The leader of Crimean Tatars proposed on Saturday that the 300,000-strong indigenous Muslim minority seek autonomy on the Black Sea peninsula annexed from Ukraine by Russia.
Speaking to more than 200 delegates gathered for the top Crimean Tatars’ assembly, Refat Chubarov said: “In the life of every nation there comes a time when it must make decisions that will determine its future.”
“I ask you to approve … the start of political and legal procedures aimed at creating ethnic and territorial autonomy of the Crimean Tatars of their historic territory of Crimea.”
He did not specify whether he wanted the region, if it obtains autonomy, to be part of Russia or Ukraine.
Crimea’s Tatars met in their historic capital Bakhchisaray to decide whether to hold a referendum among their people to determine their future.
Such a vote would be a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin who incorporated the region into Russia after Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to split from Ukraine following the overthrow in February of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president.
Crimean Tatars largely boycotted that referendum, which the West said was illegitimate. “Nobody asked us, the Crimean Tatars … in what conditions we want to live,” Chubarov told Reuters this week.
Tatars, an indigenous population of Turkic origin, were deported from Crimea to Central Asia in 1944 under Soviet leader Josef Stalin who wanted to punish the community for cases of collaboration with the Nazi Germany.
They started returning from exile some two decades ago.
Due to the hardships suffered under the Soviet Union, many are now strongly opposed to falling once again under the control of Moscow. Some deputies, however, said on Saturday that the case was lost and that Crimean Tatars should concede the land they consider their home was now Russian.
“Had we been the majority here, we could think of doing something, but we are not and we just have to formally acknowledge the reality as it is,” said Aleksander Aliyev, who uses a Russian name and does not speak Tatar following his deportation at the age of five and education in Russian.
Tatars pledged their loyalty to Ukraine, which gained independence after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and have since seen some cultural revival in Crimea.