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Turkey Lacks Strong Position In Russia-Ukraine Crisis


And as Gregory said a few moments ago, the outcome of the referendum in Crimea is of particular interest to the Tatars, that minority community of Muslims that has a history of being oppressed by Russia. The Tatars have linguistic and religious ties to Turkey, just across the Black Sea. NPR's Peter Kenyon reported from Crimea last week, and has now returned to his base in Istanbul. He says that while Turkey might want to assert itself regionally and stand up for the Tatars, there's a limit to how much it can influence events.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Tatars are the Turkish Muslim indigenous people of Crimea, and they're deeply uneasy with the sudden takeover of the regional government by strongly pro-Russian factions. Now less than 15 percent of the population, the Tatars ran Crimea for centuries, treated as relative equals by the Ottoman Empire. By contrast, virtually every Tatar family has stories of ill treatment by Russia and the Soviet Union, especially the mass deportations under Joseph Stalin in the 1940s. Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov said recently that memories such as those leave the Tatars no choice but to reject Sunday's referendum on returning Crimea to Russian control.

REFAT CHUBAROV: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Considering the fact that the referendum completely ignores the opinion of the peninsula's native population, Chubarov said, Crimean Tatars don't recognize the referendum and call on all Crimeans, regardless of ethnicity, to boycott it. Analysts say with a Tatar diaspora numbering in the millions, Turkey has a strong desire to defend Crimean Tatar interests. Turkey's foreign minister has visited Ukraine, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone. But Turkey analyst Soner Cagaptay with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says should push come to shove in Crimea, Ankara's reaction will likely be muted.

SONER CAGAPTAY: Turkey will not be at the forefront of the international coalition to push back against Putin if he decides to annex the Crimea, because Turkey is very much dependent on Russia for the bulk of its energy imports. Turkey buys about half of its natural gas from Russia, and about over 10 percent of its oil from Russia.

KENYON: Cagaptay also says that Turkey has strong memories of past defeats at the hands of Moscow. Istanbul-based political scientist and columnist Soli Ozel says Putin's reassertion of Russian influence in the Black Sea region has effectively extinguished Ankara's recent hopes to expand its own influence there.

SOLI OZEL: Turkey's options are not great. It will just have to hope that NATO is not going to try to do anything too harsh against the Russians so that Turkey will not be caught in between. But one of the consequences, of course, of all of this is the final collapse of Turkey's Black Sea strategy.

KENYON: In the early years of the 21st century, Turkey had visions of restoring some of its Ottoman-era prowess in the Black Sea through multilateral projects, such as the organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation. Those efforts have faded in recent years, not least, says Ozel, because of aggressive moves by Russia, such as the 2008 conflict in Georgia.

OZEL: Turkey really wanted to be one of the major powers in the Black Sea. And now the Russians are back, and I don't think they really want any partners.

KENYON: In an interview in the Crimean capital Simferopol earlier this month, Tatar lawmaker, Abdurahman Egiz, said since returning to their homeland following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tatars have lived peacefully with all other communities in Crimea, and they don't want to see that change now.

ABDURAHMAN EGIZ: We don't have any problem in Crimea with their societies. We have problem with corruption. We have problem with living standards, but not with each other.

KENYON: Fears that this peaceful cohabitation may now be disrupted are also echoing through the Tatar diaspora here in Turkey, potentially raising another issue here just weeks before local elections. The government, already struggling with street protests and a corruption scandal, will be eager to be seen as standing up to Moscow, as long as it doesn't spark an actual confrontation. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.