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Boycott Crimea's Bogus Referendum

Crimea's regional parliament wants to hold a referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia on March 16. Ukrainian, Tartar, and Western leaders say the referendum is a non-starter. They insist it violates Ukraine's constitution, as well as international law. The Assembly of Crimean Tartars has called for a boycott. Tartars should participate under one condition: 1.5 Crimean Tartars worldwide must have the right to vote.

Crimea is the historic center of the Tartar's Turkic and Muslim civilization. Beginning with Crimea's annexation by Russia in 1783 and continuing until 1917, Tartar emigration occurred in waves. Crimea was a locus of conflict between the Russian and Ottoman Empires.

The Crimean War (1853-1856) ended when Russia's Sevastapol fortress fell to Ottoman, British and French forces. It was, however, a brief respite for the Tartars from Russian domination. The Ottoman Empire was already disintegrating when the Russo-Turkish War erupted (1877-78). The 1878 Treaty of San Stefano required Constantinople to cede vast territories to Russia in the Caucasus and Black Sea. All told, more than 1 million Tartars fled to Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.

Tartars who stayed in Crimea suffered another round of deportation during World War II. Stalin accused them of collaborating with Nazi Germany, and deported the entire Tartar population to Central Asia and Siberia in 1944. About 300,000 Tartars returned to Crimea after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989. But most are still scattered outside their ancestral lands.

Tartars are a unified people who have historically resisted Russian domination. Crimean Tartars swung the vote in favor of Ukraine's separation from Russia in the 1991 independence referendum. President Vladimir Putin is confident that Crimea's current population -- which is 60 percent ethnic Russian -- will vote to join Russia. Tartars in Crimea only number about 230,000.

As presently planned, the referendum will disenfranchise more than 1.3 million Tartars. Approximately 1 million Tartars live in Turkey; 270,000 in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia; 24,000 Tartars live in Romania and a few thousand in Bulgaria and the United States.

Some Tartars are removed from their Crimean homeland by just a few generations. Others, exiled in the 19th and 20th centuries, have property claims or hold deeds to their family estates. Many have spiritual ties to their homeland.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should formally request President Putin to permit the participation of Tartars in Turkey in Crimea's referendum on March 16. So should other heads of government where Tartars from Crimea currently reside. There are many legal and political precedents where a population living outside a territory has participated in that territory's election (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor).

If Putin really believes that Crimea should have the right to determine its status, all Tartars must be allowed to participate in a popular consultation on Crimea's future. Putin faces a real conundrum. He cannot disenfranchise Tartars and have any hope of gaining international recognition of the referendum. If he allows all Tartars to vote, Crimea will vote to remain a part of Ukraine.

Crimea's referendum is already a farce, with no chance of support from Ukraine and the international community. Disenfranchising the broader Tartar community will further delegitimize Russia's brazen occupation.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

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