On 1 July, 2021, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted draft law 5506 “On the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine” by a more than constitutional majority of 325 votes. The text had been drafted by relevant ministries, parliamentary deputies, government and independent experts as well as members of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatar people. The law had been submitted on a priority basis by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on 18 May, the anniversary of the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. Article 1 identifies the Crimean Tatars, Karaites and Krymchaks – autochthonous ethnic communities that evolved on the territory of Ukraine, are bearers of an original language and culture, have traditional, social, cultural or representative bodies, view themselves as indigenous peoples of Ukraine, comprise an ethnic minority within its population and have no state entity of their own beyond Ukraine – as indigenous nations.
This legislative step was hailed as “an historical event” both in Ukraine and abroad. But the reaction of the Crimean Tatars, including those who remain in occupied Crimea, was qualified with the question “Why so late; why not sooner?”
The efforts to be granted indigenous peoples’ status – and not just that of one national minority among many – began with the return of the Crimean Tatars to their homeland from exile (predominantly in the central Asian Soviet republics). The struggle led to the term “indigenous peoples” being mentioned for the first time in three articles of the new Constitution that was adopted in June 1996. This was an acknowledgement of the presence in the country’s ethnic composition not only of a “titular ethnos” and national minorities but also of indigenous peoples as a separate category of ethnic communities. However, it was not defined which communities fell into this category or what their rights and responsibilities were in relation to the state and local authorities. At the same time, Article 92 clearly indicated that the rights of indigenous peoples were regulated exclusively by Ukrainian law, which raised the question of the need to develop such laws.
Immediately following the passage of the Constitution, the Ministry of Justice created an interdepartmental work group that in the autumn 1996 prepared a draft law on the status of the Crimean Tatar people as an indigenous nation of Ukraine as well as a draft concept for a national policy relating to indigenous peoples. However, neither of these documents reached parliament. Thus, the first opportunity to legally regulate this issue was lost as long as 25 years ago. Efforts to register and adopt further versions of similar draft laws were similarly unsuccessful.
The reasons for this prolonged delay were not legal but purely political. Firstly, within the bureaucracy and the population as a whole there persisted negative Soviet-era stereotypes about the Crimean Tatars as “traitor and collaborators” who had allegedly cooperated with the Nazi occupiers during World War Two. Secondly, after the flare-up of pro-Russian Crimean separatism at the beginning of the 1990s that was successfully suppressed in 1995 (in great measure due to the non-intervention of Russia which was then mired in the First Chechen War), Kyiv became preoccupied with indulging the Russian majority in Crimea, with its essentially Soviet mentality, in order to prevent at all cost future separatist moves. Under such circumstances the situation of the Crimean Tatars was not seen as a priority. Thirdly, the Crimean forces of law and order played a very negative role. Essentially, this concerned the Crimean branch of the Security Service which continuously sent to Kyiv reports about (non-existent) “Crimean Tatar separatism” as a result of which the Crimean Tatars suffered discrimination that prevented them from holding positions in the security bodies – those very bodies that betrayed Ukraine so spectacularly during the tragic events that led to the occupation and illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in spring, 2014.
It was these events, during which the Crimean Tatars showed themselves to be the main pro-Ukrainian force in Crimea that finally opened Kyiv’s eyes to the real situation and the essence of the problem created by the lengthy failure to grant the Crimean Tatars the status of an indigenous nation with the right to self-determination on its historical homeland. As a result, on March 20, 2014, the Ukrainian parliament adopted Resolution № 1140-18, which committed Ukraine to guarantee and protect the inherent right of the Crimean Tatar nation to self-determination within a sovereign and independent Ukraine and also recognized the Mejlis and Kurultai of the Crimean Tatar people as, respectively, its supreme executive and legislative authorities. This resolution also instructed the Cabinet of Ministers to submit immediately draft legislation defining and strengthening the status of the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of Ukraine. This was done only seven years later.
This delay can again be attributed to a lack of political will at the top levels of the then Ukrainian leadership. Preparation of a set of three laws – on the status of the Crimean Tatars, on the indigenous peoples of Ukraine, and amendments to Section X of the Constitution (relating to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea) - was undertaken by an expert group within the Constitutional Commission and completed in May 2018. However, this balanced and internally consistent set of legislative initiatives was not presented for consideration to the full Constitutional Committee let alone the Verkhovna Rada because of the approaching 2019 presidential elections and the fear that such a move would provoke objections from the opposition and damage President Petro Poroshenko’s re-election chances.
As was mentioned, the leaders of the Mejlis and the other active members of the Crimean Tatar community greatly appreciated the submission of the law on indigenous peoples. Since the Crimean Tatars are the only group capable of peaceful but meaningful resistance to the occupation regime in Crimea, the strengthening of pro-Ukrainian sentiment among the Crimean Tatars there is very important regarding any prospects for de-occupation.
In this context, special notice should be taken of the appeal made by a group of delegates of the VI convocation of the Kurultai and Crimean Tatar activists to the Ukrainian president and members of the Rada. It was delivered on June 30, 2021 – the day before the draft law was to be debated in parliament (https://www.facebook.com/nariman.dzhelyal). Having carefully followed the draft legislation’s progress and analyzed its contents and expert commentaries, the authors of the appeal wrote that:
“…we agree with the series of expert comments regarding the content of the given draft law. In particular, that while mentioning in the text of the draft the rights of indigenous peoples of Ukraine to self-determination and to freely establish their political status nowhere is it explained how these indigenous peoples can realize them, which makes these positions essentially declarative. This could have been avoided by specifically noting that national-territorial autonomy is the legitimate mechanism for the realization of the right to self-determination by indigenous peoples in Ukraine. However, despite some observations we call upon the peoples’ deputies of Ukraine to vote for the draft Law on the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine introduced by the President of Ukraine.”
Regarding the reaction to this law within Ukraine, its framework character – which requires a significant amount of further work on clarifying specifics and the eventual realization of its positions – obviously helped to consolidate support for the draft from practically every group in the Verkhovna Rada. The sole exception was Viktor Medvechuk’s “Opposition Platform for Life” (OPfL) which unanimously refused to participate in either the debate or the vote. This episode is an important precedent in the history of Ukrainian parliamentarianism; an example of successful cooperation between the patriotic opposition and the president’s “mono-majority.” Simultaneously, it again revealed the anti-Ukrainian essence of Medvechuk’s fraction (and party). Indeed, the deputy head of the OPfL, Yuriy Boyko, even declared that the party intended to submit an appeal regarding the law to the Constitutional Court of Ukraine.(https://strana.ua/news/341606-opzzh-obratitsja-v-ksu-po-povodu-zakona-o-korennykh-narodakh.html).
Nevertheless, the positive reaction to the law and its passage dominated the headlines of the major Ukrainian media and it was also discussed extensively on social media networks. Obviously, pro-Russian media outlets were openly and highly critical.
Natalya Belitser is Senior Researcher at The Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy, Kyiv, a partner organization of the US-Ukraine Foundation