Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ukraine and Turkey: Divided, yet Connected

I have not written any posts for several weeks because of a trip to Ukraine and Turkey. This was for both business and family reasons. It offered me some new insights into the situation of both countries. I visited both Kyiv and Istanbul, as well as a Ukrainian city in the Russian-speaking zone. I have been in both countries before, yet every time much has changed. I did not visit Crimea, but it is very much involved.

Ukraine and Turkey are very close -- one can fly from Kyiv to Istanbul in two hours -- but they are also very far apart. Their histories are closely intertwined, and yet they might as well be living on different planets. The Black Sea, on which these two countries are located, both unites them and also separates them.

There is more. Ukraine belongs to the Orthodox Christian world, while Turkey has been Muslim since 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Yet almost five hundred years before this, at the time of Vladimir the Great, Orthodoxy was chosen as the religion of what is today Russia and Ukraine after Vladimir's emissaries reported that in Constantinople they had been transported into heaven.

Turkey is where the seven churches of Revelation were located. This is where the Christian Church flourished initially. This is the home of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Ecumenical Patriarch still makes his home in Istanbul. I have visited this church several times. But is dwarfed by all the mosques that now tower over the city. It is obvious which religion controls the city. Today Ukraine is Christian and Turkey Muslim.

They are also divided ethnically. Ukrainians are predominantly Slavs and Turks are mostly Turkish. Their languages are not related. Ukraine is itself divided into Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking sectors. The latter constitute about 30% of the population, although nearly everyone learns Russian in school, but that is now changing.

What surprised me during my stay in Ukraine is the response of the Russian-speakers to the annexation of Crimea and the attempt to absorb may of the Russian-speaking areas. These people, almost unanimously, have sided with Ukraine.

Ukrainian nationalism is at an all-time high. Ukrainian flags are everywhere and the names of cities and town have been changed to their Ukrainian form. Signs on the streets are in Ukrainian and English, while the use of Russian has been reduced.

In Crimea, which was Ukrainian until Russia annexed it 2014, there is a sizable Tatar community who speak a language that is related to Turkish. These Tatars do not like the Russians. There are historical reasons for their animosity. The Crimea plays a crucial role in this history, which is worth examining in some detail.

The Crimean Tatars emerged as a nation at the time of the Crimean Khanate, which was a Turkic-speaking Muslim state that was among the strongest powers in Eastern Europe until the beginning of the 18th century. The Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group, now make up 12 percent of the population of Crimea.

The Crimean Tatars mostly adopted Islam in the 14th century and thereafter Crimea became one of the centers of Islamic civilization. The Khanate was officially a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire with great autonomy after 1448. The Tatars ruled the Black Sea peninsula until the Russians conquered it in the 18th century.

The Russo-Turkish War (1768–74) resulted in the defeat of the Ottomans by the Russians, and according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774) signed after the war, Crimea became independent and Ottomans renounced their political right to protect the Crimean Khanate. After a period of political unrest in Crimea, Russia violated the treaty and annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783.

A treaty signed between the Russian and Ottoman Empires on April 19, 1783 transferred Crimea from Ottoman to Russian control The treaty promised that if Crimea ever became independent or was transferred to a third party, it should fall under the control of the Ottomans once more. The Turkish government chose not to pursue such a claim in 1991 when Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union.

This claim was made by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, which argued that if the Autonomous Republic of Crimea announced its independence, then it falls under Turkish rule. However, the first article to actually make the claim regarding the 1783 treaty came from Ceylan Ozbudak, a television presenter and political analyst based in Istanbul, on March 1, 2014, who wrote for Al Arabiya,

She used that claim as the backdrop for her opinions on what steps the current Turkish government should take in mediating the dispute between Russia and Crimea. Unfortunately, the treaty did not, contrary to these claims, transfer Crimea to Russian control, nor did it promise that it should go to the Ottomans if Crimea  became independent.

In fact, the treaty actually guarantees the independence of Crimea and says nothing of its possible transfer to Ottoman rule. This claim is an example of sloppy journalism. Sources should always be carefully checked. Yet many Turks, including those who are well-versed in Turkish politics, still believe this, probably because Turks want t believe it.

The Crimean Tatars do have more than one bone to pick with Russia. In May 1944, shortly after Soviet troops drove German forces from Crimea, Josef Stalin accused the Tatars of collaborating with the enemy and ordered their deportation. About 250,000 Tatars were shipped in freight trains to Central Asia, where more than 40 percent died of hunger and disease.

Many Tatars later returned to Crimea in the years before and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to Crimea becoming part of an independent Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned against the Crimean Tatars "becoming pawns" in disputes between countries, in particular between Russia and Ukraine.
Though Russia has control over the peninsula, its sovereignty remains disputed as Ukraine and the majority of the international community consider the annexation illegal. A range of international sanctions remain in place against Russia and a number of named individuals as a result of the events of 2014.
In March 2014, following the ousting of the Ukrainian president in the Ukrainian revolution and the subsequent takeover of the region by pro-Russian separatists and Russian special forces, local authorities held a referendum on "reunification with Russia", the official result of which was a large majority in support. The Tatars, understandably, did not agree.

The Russian Federation then officially annexed Crimea and now administers it as two federal subjects: the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol. Ukraine does not recognize the annexation and, backed by most of the international community, continues to assert its right over the peninsula.

With so much both uniting Ukraine and Turkey as well as dividing it, it is no wonder that Crimea continues the focal point of these disputes. There are many reasons why Turkey sides with Ukraine, in spite of the latter's many ties with its Slavic and Orthodox neighbor and the enormous differences there are between Turkey and Ukraine.

Yet there is much that continues to tie these two countries, much of it revolving around Crimea. By visiting Ukraine and Turkey, I have gained a deeper insight into these two countries and their relationship to each other, especially because of Crimea.

Religion and politics are intertwined in the relationship between Ukraine and Turkey. Turkey may be cozying up to Russia at present, but its historical ties are with Ukraine. They are not married to each other, but could be, if history were the gauge. Another lesson I learned is that Crimea should become independent again. That is one way to resolve the problem raised by the Russian annexation.

Ukraine and Turkey are divided, but there is much that connects them.

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