While lawmakers in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea declare their intention to split from Ukraine and join Russia, Turkey is performing a balancing act in maintaining ties with Russia while defending the Crimea’s Muslim Tatars.
The Turkish government knows that harsh and empty rhetoric against Russia will not help the situation, a tough lesson it has learned from dealing with Russia over the Syrian crisis. It seems that Turkey has finally understood that diplomacy with superpowers should not get emotional, but instead should revolve around the interests of allies. In this vein, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was busy calling his US and European allies last week to help shape the Turkish response to the crisis.
The Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group, have had a long and troubled history with their Russian neighbor. In the late eighteenth century, when Tatars constituted nearly the entire population of Crimea, the Russians wrested the peninsula from the Ottomans. In the decades that followed, thousands of Crimean Tatars emigrated to other parts of the Ottoman Empire while the tsars settled Russian populations in the region. The already dispersed Tatar population dwindled further under Stalin, who forcibly deported Tatars en masse to Central Asia over their alleged ties with the Nazis.
In today’s Crimea the Tatars number around 300,000, or about 14 percent of the total Crimean population. The autonomous region was handed over to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954, one year after Stalin’s death.
Turkey, which hosts millions in the Tatar diaspora, has well-established religious, ethnic and cultural ties with the Crimean Tatars. The Turkish government is now concerned about a backlash against the Tatar minority in Crimea, which has sided with the new Ukrainian government, if the republic comes under Russian control. At the same time, the Turkish government is aware that making harsh statements on Russia could severely damage relations between the two countries. Ankara seems to have limited options in influencing Russia as it doesn’t want to meddle with one of its key energy suppliers. In a further Russian boost for the Turkish economy, newly introduced visa-free travel has seen several million Russian tourists visit Turkey each year.
While attempting not to provoke Russia, Turkey has also been keen to support Ukraine and the rights of the Tatars in Crimea. Davutoğlu recently paid a visit to the new Ukrainian government in Kiev to lend his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and to highlight the importance of the Tatars for Turkey. “For Turkey, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, stability and prosperity are crucial. Crimea is of great importance to Turkey, as it is the doorway to Ukraine. It is also important due to the presence of Tatars and Turkey’s cultural heritage,” Davutoğlu said during his visit to Kiev.
In a 25-minute telephone conversation with Putin, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his concern over Crimea and stated that it was up to Ukrainians to decide the future of the republic. The prime minister has also tried to appease the Tatar community at home. Speaking at a local election rally in Eskişehir province—which is home to thousands of ethnic Tatars—Erdoğan told the crowd, “We have never left our Tatar brothers on their own and we never will.”
Turkey’s approach appears to be following a middle road in reasoning with Putin while also dealing with the Western-backed Ukrainian government. The Tatars do still have one card up their sleeve should Turkish pressure fail: Putin is aware that Tatars in Russia’s own territory could cause significant problems if their kin in Ukraine are in trouble. Perhaps in a preemptive move to stymie the threat, Moscow last week sent a delegation from the Russian Republic of Tatarstan to meet with members of the representative body of Crimean Tatars.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat Newspaper.