Turkey moves to protect Crimea’s Tatar minority

'We are not a handful of people, but a united nation!'

ANKARA - Turkey, which has kept a low profile in the Ukraine crisis, is making moves to protect Crimea's ethnic Tatar minority as the region prepares for a referendum on joining Russia this week.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to support Crimea's Turkish-speaking Tatar minority, which Ankara fears could be sidelined in a March 16 vote on switching over to Kremlin rule.
"Turkey has never left Crimean Tatars alone and will never do so," he said, after a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to protect the "rights of our kinsmen" after meeting with Ukrainian officials and representatives of the Tatar community during an unscheduled visit to Kiev earlier this month.
Kremlin-backed forces have taken de facto control of Crimea ahead of Sunday's controversial plebiscite on closer ties with Moscow, after which the peninsula is expected to be rapidly absorbed into Russian territory.
Suspicion of Moscow is high among the Tatar community, which is still scarred by memories of the en masse deportations to Central Asia carried out by dictator Joseph Stalin during World War II. Many only started returning to the peninsula in the run up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Turkish diplomats have described the referendum as "dangerous" and said it is a "wrong" step that could lead to clashes between communities in Crimea and beyond.
"We believe a referendum will not help settle the crisis in the country. The Crimean Tatar community in Turkey is worried about the situation," a Turkish official said on condition of anonymity.
Crimea's Tatars -- who Ankara say make up 12 percent of the population -- have maintained their Turkic language and Sunni religion, in contrast to the mostly Russian-speaking majority population.
Tatars in Turkey have held demonstrations in major cities to protest the Russian intervention in Ukraine and demand stronger action from Ankara.
Tuncer Kalkay, the president of the Crimean Association in Turkey, called the referendum "unacceptable" and "illegitimate," adding that the world must act to avert a looming conflict.
"Turkey says we are not alone but our community is not satisfied with what's been done so far. It's not enough," he said.
"We are regularly meeting with Turkish officials who say they will raise the crisis in international forums but Turkey and the world need to make their voice heard stronger."
- Turkey 'won't dare' Russia -
Crimea was part of the Ottoman Empire until it was conquered by Russia in the late 18th century. Tatars -- the majority population at the time -- have been gradually sidelined by the Russian-speaking majority since then.
Turkey has cultivated strong links with the Tatars, funding development projects including housing, roads and schools in Crimea through an aid programme based in the region's capital Simferopol.
But until recently politicians had kept quiet as the conflict escalated in Crimea.
Ankara has been reluctant to intervene directly in the unrest in Ukraine for fear of antagonising Russia, a major trading partner, analysts say.
Despite political divergences, including over the Syrian crisis, Ankara and Moscow have strong commercial links and have laid out an ambitious plan to increase their trade to $100 billion by 2020.
"Turkey is not in a situation to dare Russia over Ukraine," said Erkin Ekrem, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Thinking.
"There is a limit to what Turkey can do."
Erdogan may also see disturbing parallels between the unrest in Ukraine and the mass protests in Turkey last year, that posed the biggest challenge yet to his 11-year rule.
The conflict in Kiev's Maidan -- the Ukrainian word for square which is similar to the Turkish equivalent "Meydan" -- which ousted Ukraine's pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych echoed the demonstrations that swept across Turkey in June 2013, killing eight and leaving thousands injured.