Who Are Muslim Crimean Tatars?

Who Are Muslim Crimean Tatars

Who Are Muslim Crimean Tatars?
In the USSR, it was often impossible to use the ethnic name “Crimean Tatar.” The Soviet authorities insisted that there was no such thing, just “Tatars” in general.

The Crimean Tatars therefore understandably put the stress on “Crimean”. In fact, there is a growing movement to call “Crimean Tatars” (Qirimtatar, plural Qirimtatarlar).

Simply, they use “Crimeans” or even “Tavreans” (Tavry) after the Greek name “Taurica” for the broader region.

The very word “Crimea” comes from the Crimean Tatar word Qirim. This reflects the idea that the Crimean Tatars are in fact a multi-ethnic conglomerate. Anyone who adopted Islam in Crimea in the Middle Ages supposedly and automatically became a Crimean Tatar.

Crimea has a long multi-ethnic history; the Crimean Tatars were the dominant power between Haci Giray’s foundation of the “Crimean Khanate”[1] in 1441 and the Russian conquest in 1783.

The Giray family claimed to descent from Jengiz Khan himself, but formed a separate kingdom after the Golden Horde [2] began to fall apart in the second half of the 14th century — largely because of Tamerlane’s attacks, not the Russian victory at the Battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380. Historians dispute the extent to which the Crimean Khanate became a “protectorate” of the Ottoman Empire in 1475.

Russian historians have tended to argue that Crimean Tatars had no settled “civilization” functioning other than being horse-borne slave traders for the Ottomans. Crimean Tatars’ claim of statehood survived and indeed flourished until 1783, as demonstrated by the Girays’ palace at Bakhchisarai, the magnificent Cuma Cami mosque, and the madras at Zincirli Medrese. The Khanate also outlasted all other remnants of the Golden Horde, such as Kazan and Astrakhan, which were conquered by Ivan IV in 1552 and in 1556 respectively.

The Khanate’s military might was a match for — and often a serious threat to — Moscow, parts of which were burnt down by the Crimean Tatars in 1571. No less than 83 percent of the population of Crimea was made up of Crimean Tatars at the time of its annexation in 1783.

Successive waves of emigration, particularly at the time of the Crimean War in the 1850s, reduced the Crimean Tatar population to 26 percent by 1921, but they were still strong enough to set up an assembly, the Qurultay, after the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917. Bolsheviks were forced to concede the creation of a Crimean Soviet Republic, which was a territorial, not an ethnic one. However, it resulted in a brief period of ethnic power sharing between Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars in the 1920s.

The First World War brought disaster; Stalin and Beria accused the Crimean Tatars of collaborating with Germans, and Tatars were deported en masse overnight to Central Asia on 18 May 1944. Some 188,000 were forcibly deported; almost half died on route or soon after. Despite a well-organized protest campaign beginning in the 1960s, return to Crimea only became possible when the Soviet Union collapsed in early 1990s.

Most Crimean Tatars continue to look to the Khanate as the only possible Crimean Tatars’ “Golden Age” though some are nostalgic for the 1920s.

Interestingly, however, there is also a theory that modern Crimean Tatars are descendents of the Kipchaks or Polovtsians who dominated southern Eurasia from the 9th century until their defeat by the Mongols in 1241.

Most claim they were Turkic-speaking Muslims, but there is also a version of history that says that they were “Turkic-speaking Arians”, which is designed to paint the Crimean Tatars in a more Slav-friendly, semi-European light. The Kipchaks, it is claimed, had a more developed civilization that the nomadic Kazakhs or Kalmyks.


The 2001 census recorded 243,400 Crimean Tatars in Crimea — plus another 11,000 who called themselves Tatars. Almost all of the 248,200 Crimean Tatars recorded in Ukraine as a whole.[3] A similar number remain in Central Asia. In Crimea, the Crimean Tatars make up 12 percent of the local population, up from 1.9 percent in 1989, compared to ethnic Russians who are 58.3 percent — Crimea was the only region in Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority — and Ukrainians with 24.3 percent.

Other minorities represent around 3 percent. Unlike some minority groups in Ukraine where “Russification” is common, the vast majority of Crimean Tatars, 93 percent, have identified their own language as their “native tongue” though 5.9 percent said it was Russian and 0.5 percent said it was Ukrainian.

However, in practice, “native tongue” is a poor indicator of actual language use as most Crimean Tatars got used to speaking Russian during the long years of exile. The Crimean Tatar’s diaspora allegedly numbers up to six million though the biggest numbers, five million, are supposedly in Turkey, which historically — in the Kemalist tradition — has not collected minority demographic data.

Smaller Crimean Tatar communities are in Romania, Poland, Finland, and the United States. Whatever their exact numbers, the existence of the diaspora allows Crimean Tatars now in Crimea to claim that their current minority status is artificial and ahistorical.


