Earlier this week, on the anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy sent to the Verkhovna Rada a draft law that declares the Crimean Tatars and two other Turkic peoples of the occupied Ukrainian peninsula to be indigenous peoples of Ukraine.
But the draft legislation, which for the first time defines in Ukrainian law just what an indigenous people is – an ethnic group within Ukraine that lacks a state of its own elsewhere – does not list the ethnic Russians, Belarusians, Poles or Jews as falling into that category. To no one’s surprise, Moscow views this as an anti-Russian act in a double sense.
On the one hand, Russian nationalists say Russians have every right to be an indigenous people of Ukraine because they have been living on what is Ukrainian territory for centuries. And on the other, by extending this definition to three Turkic groups in Crimea, they argue, Kyiv is trying to win over the population of what is now Russian territory.
Ukrainian officials have referred to the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of Ukraine in the past, but they had one problem with such references. Ukrainian law does not define who is an indigenous people and who is not. The new measure fills that gap, but obviously it does so in a way that is certain to spark controversy with Moscow.
According to the draft bill, an indigenous people is “an autochthonian ethnic community with its own unique language, which has its own cultural, social and representative organs, recognizes itself as a people of Ukraine and does not have a state formation beyond the borders of the country.”
Under that definition, in addition to ethnic Ukrainians, the Crimean Tatars, the Karaim and the Krymchaks are an indigenous people; and the Russians and the others are not. What has especially angered Russian commentators is that the draft law offers “broad economic, cultural, educational and language rights” to the indigenous peoples but not to the others.
For that reason, Eurasia portal commentator Natalya Makeyeva says, the measure “should not leave any doubt relative to the Nazi essence of Ukraine today.” In fact, of course, it does nothing of the kind. But because the new bill fails to include the ethnic Russians but does include three Turkic groups living on Moscow-controlled territory, some Russians are angry.
Indeed, some commentators in Moscow are suggesting that this latest Kyiv action is all about Kyiv’s policy of Ukrainianization of the population of Ukraine linguistically and culturally and of insisting that Crimea is not Russian but rather Ukrainian and must be returned to Kyiv’s control.