BAKHCHISARAY, Crimea (Reuters) - The Crimean Tatars’ assembly voted on Saturday in favor of seeking “ethnic and territorial autonomy” for the indigenous minority on the Black Sea peninsula annexed from Kiev by Moscow.
The 300,000-strong Muslim minority make up less than 15 percent of Crimea’s population of 2 million and has so far been overwhelmingly opposed to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
Crimean Tatars’ assembly leader Refat Chubarov told more than 200 delegates: “In the life of every nation there comes a time when it must make decisions that will determine its future.”
“I ask you to approve ... the start of political and legal procedures aimed at creating ethnic and territorial autonomy of the Crimean Tatars of their historic territory of Crimea.”
The assembly subsequently voted in favor of his proposal, made in the Crimean Tatars historic capital of Bakhchisaray. Chubarov said he expected both Kiev and Moscow to react to the decision to seek autonomy.
Critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Tatars boycotted the March 16 vote to split from Ukraine and become part of Russia.
Moscow has tried to pressure them to drop their opposition. However, their proposal to seek autonomy signals they would be ready to negotiate their status with Russia.
In a sign of pressure from Moscow, which is keen to prevent any opposition from Crimean Tatars further fuelling tensions on the peninsula, the meeting was also attended by two senior Russian Muslim officials with close ties to the Kremlin.
Ravil Gaynutdin, the head of Russia’s Council of Muftis, and Rustam Minnikhanov, the head of Tatarstan, a largely Muslim region in Russia, tried to persuade the Crimean Tatars to side with Moscow.
“I think we should get closer together, be together,” Minnikhanov said.
Chubarov told Reuters earlier this week the assembly was considering whether to hold a referendum to decide whether Crimean Tatars should consider themselves part of Russia or Ukraine.
Tatars, an indigenous population of Turkic origin, were deported from Crimea to Central Asia in 1944 under Soviet leader Josef Stalin who wanted to punish the community for cases of collaboration with Nazi Germany.
They began returning from exile some two decades ago and pledged their loyalty to Ukraine, which gained independence after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Crimean Tatars have seen a cultural revival in recent years and many are now strongly opposed to falling once again under Russian control.
Some Crimean Tatars at Saturday’s assembly denounced the proposal for autonomy as a betrayal of Ukraine.
Others insisted it prevented another mass exodus and said safeguarding their right to live on the land they consider home was a priority.
“Had we been the majority here, we could think of doing something, but we are not and we just have to formally acknowledge the reality as it is,” said Aleksander Aliyev, who was deported to Central Asia from Crimea aged five.
Editing by Sophie Hares