MOSCOW, JULY 25 -- A group of 350 Crimean Tatars, demanding to see Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, charged police and KGB agents in Red Square today in a bitter demonstration against the Kremlin response to their pleas for a homeland.
The first major clash at the Kremlin's doorstep in years and the biggest demonstration during the Kremlin leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, it posed new questions about the government's handling of protests while campaigning for glasnost -- openness -- and democratization.
The disturbance began late in the afternoon, when Soviet police ordered the Tatars to break up their peaceful three-day vigil by the Kremlin wall, citing a government announcement Thursday that a high-level commission had been formed to examine their claims to an autonomous Tatar republic in the Soviet Crimea. The republic was abolished by Joseph Stalin during World War II when the Tatars were accused of collaborating with the German Army, and about a quarter of a million Tatars were forcibly relocated to the Tashkent region in Central Asia.
In an angry response to the police order and the announcement, the demonstrators today locked arms and marched, chanting, toward the Kremlin.
In interviews, the demonstrators said they are demanding a meeting with Gorbachev and representation on the commission, headed by Soviet President Andrei Gromyko. They also objected strongly to the renewed charge in Thursday's official announcement that they had collaborated with the Germans during the war.
A crowd of 500 uniformed policemen tried to stop the march toward the Kremlin, forming a wall several rows deep by St. Basil's Church on Red Square.
But still the Tatars came, feet bare, fists clenched, carrying banners and babies and belongings -- suitcases and food.
Some shouted Gorbachev's name; others raised his picture; some linked the slogans of his reform drive with their cause. "Democracy and glasnost for Tatars," said one. "We know that it is Gorbachev who is for the rights of the people, and that he alone will help us," another said.
The clash peaked after 15 minutes, when the police encircled the protesters and pushed them back from Red Square. Apparently no one was hurt seriously. Some interpreted this as an indication that the police had orders to handle the demonstration with restraint.
After the clash, the demonstration continued on a street in front of Red Square. Police continued to confront the demonstrators until late in the evening.
The dispute involves a minority of the country's Tatars. The largest population of Tatars in the Soviet Union is in the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on the Volga River. It is not involved in the current controversy. The total Tatar population is 6.3 million. About 300,000 of these are Crimean.
In their meetings with the Tatars, Soviet authorities have emphasized changes that have occurred since World War II. The Soviet news agency Tass said, "The situation in the Crimea today is entirely different from the one that existed before the war. This is why the problem of the autonomy of Crimean Tatars should be considered . . . in the interests of all the peoples of the country. The commission will need time for its work. Some extremist-minded people insist that this complicated problem be resolved at once." For their part, the Tatars have vowed to continue their vigils near the Kremlin until they are convinced that their case is being handled fairly.