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Crimean Tatars deported by Stalin rally against Russia

Opposition activists surround the national parliament building in central Kiev demanding immediate action in the Crimea where gunmen captured government buildings on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — "Where are the separatists?" demanded the Crimean Tatar protester as he stamped his wooden stick on the ground after bursting into the region's parliament.

As calls from the Russian majority in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea for incorporation into Russia grow louder, the Muslim Tatar minority is growing militant too.

Deported from Crimea in 1944 by Soviet leader Josef Stalin, with almost half dying from hunger, thirst and disease, the Tatars support the pro-European opposition that toppled Kremlin- backed President Viktor Yanukovych after three months of protests. Their opposition to Russia is already sparking ethnic conflict, giving Russian President Vladimir Putin an opportunity to play the Crimean secessionist card.

"The Ukrainian people paid with their blood to get rid of one dictator," said Nebi Sadlaev, 60, another protester. "We don't one another one." The demonstrator with the stick, who had a Ukrainian flag wrapped around himself, rushed up the stairs to the assembly chamber.

Hundreds of pro-Russians massed outside the Sevastopol city hall building, declaring allegiance to Moscow. Militiamen set up a roadblock with an armored personnel carrier on the approach to the city from Simferopol.

"In one minute we became Ukrainian citizens and no one asked for our opinion" about Ukraine's break from the Soviet Union in 1991, said Galina Sosluk, 60, the widow of a Russian naval captain who served 33 years in the Black Sea fleet: "We aren't immigrants. We were born and raised here. Neo-fascists are taking over the government in Ukraine."

Such talk alarms Refat Chubarov, head of the Council of the Crimean Tatar People, who was born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where his father was deported when he was aged 13, and his mother when she was 10.

While the Crimean Tatars are still fighting for their rights, such as more representation in government and parliament and schooling in their native language, Ukraine offers more security than Russia, Tartar representatives say.

"Over the past 250 years, all the misfortunes that befell the Crimean people came from Moscow. We have an allergy toward Russia," Chubarov said in a phone interview from Simferopol.

Tatars returned to their native land only in 1989 after Stalin, who accused them of collaboration with Adolf Hitler's Nazis, deported them to Siberia, the Urals and Uzbekistan.

The Crimean Tatars are the indigenous people of Crimea. After their Turkic-speaking Muslim state was annexed by Russia in 1783, hundreds of thousands left in waves of emigration. The population decreased to 300,000 from an estimated 5 million during the time of the Crimean Khanate in the 18th century, according to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Under Soviet rule, repression increased and culminated in Stalin's deportation.

When the Crimean Tatars returned, their former homeland soon became part of an independent Ukraine. They now represent 12 percent of the Crimean population of more than 2 million, compared with more than 60 percent Russians. Ukraine's total population is 45 million.

Any attempt to hold a local referendum on Crimea's status would be illegal under Ukrainian law, which requires a national plebiscite to declare the secession of any region, Hatidzhe Mamutova, a lawyer who is head of the League of Crimean-Tatar Women, said by phone.

Pro-Russian forces pressing ahead with their campaign would threaten a scenario ending in major violence, according to Chubarov.

"Each time territory splits off from a country, you get bloodshed," he said. "If it happens in Crimea, the Crimean Tatars will suffer the most. We don't want that to happen."

_ With assistance from Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev and Aliaksandr Kudrytski in Minsk, Belarus.

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(c) 2014, Bloomberg News.

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