The possibility of another ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority has arisen, this time in Crimea, after the peninsula's annexation to Russia. Only time will tell whether or not the apprehension is justified. However, it's not merely a fad; it's based on specific factors.
As of 2012, there are 500,000 Muslims living in the region, and 300,000 (or about 60%) are Crimean Tatars.
With leftist and rightist analysts coming up with two opposite versions, it's confusing. Pro-U.S. sources claim majority of the Tatars in Crimea boycotted the referendum. They have been disturbed and panicky at the prospect of living under Moscow's rule soon after talks on a referendum began. They have been haunted with fearful centuries-old memories of Russian soldiers and Cossacks coming to Crimea and their notoriously harsh treatment of the Tatars. But various electronic media sources have labelled such claims as fear-mongering. According to their argument, ethnic Russians make up to 60% of Crimea's total population. But the votes in favor of seceding were 96% indicating that all major ethnic groups in Crimea voted in favor of seceding from Ukraine, not just the Tatars but the Ukrainians as well. Then again, there are allegations from pro-U.S. sources that the votes were rigged and the referendum was conducted under Russian military presence in Crimea. But pro-Moscow channels reject the story based on the reports of 135 international observers from 23 countries who were supposedly satisfied with the voting process without witnessing any irregularities.
In the post cold war era the United States, unopposed, leads the world in matters of injustice and lawlessness - occupying, bullying, killing, raping, partisanship, you name it - all of that is undeniable which has been distracting observers from the shortcomings of the rest of the world. But if you focus just as much on various other powers independently without the shadow of the "superpower," you learn still more. More often than not, Russia hasn't been squeaky clean either. Be it pre or post cold war period, the two can be better described as partners rather than opponents in competing for economic benefits. During the cold war, the partnership also involved a race for regional hegemony. For decades Afghanistan was a peaceful and hospitable land, and a favorite tourist destination ruled by an harmless monarch. That would never have changed if Russia (or call it Soviet Union) hadn't barged into Afghanistan to brag its cold war might in 1979. It wasn't able to sustain its occupation for long and left Afghanistan within a decade. But the harm was done with far-reaching consequences. The door of security and rule of law was broken; Afghanistan changed into a rowdy 'open house' free for all from a civilized and sober sovereign state. Not to mention its fallout that has been devastating neighboring Pakistan for the last 34 years. If the origin of this catastrophe is traced, the trail goes back quite straight to Russia.
Despite the Western media being laden with tales, fear and concern of Tatar Muslims being under Russian rule cannot be dispelled altogether nor unjustified. Various independent Muslim outlets which met and interviewed members of the Tatar community in Crimea have also reported their deep worries for the future. IslamOnline.net reported 39-year-old Reshat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar who was an activist and had petitioned the separation referendum, was taken away before the referendum by unknown men in military-style jackets. A few days later, his body with marks of violence and torture was found in the nearby woods. This incident provoked plenty of fear and sadness within the distraught Muslim society of Crimea. Another Crimean Tatar citizen told the same source that for weeks prior to the referendum, masked men had been harassing the already intimidated Tatar community.
Historically it's true that Crimea had formerly been a part of Russia. Nonetheless one can understand why the referendum has been a cause for concern for the Tatar minority. A pattern of abuse of the Muslim minority exists not only through medieval history but in more recent times as well. And if they really boycotted the referendum, that itself could evolve into a cause for a backlash.
In 1944, Stalin ethnically cleansed Crimea of Tatar Muslims when some were killed and all were deported. The Tatar population of approximately 300,000 were transported in brutal conditions thousands of miles away to Uzbekistan and other locations. Many died during the cumbersome journey. In Crimea, the Soviets confiscated their properties and ravaged their mosques. Most mosques were turned into warehouses and one was converted into a museum of atheism. The New Yorker recently reported that Tatar Muslims already have "Xs" marked on their homes, reminiscent of the manner in which Muslims in Crimea were singled out and deported by Stalin over false allegations that they collaborated with the Nazis.
After the fall of the Soviet Union when Ukraine became independent in 1991, approximately a quarter of a million (250,000) Tatars who were the survivors of and descendents of those deported by Stalin returned to Ukraine and Crimea. The Crimean Cossack population is still quite large. They are an ancient Christian community with the historical reputation of being professional warriors and crude, somewhat like the Chetniks of Serbia. Cossacks ethnically belong to the "East Slavic" region which presently includes Eastern Europe and some parts of Central Asia. Often referred to as the "cowboys of Crimea," throughout the annals of history the Cossacks way of life has been one of disorder and a penchant for resistance to established authority. As a Russian author mentioned that Putin's nightmare isn't the British bankers (he reportedly keeps his money in London), rather "the ghoul that keeps Putin awake at night is a Ukrainian Cossack." Many of them have been settled in Russia, Ukraine and Crimea for centuries. Crimean Cossacks have been outraged after the Tatars returned in 1991 and the peninsula's capital agreed to accept them as citizens of the land. One more reason for a repetition of history with a bloody backlash by the Cossacks on the Tatar minority being a distinct possibility. Many of the younger members of the Cossack community look like skinheads and swear an oath of loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church. Another worrisome sign. The Tatars are sure that Cossacks have access to weapons, but the Cossacks say they "only" carry their traditional long bullwhips tucked into their belts which which doesn't sound a whole lot better than carrying a gun!
Many Tatars fear because their homes are unregistered. Being a minority, they are afraid and tense. They are sure the Russian authorities will be very strict on such issues, resulting in demolitions as with Palestinian homes in the West Bank.
Post-Soviet Russia consists of many orthodox Christians with radicalized views. Remembering the Balkan War of the 1990s, mass ethnic cleansing of Muslims was carried out in Bosnia and then in Kosovo at the hands of Serbia. It's gone down into history as Europe's biggest genocide after WW2. After Bosnia when ethnic cleansing began in Kosovo, it was just as bad. The Kosovars had to flee their homes in truckloads, pouring into no-man's land. A panoramic view showed a sea of humans living in the most unthinkable conditions - no shelter, no food, no water, no electricity and no sanitation - making the heart of Europe look like the heart of Africa in crisis. Lifting of the arms embargo from Bosnians and Kosovars and thus allowing them to defend themselves would probably have been a better option than NATO's intervention. However, in the Balkans, NATO's role did comply with the treaty it stands for within Europe and North America - to intervene any act or event that jeopardizes the safety and well-being of those regions. Unfortunately Russia firmly supported Serbia's stance despite the clarity of the situation exposing Slobandon Milosevic's blatant violation of human rights in both Bosnia and Kosovo. In a period of five years it resulted in the killing, rape and displacement of at least 1.5 million Balkan Muslims.
Vladimir Putin has assured that his country has an obligation to protect the Crimean peninsula’s Russians. The Tatars are asking, who will protect them? They already had a tragic past and now an uncertain present.