the more remarkable that it took only fourteen years for Crimean Tatars to be recognised as Indigenous people of Ukraine. Awakened by Russia’s blatant imperialism and impressed by Crimean Tatars’ pro-Ukrainian position, in 2014 alone, the state accomplished more than it had in all previous years. Ukraine’s government recognised Crimean Tatars’ right to self-determination, acknowledged its self-governing bodies, the Mejlis and the Qurultay, joined UNDRIP, and established representative bodies to advise the President on all matters related to Crimean Tatars. To signal even more support, the toponyms in Crimea were returned to their original Crimean Tatar names and the deportation was recognised as genocide. Finally, the bill discarded in 2000 was adopted as a Law ‘On the Restoration of Persons Deported on National Grounds’, guaranteeing compensation for lost property to Crimean Tatar deportees and their descendants.

The significance of this can only be fully comprehended if measured against the backdrop of the attitudes and discussions of previous years. The recognition of Crimean Tatars as Indigenous people of Crimea transformed the national discourse and image of Crimea. Ukrainians, who hardly knew anything about Crimean Tatars before, gradually learned about the history of Crimea from the Crimean Tatar perspective. More people became aware of the history of Russia’s colonialism in Crimea and Crimean Tatar oppression. Interest in Crimean Tatar culture, traditions, food, and language has soared since 2014 and a consensus emerged within Ukraine’s society regarding the return of Crimean Tatar toponyms to Crimea’s geography.

The Indigenous people recognition is an undeniable victory for Crimean Tatars. While in occupied Crimea, Russia labels them as terrorists and extremists, in mainland Ukraine, Crimean Tatars are appointed to the highest political offices in the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs (i.e. Rustem Umerov, Emine Dzhaparova). Still, legislative successes remain largely symbolic and declarative as long as Crimea remains occupied by Russia. The collective rights of Indigenous people and the right to self-determination cannot be implemented by Ukraine, neither can the toponyms be changed. By the same token, the compensation for lost property is postponed until the liberation of Crimean territories. From 2015 to 2018, only sixty-two people were granted the status of deportees and could claim compensation in the future.

Similarly, the Indigenous discourse in Ukraine still prioritises cultural, rather than political forms of collective expression. Many of even the most sympathetic allies shy away from ideas of Crimean Tatar self-determination and autonomy. The future of Crimea — post-liberation — is imagined only through national Ukrainian integration. Crimean Tatars’ claims to self-determination are viewed as competing and threatening, even if guaranteed by their Indigenous people status.

What is hopeful is that both Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians have enough historical material and legal arguments to construct a non-competitive and positive story of Crimea’s future. In contrast to other Indigenous people, the vast majority of whom live in nation-states that colonised them, there is no history of colonial violence and oppression between Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. In fact, both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars share the same imperial coloniser, Russia, against whom they unite today. Crimean Tatars, time and again, have proven their loyalty to Ukraine, for which Ukraine rewarded them with recognition and inclusion in political processes. Having Crimean Tatars in Crimea, therefore, will only strengthen pro-Ukrainian presence, not undermine it. Finally, both Ukraine and Crimean Tatars possess separate legal arguments that instead of competing, strengthen both of their claims to Crimea. Legal recognition of Ukraine’s sovereign territories is not in conflict with Crimean Tatars’ rights to autonomy in their ancestral homeland and can be used to challenge Russia’s presence there.

To conclude, Ukraine has done a lot of homework within the last thirty years to recognise the rights of its Indigenous people. While suspicion of threat and competition is a natural byproduct in a country at war, the combination of historical and legal arguments together with today’s unity against the common enemy may bring a refreshingly open and positive vision of Crimea’s future that is both Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar.



[1] Mejlis krymskotatarskogo naroda. Rassmotreniie zakonoproekta o reabilitatsii deportirovannykh v parlamente Ukrainy. 1-2 noiabria 2000 g. Simferopol, 2001, st. 21. [Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People. Hearing of the draft law on Rehabilitation of Deported People in the Parliament of Ukraine. 1–2 November 2000. Simferopol, 2001, p. 21].

[2] Ibid, p. 27.

[3] Poiasniuval’na zapyska do proektu postanovy Kabinetu Ministriv Ukrainy ‘Pro zatverdzhennia Poriadku povernennia maina chy vidshkoduvannia iogo vartosti deportovanym osobam abo u razi ikh smerti spadkoiemtsiam takyi sposib’. [Explanatory Note to the Draft Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine ‘On Approval of the Procedure for Return of Property or Reimbursement of its Value to Deported Persons or in Case of Their Death to the Heirs of Such Persons’].


Mariia Shynkarenko is the Research Director of the Ukraine in European Dialogue programme at the Institute for Human Sciences (Vienna). She is a political scientist, who specialises in questions of resistance, nationalism, and identity. Specifically, her research focuses on identity and resistance of the Crimean Tatars both historically and today. Mariia received her PhD from the New School for Social Research (New York) in 2023.


Image: Emine Ziyatdinova, Pro-Euromaidan Crimean Tatar rally against the establishment of the dictatorship in Simferopol on 28 January 2014.

Cover Image for Crimean Tatars: Eighty Years of Remembrance and Resistance

Crimean Tatars: Eighty Years of Remembrance and Resistance

Issue 2 (2024)

For the eightieth anniversary of the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars, the London Ukrainian Review dedicates its second issue of 2024 to the Russia-occupied Crimean peninsula and its Indigenous people’s ongoing fight for justice.

Sasha Dovzhyk
Cover Image for The Long Exile: A History of the Deportation of 1944

The Long Exile: A History of the Deportation of 1944

Issue 2 (2024)

The mass deportation of Crimean Tatars in May 1944 is rooted in Russian settler colonialism which Martin-Oleksandr Kisly traces to the subjugation of Crimea by Catherine II. Eighty years after the grievous crime against the Indigenous people of Crimea, Crimean Tatars are under Russia’s occupation and banned from marking this historic date.

Martin-Oleksandr Kisly, trans. by Larissa Babij