SIMFEROPOL: Crimea’s Tatars today commemorate 70 years since their deportation by Stalin, a day of mourning that this year will be marked amid a ban on mass gatherings and tensions over Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula.
Tens of thousands gather every year in the regional capital Simferopol to commemorate the tragedy on May 18, 1944, when Soviet secret police began shipping Crimean Tatars to Central Asia.
A Turkic-speaking Muslim group, the Tatars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany during its Second World War occupation of the Black Sea peninsula.
Official figures say 193,000 people were deported, but Crimean Tatars put the number at closer to 240,000 — including many soldiers who fought in the Red Army.
This year the ceremonies are being eclipsed by recent political upheaval and the continued crisis in Ukraine, with some fearing clashes at today’s events.
Local authorities have not granted permission for the usual gathering on the main square in Simferopol, and yesterday the local government announced it was banning all public gatherings until June 6 “to eliminate possible provocations by extremists”.
Nariman Dzhelyalov, the deputy head of the Tatar governing body, the Mejlis, said some 40,000 people are nonetheless expected.
“People will still come, and if it’s banned then they will come already in a mood,” Dzhelyalov said.
Many Crimean Tatars opposed Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in March and firmly reject the new pro-Russian authorities.
“It is the most important day for Crimean Tatars,” said Mustafa Dzhemilev, a hugely respected leader of the 300,000-strong community and a lawmaker in the Ukrainian national parliament.
He said the 70th anniversary was expected to be a “massive commemoration” but authorities locked horns with Tatar leaders over how to go about it. “They wanted a publicity show, to announce how great life will be for Crimean Tatars (in Russia), but were told no,” Dzhemilev said. “They are afraid there will be Ukrainian flags.”
In March the Tatars, who make up about 12 percent of Crimea’s population, widely ignored the referendum organised on the peninsula that led to its annexation, and many are still figuring out how to co-exist with the new regime.