By Mustafa Caglayan
“Prosperity in Unity” says the official motto of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, but these days an ominous scenario is unfolding in this strategic peninsula -- secession from Ukraine and a potential conflict with Russia.
Following decades of aggressive gerrymandering by the Soviet Union, the Crimean population today is overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Russians, according to the last official census. Crimean Tatars comprise about 13% of the population.
One of the most blatant examples of this demographic engineering was when virtually the entire population of Crimean Tatars was forcibly exiled to Central Asia by Stalin's Soviet government 1944. Approximately half of them died from hunger and disease in the early years of the deportation.
The Tatars did not return until mid-1991, after becoming urbanized in the suburbs of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
Demographically, Crimea has been a distinct region since Ukraine became an independent country following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Physically, it is linked to both Ukraine and Russia. Politically, it belongs to Ukraine. But emotionally, it identifies with Russia.
A week ago, on a day when Kiev was gripped by its worst violence yet, the head of the regional parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, said that Crimea might secede from the rest of country if the political crisis spiraled further out of control.
"The entire situation is heading towards it," he was quoted as saying by Russian news agency Interfax.
Kostantinov also said the current situation could quickly become a civil war.
And that was only the beginning. Pro-Russian demonstrations have gathered pace ever since, with occasional skirmishes between pro- and anti-Russian protesters.
A group of 300 pro-Russia demonstrators gathered in front of the local parliament on Tuesday, demanding Ukraine's government be declared illegal, a return to 1992 Crimea Constitution and a referendum over Crimea's status.
At the same time, a group of nearly 200 Crimean Tatars, who have supported Ukraine's opposition since the beginning of crisis, staged a counter-demonstration. The Crimean Tatars said they would respond to all moves to part Crimea from Ukraine and attach it to Russia.
The following day, a parliamentary session in which the Autonomous Republic of Crimea's independence from Ukraine was expected to be discussed was cancelled. The ensuing clashes between rival groups left one dead and 26 others wounded.
On Thursday, it was reported that armed men had seized control of two government buildings in Simferopol, the Crimean capital, and raised the Russian flag over them.
The Ankara-based Crimean Tatars Culture and Solidarity Association released a statement condemning recent secession-favoring comments from the Crimea's pro-Russian leaders as "irrational."
"It should not be forgotten that Crimean Tatar diaspora will not hesitate to use all means which are accepted by international and domestic law to support their people if a threat emerges against the Crimean Tatar people in Crimea," the association said.
As secession scenarios surrounding the chaos getting more and more explicit, the moderate Crimeans find themselves in a tense wait.
"Disunion is a characteristic of Ukraine," said Habibe Ozdal, an expert on Russia and Black Sea studies in the Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organisation.
For harmony to be achieved in a country like Ukraine, elected leaders must adopt inclusive and unifying policies, she said. But recently Ukraine has not come close to implementing such policies, she said.
"Secession is evolving into being a full-fledged alternative solution," she said.