The guiding principle of Crimean Tatars’ politics is the “Declaration of National Sovereignty of the Crimean Tatar People” adopted in the summer of 1991 at the final days of the USSR. The declaration states that Crimea is the Crimean Tatars’ rightful home where they “alone possess the right to self-determination” via some kind of national statehood. Crimean Tatars also demand that the elected assembly that passed the resolution, the Qurultay, be recognised as the sole legitimate voice of the Crimean Tatar people.

In practice, although the Declaration has the status of a founding document and is difficult to ignore, Crimean Tatars have pressed for some kind of power-sharing arrangement, because they make up only 12 percent of the local population.

The best they got was 14 out of a 100-reserved seat, local Crimean Assembly, but only for one set of elections; between 1994 and 1998.

In any case, Ukraine reduced the powers of the Assembly after Russian nationalists, in the national constitution adopted in 1996, mainly won the 1994 elections. A “Council of Representatives of the Crimean Tatar People Attached to the President of Ukraine” — in practice the leaders of the Qurultay— was set up during President Kuchma’s second term (1999-2004).

Unfortunately, it mainly dealt with socio-economic questions, and has been neglected by President Yushchenko. Most Crimean Tatars now have basic amenities, but many still live in shantytowns, with unemployment is rife. The Crimean Tatars benefited from the introduction of the proportional representation voting for the local elections in 2006. They joined the Rukh block that won 6.3 percent of the vote, and they elected eight members, six of whom were Crimean Tatars.

The 2006 Crimean Elections

“For Yanukovych!” (Party of Regions, Russia Block): 32.6 percent 44 seats
Union (Soviet nationalist): 7.6 percent 10 seats

Kunitsyn Block (business): 7.6 percent 10 seats Communists 6.6 percent 9 seats Rukh 6.3 percent 8 seats

Tymoshenko Block (centrists): 6 percent 8 seats

Vitrenko Block (Russian nationalist): 5 percent 7 seats

Ne Tak (former supporters of Kuchma): 3.1 percent 4 seats

There have been recent reports that Russia is trying to foment Crimean Tatar extremism to weaken Ukraine and justify intervention in Crimea. A “strategy of tension” was used in the controversial 2004 elections. In September 2008, the small nationalist party Milli Firka made an appeal for Russian “fraternal assistance” in Ukraine — a move that the party’s members denied.

The long-term leader of the Qurultay, the veteran Soviet dissident Mustafa Cemiloglu, announced his retirement in 2008. The contest to replace him is between his pragmatic deputy Refat Chubarov and businessmen allegedly backed by Russia. Since 1991, Cemiloglu and Chubarov have been relatively successful at maintaining peaceful protest and minimising the influence of extremism. They have also kept politics largely within Crimea and Ukraine, and avoided spill-over effect to Turkey and the diaspora, contrary to what “radicals” advocate.

Islam in Crimea and Ukraine

The Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the Crimea (DUMK) is an elective body linked to the Crimean Tatar Qurultay. The Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine (DUMU) is its all-Ukrainian equivalent established in 1992.

The Spiritual Centre of Muslims of Ukraine (DTsMU) is based in the Donbas, where it was founded in 1994 by the alleged Volga Tatar gangster Akhat Bragin( aka “Alik the Greek”) who was killed by a bomb in the football stadium of his club, Shaktar Donetsk. In 1997, DTsMU established the Party of Muslims of Ukraine, but after disappointing results, was folded into the Party of Regions in 2006.

Ar-Raid (“Forward”) is a coalition of some ten social organisations registered in 1997. Radical international groups have a much smaller presence in Ukraine, but Hizb ut-Tahrir (the “Party of Liberation”) has operated in Crimea since late 1990s, where it has gained a small niche attacking the “collaborationist” and “secular nationalist” Qurultay.

Since 2003, Hizb ut-Tahrir has agitated against the US role in Iraq, which was backed by Ukraine. A handful of madrassas operate in Crimea, with 180 students, 40 of whom are women. The DUMU represents “official Islam” led by a Lebanese citizen, Sheik Ahmad Tamim, the self-styled Mufti of Ukraine who dutifully condemns all manifestations of “Wahhabi” extremism. “Official Islam” in Ukraine is something of a hollow shell.

There has been a little attempt to revive the local “Jadidist”( reformist) tradition of the late Tsarist era. Again, this is presumably because the Qurultay was originally established as an anti-Soviet nationalist movement.

Ar-Raid is not officially radical, but it is a proselytising organisation campaigning against the “decadent” West, Ukraine included. As a result, the Islamic University in Donetsk was subject to a de facto closure in 2003.


[1] Khanate is a Turkic name for political entity ruled by a sovereign or a military leader

[2] Golden Horde was a Mongol suzerainty that was established in wide parts of Eastern Europe since the 13th century.

[3] See

source: TNA

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