“In the life of every nation there comes a time when it must make decisions that will determine its future,” Crimean Tatars’ assembly leader Refat Chubarov told more than 200 delegates, Reuters reported on Saturday, March 29.
“I ask you to approve … the start of political and legal procedures aimed at creating ethnic and territorial autonomy of the Crimean Tatars of their historic territory of Crimea.”
The 300,000-strong Muslim minority makes up less than 15 percent of Crimea’s population of 2 million and has so far been overwhelmingly opposed to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
The Russian move to annex Crimea followed an earlier vote in March on the peninsula’s future.
The referendum, approved by 96 percent, was followed by several steps from pro-Moscow Crimean parliament, issuing a law that allows Russia’s annexation of the disputed peninsula.
The hastily organized March 16 referendum was boycotted by Tatars who rejected as held at gunpoint under the gaze of Russian soldiers.
After Russian annexation of Crimea, fears of Muslim Tatars were doubled, voicing concerns over losing freedom and reviving the memories of exile and prosecution they faced in 1944.
The Tatars, who have inhabited Crimea for centuries, were deported in May 1944 by Stalin, who accused them of collaborating with the Nazis.
The entire Tatar population, more than 200,000 people, was transported in brutal conditions thousands of miles away to Uzbekistan and other locations. Many died along the way or soon after arriving.
The Soviets confiscated their homes, destroying their mosques and turning them into warehouses. One was converted into a Museum of Atheism.
It was not until perestroika in the late 1980s that most of the Tatars were allowed back, a migration that continued after Ukraine became independent with the Soviet collapse in 1991.
The Tatars’ return has repeatedly touched off legal clashes over restitution of land and property, much of which is now owned by ethnic Russians.
The latest move by Crimean Muslim Tatar was expected to face Russian pressures, amid moves by Moscow to convince the minority to drop their opposition.
Moscow moves started after delegating two senior Russian Muslim officials with close ties to the Kremlin to convince start negations with the Muslim minority.
“I think we should get closer together, be together,” Rustam Minnikhanov, the head of Tatarstan, a largely Muslim region in Russia, said during Saturday’s assembly meeting.
Ravil Gaynutdin, the head of Russia’s Council of Muftis, has also attended the meeting to persuade the Crimean Tatars to side with Moscow.
The Grand Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, an ethnic Tatar, was also present at the assembly meeting.
“This land is the Crimea, the motherland of the Crimean Tatars,” Gainutdin said to huge applause from the audience, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.
“I pray to Allah that you make the decisions that will be helpful to the Crimean Tatar people,” Gainutdin said, adding that in Russia several regions were multi-ethnic and “know how to build peace in our common home to have a good life.”
Saturday’s assembly, however, divided Crimea’s Muslims with some denouncing the proposal for autonomy as a betrayal of Ukraine.
Others insisted it prevented another mass exodus and said safeguarding their right to live on the land they consider home was a priority.
“Had we been the majority here, we could think of doing something, but we are not and we just have to formally acknowledge the reality as it is,” said Aleksander Aliyev, who was deported to Central Asia from Crimea aged five.