WASHINGTON – Russia is rushing to annex the Crimea from Ukraine, but the region could become another Chechnya, due to its small but united Muslim Tatar minority which opposes the takeover, according to regional experts.
The concern is that the Muslim Tatars have close ties to Chechen Islamists of Russia’s southern provinces in the Northern Caucasus, who already have been creating huge headaches for Moscow.
A referendum recently ordered by the Crimean parliament to vote on turning the Crimea Peninsula back to Russia is to take place March 16. Observers say it is a foregone conclusion that residents of Crimea, which is more than 60 percent ethnic Russian, will agree to the annexation.
The Tatars, who had lived on the peninsula since the 13th century, were forced out en masse by Joseph Stalin in 1944 and forcibly relocated to Central Asia.
Stalin’s action was due to alleged collaboration with the Nazis.
It wasn’t until 1989 that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev allowed them to return, but there was strong resistance by the ethnic Russians to return confiscated property.
To this day, tensions between the Tatars and ethnic Russians remain high.
Tatar properties continue to be attacked. Businesses are firebombed and their graveyards are being desecrated, leading observers to conclude ethnic stress is reaching a boiling point.
For example, observers say that Tatar houses are marked with an X, a sign placed on Tatar homes prior to Stalin’s forced deportation.
Today, the Crimea Tatars make up only 12 percent of the 2 million people on the peninsula, or little more than 200,000, while ethnic Russians comprise some 60 percent of the peninsula population.
The Muslim Tatar community has strong ties to Turkey, since the peninsula for centuries was in the possession of the Ottoman Empire.
Today, they are closely tied to the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks to establish a universal caliphate but is outlawed in Russia.
The Hizb ut-Tahrir also is very strong in the Northern Caucasus, which includes Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and North Ossetia, the predominantly Muslim provinces in southern Russia.
It is known that one of the two Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan Tsarmaev, who was killed after the April 15, 2013, attack, was from Dagestan and was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. His brother, Dzhokhar, is in federal custody awaiting trial.
Being Sunni, the Tatars also seek the overthrow of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has Moscow’s backing in the three-year Syrian civil war.
Sources say that Crimean Tatars created their own battalion in Syria where they are working closely with Chechen Islamic fighters.
The Sunni Chechens are opposed to the Shiite Alawite Assad and are fighting him because of Russia’s backing. Moscow’s concern is that battle-hardened Chechen fighters will return to continue their own conflict with Moscow.
“Crimean Tatars realize perfectly well that if Crimea joins Russia, all of their demands will remain unmet,” said Marlbek Vatchagaev of the Washington think-tank Jamestown Foundation.
“The Crimean Tatars resemble Chechens not only in terms of being politically active, but also by the fact that the Russian military is deploying commanders to Crimea who were commanders in Chechnya.”
Vatchagaev specifically referred to Lt. Gen. Igor Nikolaevhch Turchenyuk, who is commander of the Russian occupation forces in Crimea.
Turchenyuk commanded the 138th Motorized Rifle Brigade in Chechnya, which came under the command of Vladimir Shamanov. Shamanov has been charged by human rights activists with mass killings of Chechen civilians.
The Russian-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is dispatching Chechen troops to Crimea to protect Russian interests and offset any Tatar attacks. The thinking is that Tatars in the peninsula may be reluctant to engage in any fighting with Chechens.
However, that won’t stop Chechen jihadists from engaging pro-Russian Chechens on the side of the Tatar jihadists.
“Russia is creating a new hotbed of tensions that will become tightly connected to the jihadists of the North Caucasus,” Vatchagaev said. “This will extend the conflict in the North Caucasus to Crimea, with all the consequences that entails for Moscow.”