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Turkey Keeps Close Watch on Crimea

  • Dorian Jones

A Crimean Tatar man prays at a mosque in Bakhchysarai, Ukraine, March 10, 2014.

A Crimean Tatar man prays at a mosque in Bakhchysarai, Ukraine, March 10, 2014.

Turkey is keeping a close watch on the deepening crisis in Ukraine, and particularly in Crimea, which lies only 280 kilometers across the Black Sea from the Anatolian coastline. Crimea is home to a community of Turkic Tatars, who are ethnic and linguistic kin of Anatolian Turks and oppose Russia's potential annexation of the peninsula.

Hundreds of Turks of Tatar origin chanted “Russians get out of Crimea” at a recent demonstration in the capital, Ankara.

Zafer Karatay, the Turkish representative of the Crimean Tatar National Parliament, addressed the crowd. He slammed Russia's military presence in Crimea.

"Is history repeating itself?" he asked. "Are the Crimean Tatars and Crimean Turks again being deliberately sent to their graves? Today, what's happening in Crimea is terrifying all of us."

It's just one of many protests being held across the country by the large ethnic Tartar minority here. Many Tatars fled to this region from Russia after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

The Turkish media usually concentrates on domestic issues, but the deepening crisis in Crimea is receiving widespread TV coverage.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was among the first foreign politicians to visit Ukraine and Crimea after tensions flared up there. Davutoglu, who met with local Crimean Tatar leaders, warned Moscow that Ankara is closely watching events there.

"Don't let it cross your mind that our prime minister and president will be indifferent to any issue affecting our kin in Crimea or anywhere in the world," said Davutoglu. "Wherever we have brothers in pain we are the first ones to go to help and do whatever we can do.

Umut Uzer of Istanbul Technical University is an expert on peoples of Turkic origin, including the Tatars. He says there's a strong bond between Turks and Tatars.

"Crimea, until the 18th century, was part of the Ottoman Empire, so apparently this is our region right there -- a Turkic people, a Muslim people. The fact that the foreign minister went there and he met with the associations, there is definitely some interest in the fate of the Crimea Tatars," said Uzer.

Turkey is the midst of campaigning for critical local elections. Many grassroots supporters of the ruling AK Party are nationalists who are particularly sensitive to the plight of Turkic peoples across the region. And the government is taking a strident line in supporting the Tatar minority.

Professor Uzer said even if the situation in Crimea escalates, however, Ankara will tread carefully. "There will be big demonstrations, because when there is massacres of Turks living outside boundaries of Turkey or Turkic peoples, that would definitely energize the people. And there would be certain nationalist individuals who might be willing to go there. But today I would be very much surprised if officials support any military involvement," he said.

Ethnic Tartars here are expected to keep lobbying the ruling AK Party for support. Turkey depends on Russia for much of its energy supply, though, and bilateral relations are already tense over Syria. Foreign Minister Davutoglu has tried to play down tensions, saying Ankara will not let a crisis develop with Moscow over Crimea. Observers say Ankara will have to tread a careful path as the Ukrainian crisis unfolds.

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