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Putin tells Crimean Tatars their place is in Russia

(Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin promised on Friday to help improve the lives of Crimean Tatars, but signaled that members of the Muslim minority must accept their future lies with Russia after Moscow annexed their Black Sea homeland from Ukraine.

Putin met representatives of the Crimean Tatars two days before the 70th anniversary of the Sunni Muslim group’s wartime mass deportation from Crimea to Soviet Central Asia under dictator Josef Stalin, during which many died.

He faces a tough task in winning over the Turkic-origin Tatars, who make up more than 12 percent of Crimea’s population of 2 million, because many associate Moscow with oppression, exile and suffering.

Dissent or unrest among the Muslim community, whose situation was described by the 57-nation OSCE rights and democracy forum this week as ‘particularly precarious’, could pose a headache for the Kremlin leader.

Putin said a decree he signed last month to rehabilitate the

Tatars – accused by Stalin of sympathizing with Nazi Germany – was part of an effort “to establish a normal livelihood and create conditions for the strong development of the Crimean Tatar people in their homeland.”

But the guest list at the meeting at Putin’s residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi reflected a split in sentiments among Crimean Tatars. It included Vasvi Abduraimov, a leader to whom Putin recently awarded a state medal for backing the annexation.

Putin sent a tougher signal to Crimean Tatars who wanted the region to remain in Ukraine. Many boycotted the March 16 referendum in which authorities said nearly 97 percent of voters in Crimea backed joining Russia.

“We are ready to work with all people … but none of us can allow the Crimean Tatar people to become a bargaining chip in disputes … especially in disputes between Russia and Ukraine,” Putin said.

Without naming names, he seemed to single out Mustafa Dzhemilev, 70, a Soviet-era dissident and former head of the Crimean Tatar assembly who is a member of Ukraine’s parliament and has denounced the referendum.

“I understand that there are people who … have done a lot for the Crimean Tatars and who fought for their rights for decades,” he said. “But today we must all realize that the interests of the Crimean Tatars today are tied to Russia.

“One must not defend the interests of Crimean Tatars who live in Russia, in Crimea, from within the parliaments of other countries. This is just nonsense, it’s a joke,” Putin said.

The Crimean Tatar assembly, the Mejlis, last month accused Russia of barring Dzhemilev from Crimea.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, shortly after mass protests toppled Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, turned an already tense dispute into the worst crisis in relations between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

In a report that was issued on Friday and immediately criticized by Russia, U.N. monitors said serious human rights problems were emerging in Crimea and expressed concern about the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities, among others.

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