BAKHCHISARAI, UKRAINE— The dispute over the Ukrainian republic of Crimea has largely pitted Ukraine against Russia. But the region’s ethnic Tatars may have the most to lose. VOA’s Elizabeth Arrott has more from Crimean town of Bakhchisarai.
It’s a show of pro-Russian force in Bakhchisarai. As Ukraine and Russia face off over Crimea’s future, these soldiers are but the latest to lay claim to this long-contested land.
Crimea’s indigenous Tatars, outnumbered by their Slavic neighbors, are keeping a wary eye on moves to bring the peninsula under Russian control.
“Of course everybody's scared here, but you see at this moment the people, really nobody knows what can happen here," said resident Eydor Bakchisarai.
Given their past, they have reason to be worried. In 1944, Stalin expelled the entire Tatar population from Crimea. Only as the Soviet Union collapsed did they return -- to a newly independent Ukraine.
Crimean Tatar politician Abduraman Egiz:
“Ukraine is a new state and [for] each ethnic group that lives in Crimea, we are beginning from a new page," said Egiz.
A new and largely empty page. This ethnic Turkic, Muslim community has had to rebuild from the ground up.
They reclaimed this mosque, used as a movie theater in Soviet times.
Still, it’s a far cry from the height of Crimean Tatar power. The palace of Bakhchisarai - the seat of the Crimean Khanate, immortalized by the poet Pushkin - fell to imperial Russia in the 18th century.
The Tatars say they will not be deterred from creating a new, humbler life here, despite the gathering political and military storm.
“Of course, I'm staying in my house. Definitely. Even happen something, we are staying in our house - everybody who is living here," said Bakchisarai.
At a local mosque, men pray for peace - hoping to ensure their hard-won return and to live under Pushkin’s “bright skies and waves of blue.”
But if it comes to a vote, Crimea’s minority Tatars are once again likely to fall back under Moscow’s rule.