BAKCHYSARAI, Crimea (AP) — Leaders of Crimea's Tatar minority gathered Saturday to condemn Russia's annexation of the peninsula and appealed to international bodies for recognition as an autonomous group.
Tatars, an ethnically Turkic and mainly Muslim group that was subjected to mass deportation from their native Crimea by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944, gathered to forge a collective response to Russia's absorption of their native region.
Decisions on whether to accept Russian citizenship and possible participation in a Moscow-loyal government were deferred as the community further contemplates its options.
But the forum of about 250 delegates underscored difficulties Russia will face in integrating a community that resisted annexation and largely boycotted the March 16 referendum to join Russia.
According to the most recent Ukrainian national census, carried out in 2001, the 245,000-strong Tatar community accounted for 12 percent of Crimea's population. But anecdotal evidence of higher birth rates and a continued return of Tatars from exile in Central Asia suggest those figures may have grown markedly since then.
The Kremlin decision to annex this strategic Black Sea region, which has a large Russian majority, was backed by rhetoric of national self-determination, as Moscow argued that pro-Russian Crimeans had the right to break away from Ukraine.
"Recently, all decisions (by Russia) have been based on the presupposed right of every nation to self-determination," said Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Crimean Tatar governing body. "One must now conclude that the Crimean Tatar people also have that right."
Chubarov also appealed to the international community to recognize the Crimean Tatars as a "national territorial autonomy," but fell short of demanding a referendum on independence or allegiance to Ukraine.
Yet the vociferous tone of the delegates who spoke demonstrated the lingering rage within the Tatar community.
"Russia turned us out three times," Aishe Setmetova, an elderly woman in a knit sweater, bellowed from the stage. "They think of us as worthless objects. I do not believe in Russia."
Crimea's Tatars began to return to their native peninsula in the late 1980s with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The population is growing fast compared to the ageing Russian population and presents the Kremlin with a long-term problem of integration.
Russia and the local Crimean government have assured Tatars that their rights will be fully respected on the peninsula. Tatar is to be elevated to one of the three state languages and the community has been given loose assurances it will be guaranteed a prominent political status.
But Tatars, who ruled the peninsula from the 15th century until the Russian Empire took it over in the 18th century, remain deeply skeptical of Moscow's intentions.
"We, as the native people of this land, shouldn't collaborate with an occupying power," congress delegate Ilver Ametov said.
"Ukraine, too, wasn't our home, but at least it was a democracy," he said. "There's a story we have about the dog who ran to Moscow because things were better over there, but ran back to Ukraine because at least here he's allowed to bark."