Recep Erdogan’s “Crimea dilemma”
One of many rallies in Turkey in support of the Crimean Tatars
The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement, in which it refused to accept the outcomes of elections in Crimea, which took place on September 14 of this year. There is nothing unexpected in the move, because the same statement sheds light on Turkey’s well-known principle position concerning the “Crimean issue”: “Turkey does not recognize the illegal inclusion of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea [by the Russian Federation]. In this connection, our country finds the September 14 elections invalid.”
Back on February 28, on the eve of a “referendum” under the close watch of “little green men,” then-Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated: “The territorial integrity, stability and prosperity of Ukraine bear a decisive meaning for Turkey. Crimea holds great importance for Turkey as it [serves as a] door to Ukraine. It is also important in connection with the presence of the Crimean Tatars and the cultural heritage of Turkey.”
Immediately after said “referendum,” then-Prime Minister Recep Erdogan said in a meeting with the leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Cemilev, that Turkey does not recognize a “referendum” that contradicts founding principles of international law and Turkey “sees Ukraine as one whole and independent, and also speaks out against foreign forces’ intrusion into internal affairs of this country.” That said, the Turkish side also pledged to provide “maximum support in case the Crimean Tatars face pressure.” On April 16, then-President Abdullah Gul confirmed in a meeting with the then-presidential candidate Peter Poroshenko that “Turkey will never recognize Crimea as Russian [territory] and it will always remain [part of] Ukraine for her.”
Such statements, which conform to the position of the majority among the international community, have regularly been voiced from Ankara. The contrary would be surprising actually. The same characteristic can be attributed to statements Turkey issues regarding the Crimean Tatars, which would surface after the Turkic Crimean Tatars made statements and demands; to note, the community of the Crimean Tatars does enjoy a significant political influence. By the way, some believe Minister Davutoglu is closely related to this ethnic group, while others consider him as its part. After all, this statesman was most actively against the new affiliation of Crimea with Russia and was most active in support of the Crimean Tatars. For such moves, a number of Russian experts named him a supporter of the “completely crashed ideology of neo-Osmanism,” allegedly using the Crimean Tatars card for their own interests.
A most significant statement by the Crimean Tatar diaspora in Turkey was issued in June in connection with the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. The statement reads in part that the annexation of Crimea by Russia is “a fact of ignorantly mixing international law with dirt” and condemns “attempts to neutralize or eliminate the representative body of the Crimean Tatars” (a local parliament).
It is absolutely clear that the official Ankara, along with many other capitals, would never recognize the annexation of Crimea no matter how many “referenda” or “elections” take place to that effect. Furthermore, they will continuously issue statements in support of the Crimean Tatars because Turkey is a traditional, one could even say, “historical patron” of this miserable nation. Meanwhile, people expected more realistic and effective support and protection of their “fosterlings.” After all, seldom exotic discussions on some Turkish mass media about an alleged “opportunity to unite” Crimea with Turkey cannot be considered a realistic support. Indeed, Ankara did condemn the “pull away” of Crimea from Ukraine; Ankara does allow the NATO to sail its ships into the Black Sea and welcomes the leaders of the Crimean Tatars. However, it is not a party to the sanctions against Russia, nor is it going to be. With this backdrop, the Turkish support of the Crimean Tatars looks bleak and unconvincing. Moreover, back in spring, Erdogan said of his phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin: “I told him that Russia must protect the rights of the Crimean Tatars as it does with [the rights of] the Russian majority and other [ethnic] minorities on the Crimean [Peninsula].” It is difficult to argue against the dubiousness of the statement.
Perhaps, this “equivocality” could be explained by a recent interview Muhammad Zakhid Gul, one of Erdogan’s closest confidants, had with the IslamNews information agency. In the interview, Mr. Gul said: “The Russian leadership promised the Crimean Tatars would have more rights on the peninsula than before. If these promises do come true, then the problem of annexing Crimea to Russia, which the West is inflating, would be taken off the political agenda in Turkey. Because the most important [factor] for Turkey in the Crimean issue is the protection of historic justice in regards with the indigenous nation of the peninsula, the Crimean Tatars, that is, and guaranteeing their rights.”
Mr. Gul noted that “despite certain ‘stumbling blocks’ on the way of Turkey’s path to reconsider its position to the status of Crimea,” Turkish-Russian ties enjoy significant potential in general terms. He pointed out the special relations Recep Erdogan and Vladimir Putin have, and empathized “the similarities in their political charisma.” If one considers Syria, Iraq, the issue of the Kurds, problems of opposition and alleged corruption, Ankara certainly has no room for another problem in the form of disputes with Russia over Crimea and the Crimean Tatars.
Yes, there is something missing in “the protection of historic justice in regards with the indigenous nation of the peninsula” despite “the similarities in political charisma.” One could also recall the “maximum support” Turkey promised to deliver, should the Crimean Tatars find themselves under “pressure.” However, that is exactly what the latest statement the Turkish foreign ministry circulated reads: expressing concern over “the increasing pressure on the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar nation lately” and condemning activities aimed at “suppressing the indigenous people of Crimea.”
The issue at hand is well-known: On September 16, the Mejlis building in Simferopol was searched for 12 hours. Protocols of several sessions, religious books, CPUs and hard drives as well as Mustafa Cemilev’s personal belongings were seized. Mr. Cemilev is banned from returning to the peninsula. Later, Deputy Prime Minister of Crimea Ruslan Balbek clarified that the investigation bodies are not probing the Mejlis itself, but exclusively the fact that the Mejlis building is Mr. Cemilev’s property. Just imagine, Mr. Cemilev is still a member of the Ukrainian parliament! What a horror! Mr. Balbek empathized that the Crimean Tatars “continue actively integrating into the Russian society.” However, the real reason behind the search appears to be something else: the Crimean Tatars boycotted en mass, joined by others, the recent elections; mainly, information circulated by several local leaders, including Rifat Chubarov about the “real” voter turnout of less than 50% was the main catalyst for the boycott. Apparently, a successful “integration” of the Crimean Tatars will continue “progressing” in the form of exiles, searches and arrests along with labeling all those arrested as religious extremists.
So the new Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could end up facing a very unpleasant “Crimean dilemma”: either continue strengthening his “charismatic” friendship with Putin, or respond to pleads and appeals of the Crimean Tatars to protect them and the protests the Crimean diaspora in Turkey advances. Throw in the fact that Ahmet Davutoglu, who is officially Crimean Tatar as some claim, became the leader of the ruling AKP and acting Prime Minister…