Putin's spokesperson Dimitry Peskov has upped the rhetorical game by introducing a very charged subject into the debate over the Ukrainian region of Crimea. On Friday, Peskov predicted that "those who were behind the coup" would begin ethnic 'cleansing' in Crimea. Although Peskov's intention was to draw attention to the reasons Putin's government believes Russia's military needs to "protect" the region (which has a large population of ethnic Russians), there is actually a real concern among some about ethnic cleansing in the region amid the unrest. Just not for the reasons Peskov is implying.
During the Stalin-era Soviet Union, the bulk of Crimea's population of Tatars were deported to Central Asia. Although the government claimed that the Tatars had collaborated with the Nazis as their excuse for removing the Sunni Muslim population from its home, there's little evidence of that. In any case, when the Tatars were gone, ethnic Russians moved in to the towns and homes they once occupied, to resettle the peninsula as Russian. About half of the Tatar population died off in exile, until Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the population to once again set foot in Crimea decades later. The Tatars quickly began to repatriate their historical home. And now, Tatars are about 13 percent of the Crimean population, and they're pro-Ukrainian. That's caused a lot of tension.
And now that Russia has advanced into Crimea once more, some are worried that the Tatars will face increased intimidation. The New Yorker noticed that the doors of some Crimean Tatars have been marked with X's in recent days, something that happened during the Stalin-era mass deportations:
When I walked up Chiisty Istochniki Street from the Memetovas’ house, I saw similar marks on four other houses, all of them residences of Crimean Tatars, Kadyrov said. The houses of their Russian neighbors, however, had not been touched. Similar markings have been reported in other parts of Bakhchysarai, and in some areas of the regional capital, Simferopol. Kadyrov told me that he called the police, who came out see his gate, but they refused to register a case. He was not surprised. “The police will not help us,” he said. “They told me Crimean Tatars are not a priority for them. Of course not—they are punishing us because we do not want Putin here.”
Yesterday, the Crimean parliament voted to support a merger between the Ukrainian region and Russia. The proposal, supported by the Russian government, will go before Crimean voters on March 16th. The Tatars are mostly opposed to that referendum.