Crimea's Tatars to gather as Russian laws threaten hard-earned hold over land

As armed pro-Russian forces spread out across Crimea, Mustafa Maushev joined his Tatar neighbors on a nightly vigil to keep intruders off their property.

Almost exactly 70 years ago, Tatars were expelled from their homeland as a result of one of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's merciless mass deportations of perceived enemies of the state. Decades later, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, many returned and slowly reclaimed their place.

Following a March referendum that ended with Crimea breaking away from Ukraine and being swallowed up by Russia, disquiet is stirring that the Tatars' hard-fought hold over their land could be lost once again.

On Saturday, 250 delegates are gathering in the southern Crimean town of Bakchysarai for a traditional Tatar Qurultay congress to decide whether to hold a referendum on yielding to absorption by Russia or clinging to their Ukrainian citizenship. The former choice might be easier, but few have any illusions.

"Russia is offering us all sorts of nice things. But we understand the essence of the Russian empire, because we are its victims," said Zevget Kutumerov, a Tatar with extensive experience of dealing with land issues. "If (Russian President Vladimir) Putin says a word, they'll pass any law tomorrow. That's what we're afraid of."

One of the Tatars' greatest problems is their legally tenuous control over the land on which they live.

Maushev, a neighborhood delegate to the kurultai, arrived penniless from Uzbekistan in 1989 and was forced to scrabble and find a home for himself.

Linking up with about 100 other homeless Tatars, he pitched a tent in a field on the outskirts of the Crimean capital, Simferopol. Each settler built a "vremyanka," or makeshift hut, which provided just enough shelter for squatters guarding the land overnight.

"About 30 or 40 people kept watch here at night so that nobody would trespass, nobody would come and break down the vremyankas," Maushev said.

By the community's own estimates, Tatars on average own two-fifths as much land as ethnic Russians in Crimea. While Tatars account for only 12 percent of the peninsula's population, space still remains tight for younger generations raising large families.

After a decade-long moratorium in which no group settlements were founded, Crimean Tatars organized thousands of land seizures in 2006, as the children of the first wave of migrants grew up, made families, and felt cramped in the old settlements.

"I was living in an apartment with my mother, grandmother, everyone — female warfare, every day," said Sedomed Setumerov, who lives about a kilometer down the road from Maushev in a newer settlement.

Yet regardless of how the kurultai dictates Tatars should determine their fealty, whatever victories the community has scored in securing land may yet be lost. Many Tatars worry that Russian laws will limit their ability to press for the government to recognized their land ownership.

In Russia, heavy fines are levied on those who participate in unsanctioned protests, which often end within minutes as demonstrators are swept brutally away.

Setumerov moved here in 2010, and now lives in a self-built house with his wife and his three young children. The vast field around them, empty but for the identical but crumbling vremyanki on equal plots of land, gives it the air of a ghost town.

They have lived for three years without running water or electricity, using a generator that has enough gusto for a few lamps and a television but not for a washing machine. They are waiting for the government to recognize them as the owners of the land, which will allow them to use electricity and water from the public grid.

Setumerov acknowledges the wait may be long — especially now that Russia has annexed Crimea — but says it's worth it.

"I'd still rather live in a vremyanka," he said. "At least it's quiet and the air is fresh."