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Crimea Referendum Spurs Ethnic Tensions

  • Zlatica Hoke

With only days to go before the referendum on the future of Ukraine's Crimea region is held, all eyes are on the peninsula where a Russian-speaking majority is likely to side with Moscow. Crimea's looming separation from Ukraine is raising fears that Moscow will not stop before asserting control over all the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine. Analysts think any division of Ukraine is likely to fuel ethnic tensions in the region.

Sergei Aksyonov, Crimea's pro-Russian leader, has been clear about his expectations from the Sunday referendum.

"Today the Ukrainian army is blocked in its own bases. After the referendum for a future union with Russia, they will have to either leave the territory of Crimea, or they will have to serve in the armed forces and swear allegiance to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, or to Russia," said Aksyonov.

For the region's minorities, such as Muslim Tatars, this announcement sounds ominous. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accused the Tatars of collaboration with Nazis and had them deported to the eastern Soviet Union after World War II. The Muslim group, which has since returned to Crimea, now fears a new wave of persecutions.

"The Tatars of Crimea are persecuted because we're Muslim. And, what's worse, the Russian radical politicians dream that Russia will become 100 percent Russian without any other representatives of other nationalities," said Abul Gafar, a Crimean Tatar.

OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Astrid Thors has also expressed concern about Crimean Tatars.

"The Crimean Tatars have now taken a position that is different from the majority of Crimea, and my assessment is that this different position has increased their vulnerability. So if, if we want to be really alert, we must follow what is happening to their population and also the ignoration [being ignorant] of their situation cannot continue. They need resources to be integrated and they need our attention," said Thors.

With Kyiv on the verge of losing Crimea, there are concerns that the country's other Russian-speaking regions may want to follow suit.

Political scientist Volodymyr Kipen at the Donetsk Institute for Social Research and Political Analysis said most residents of Donetsk support the unity of Ukraine, but warned that the risk of separatism should not be ignored.

"The risk of separatism does exist in Donetsk but it is limited and fueled by forces outside the country. If the government acts like it should, this risk can be isolated, minimized, so that it does not become a threat to the state,” said Kipen.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is visiting the United States this week as he seeks Western support for the preservation of his country.