One of the most senior representatives of the Muslim Tatar minority, Mustafa Dzhemilev, spoke to VOA’s Azerbaijani Service after a Wednesday phone conversation with Putin. He said he told the Russian leader the Tatars were resolutely opposed to the annexation of Ukrainian territory by another state.
“I told President Vladimir Putin that the best way to avoid confrontations would be to withdraw Russian soldiers from Crimea,” said Dzhemilev.
The international treaty he was referring to in his conversation with the Russian leader was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia, and Great Britain and the United States pledged to protect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity in return for Kyiv giving up its nuclear arsenal.
Many Crimean Tatars, who make up about 12 percent of the population of the Black Sea peninsula, are strongly opposed to falling under Russia’s control and want to be governed from Kyiv.
Crimea is to hold a referendum on joining Russia on Sunday, after which it is expected to be rapidly absorbed into the Russian Federation.
Dzhemilev said he told Putin that the referendum in Crimea would be a meaningless exercise.
“I expressed my views about the situation, and he expressed his. Of course, our opinions differed. Our approaches to the problem differ. However, we agreed that no blood should be spilled in the Crimean peninsula and no inter-ethnic conflict should take place in Ukraine,” said Dzhemilev.
Suspicion of Moscow is high among the Tatar community, members of which were deported en masse by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to central Asia during World War II and only started returning home in the late 1980s.
However officials in Russia’s region of Tatarstan – which enjoys the status of a republic within Russia – have sought to reassure Crimean Tatars they have nothing to fear.